Railyards growth should start small, experts say

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The next stage of growth for Sacramento's historic railyards should continue to connect the site with surrounding areas, allowing for smaller-scale development of neighborhoods linked by public transit and an open-space network, urban development experts said Friday at City Hall.

An eight-person panel of development and design experts presented recommendations for downtown railyards development to the city.

They were brought to Sacramento through a fellowship program sponsored by the Urban Land Institute's Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use. The panelists spent three days working in Sacramento and touring the railyards before making the recommendations.

The city and the railyards’ former owner, Thomas Enterprises, pulled together $225 million in local, state and federal funding to build infrastructure including streets, bridges and relocated train tracks. Site cleanup and completed environmental reviews have helped ready the site for construction.

As one of the country's largest infill projects, redeveloping the roughly 240-acre site will take years and must be market-driven. The city may own only 33 acres of that site. Yet as "good stewards," city officials and staff must now help reshape the development vision to plan for new economic realities and allow incremental growth, said panel co-chair Con Howe, managing director of CityView Los Angeles Fund and Los Angeles' former planning director.

"Owners and developers come and go," Howe said. "But the city will be the steward … for a very long time."

The plan for the site should be integrated with plans for the River District, Sacramento and American riverfronts, the central business district, residential neighborhoods such as Midtown, open space and transportation networks, panelists said.

Sacramento's 2030 general plan does that to a small degree. But specific plans for each area are far more detailed.

"We think it's essential you look at the city … and start to think about all these resources you could be connecting … so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," said Robert Lane, senior fellow for urban design at the Regional Plan Association in New York.

The plan should view the railyards as a transit district, rather than just a site containing a transit center, they said.

The panelists recognized that all cities must work in an economic climate where there's a lack of both public funding and private investment. They recommended linking public and private investments to build small neighborhoods that are each complete as a place.

The most expensive way to start would be from the inside out, starting with development of the historic central railroad shops. An alternative would be to allow more natural growth from the city to move into the site, said Frank Cannon, president of Union Station Neighborhood Company in Denver.

Denver provides a good example of how long redevelopment of a large former railyard can take. It's taken at least 30 years, three mayoral administrations and multiple property owners to develop its 200-acre freight yard. After consolidating rail corridors, reclaiming riverfront, building streets and other infrastructure and investing in a multi-modal transit facility, the area is now one of Denver's most desirable, Cannon said.

The city should also start finding ways to expose residents and visitors to the historic site and create a sense of place there, they said.

The site hasn't been open to the public for decades, so most Sacramentans don't have a true sense of the history and size of the railyards and its Central Shops.

John Hodgson, former chair of the ULI Sacramento District Council, said he was "blown away" when he toured the site for the first time last summer after living here for about 40 years.

While long-term plans could include public markets and the future railroad museum, the city should create low-cost uses that will get people to the site and excite them about future development possibilities, said Marlene Gafrick, director of Houston's Planning and Development Department.

Interim uses could include street festivals, sports, arts, culture, wellness and educational events inside and outside the central shops, she said.

Representatives of Thomas Enterprises and Inland American Real Estate Trust, which now owns 203 acres of railyards, attended the presentation.

Mayor Kevin Johnson was among four mayors chosen as the center's 2010/2011 fellows. The other cities are Detroit, Houston and Charlotte, N.C.

Johnson's efforts to promote Sacramento and a national buzz about the railyards site helped the city win one of the four spots, city Infill Coordinator Desmond Parrington said later.

Sacramento's fellowship team also includes Assistant City Manager John Dangberg, Sacramento Area Council of Governments Executive Director Mike McKeever and Hodgson, president of The Hodgson Company, a Sacramento land use development and advocacy firm. Each of those three served on a fellowship panel for one of the other cities.

The fellowship program seeks out cities with interesting land-use challenges and provides free assistance.

Johnson and the city's three other fellows will visit Miami in February and Denver in June to learn from land-use issues there. They and city staff will work with panel members to build on and implement the recommendations over the next year.

"It's a very good juncture for us to get that kind of feedback," Parrington said. "It's a good juncture not only because we have a change in the developer, but because of the economy. The plan (by Thomas Enterprises) was developed in the height of the boom. Now we're in the trough. It's a good time to revisit things." 

  • Together with a change of ownership to one who is well funded, this may be the most significant thing to happen and move this along. Am surprised the reporter did not discuss in any detail the idea to break up the mammoth transit station (ala Union Stn – LA) into a complex of transit buildings surrounding a central square.

    • William Burg

      There really wasn’t any detail–this was a roundtable discussion, not anything involving a lot of planning or detailed design drawings. My concern about breaking up the transit center is that we really do need a large transit station: ours is one of the busiest Amtrak depots in the country, and the expansion would have given us a station that is closer in size to Los Angeles’ union station, the only one in the state that is busier. There are always other options for design and organization, and maybe an open transit center instead of a long enclosed concourse is worth considering, but yes, we need a large transit station.

      Of course, the mayor’s plan is apparently to stick a basketball arena between the historic depot and the new track alignment, so I’m not sure how convinced he was by the idea of an open transit plaza either.

  • Anthony Bento

    Although I really like the idea of the expansion Sacramento’s city center, I can’t help but think that it will be very tough for the railyards to overcome decades of poor urban planning. The project is boxed in on the west by highway 5 and on the north by an industrial area. Both act as a barrier to the river, which decreases desirability of the land. Also, the far northwest portion of the midtown-downtown grid is not the most desirable part of the district, which makes me skeptical that the city would naturally grow into the area.

    If I were a developer, the only reason I would want to take the chance and build in the railyards is if the land were much less expensive than infill in surrounding area, or if there was some other incentive. Otherwise, it would make more sense to simply buy a block or two near R street and develop mid-density mixed used property there.

    • William Burg

      Highway 5 sits high above the Railyards proper on concrete piers–the river is more closely connected to the Railyards than any other part of the waterfront except for Old Sacramento. The industrial area has its own plan to convert it into a mixed-use neighborhood, and unlike the Railyards, Richards Boulevard already has some streets and infrastructure running through it, so they will probably develop concurrently.

      And while the northwestern portion of the grid is considered the least desirable, it is seeing positive change, and it’s a lot more desirable than it was 10-20 years ago. As the more-desirable portions of the central city fill up, the previously overlooked portions get more and more appealing.

      I wouldn’t call the urban planning of the area poor so much as a response to conditions at the time. The American River sits where it is because, in the 1850s, it was necessary to relocate the mouth of the river farther north to prevent flooding. The Shops are where they are because it was a swamp given to the railroad to use as their yard and shops area, on the condition that they eventually drain the swamp. The industrial area north of Richards is there because urban planners a century ago encouraged Sacramento to move our industries north of the city instead of along the waterfront south of downtown. The highway is along the riverfront because we very much wanted a Macy’s downtown, and they wanted to be next to a highway off-ramp.

      Every city deals with the consequences of changing conditions over time–changing transportation methods, ways of dealing with threats from the natural environment, changing schools of thought about urban planning, and sometimes just dumb ideas with the force of money and political will behind them. Sacramento basically ignored its central city for decades as we sprawled out to the northeast in waves of suburbs. Now that the central city has our attention, we can make up for lost time, but it won’t be an easy task–or a quick one.

    • Anthony Bento

      That’s very fascinating. I had no idea that the highway was originally placed near the river because the city wanted a Macy’s downtown.

      I suppose it’s just difficult for me to imagine the railyards (and the Richards blvd area, for that matter) as integrated into the downtown area. But as you mentioned, the increased desirability of the midtown-downtown area has made previously undesirable areas healthier, and may result in the development of the railyards and the Richards blvd area.

      Are there any examples of how the blight of an elevated highway could be creatively minimized? If the railyards are developed, I can’t help but think that highway 5 would have similar effect on the surrounding area as the Embarcadro Freeway did in San Francisco.

    • Anthony, regarding use of the Railyards area at I-5…it’s a tremendous opportunity. Consider the attributes; 1) it’s contiguous to the Sacramento River and connects to the American River Parkway so connects directly to every bicyclist/jogger who has access to the parkway. A destination ready to be created. 2) It’s dry in the winter. 3) it’s shaded and cool in the summer. 4) Yes, it’s “rumbly” with traffic, but you could also see that as viseral energy pumped into the environment constantly. Perhaps not great for a living room or office but GREAT for a dynamic, urban playground. And that could be the idea. A dynamic, “outdoor” urban playground, like Muscle Beach in Venice, but with a unique Sacramento vibe. BMX trials, skating, rock climbing, bike mecca, court games, weights, music, dance…a place where the active, fit, outdoor Sacramento lifestyle is celebrated, enabled, allowed and fostered.

    • William Burg

      Anthony: 20-25 years ago, Midtown wasn’t considered a “desirable” area by most either–it was more like Oak Park is today. A change in attitude about neighborhoods like Alkali Flat won’t take that long considering the momentum already underway.

      Personally I wouldn’t mind seeing I-5 go the way of the Embarcadero Freeway–one idea I like, in my pipe-dream, if-we-had-money-to-do-everything imagination, would be to reroute it around West Sacramento and drop I-5 to a street-level boulevard. While technically Front Street is our “embarcadero” (and once actually had that name, as it was the embarcadero for Sacramento’s riverside docs), we could rename the path of I-5 to “Embarcadero Boulevard,” with wide sidewalks, room for shade trees, bike boulevards, and a couple lanes for cars in the middle, with sufficient pedestrian connections to cross the gap made by I-5.

      In the more practical present, I encourage you to take a look at the current state of I-5 through the Railyards. There is enough room under the existing highway structure for quite a bit of visual space, minimizing the barrier to the river, as long as a suitable pathway underneath it is created.

      I don’t like the word “blight.” It is an imaginary disease of buildings, used as an excuse to clear out undesirable neighborhoods–which was an unhappy side effect of I-5’s placement on our side of the river (Macy’s was the final deciding factor, but there were other considerations too.)

  • There is a railyards specific plan already in place that was almost three years in the making and approved in 2007. It takes into account much of what is noted in this article. I hope this city doesn’t scap the entire earlier plan as most of what ULI is talking about has already been considered. The plans were completed before the recession and it is likely the buildings won’t be quite as tall and that’s probably OK.


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