Downtown is focus for urban design experts

Sacramento needs to build a better image for its downtown, and Downtown Plaza should be “ground zero” for change, urban design experts said Wednesday.

City and business leaders often refer to the heart of downtown as the J-K-L Corridor, named for the major streets the area is built on.

But referring to downtown that way promotes the idea that it’s just an area to move through on the way to somewhere else. The city needs to focus on creating a downtown district that becomes the center of the city, said Betsy Jackson, president of The Urban Agenda Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Stop thinking and speaking of this as a corridor," Jackson said at City Hall during a presentation by a team of urban design and city planning experts.

Mayor Kevin Johnson invited the six-person team to visit the city through a National Endowment for the Arts leadership initiative called the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. The program is offered in partnership with the American Architectural Foundation and the United States Conference of Mayors.

The institute holds six to eight such workshops throughout the country each year. The team was brought to Sacramento to help support ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown.

The team spent two and a half days touring Sacramento, learning from local stakeholders and developing guiding principles and recommendations. Those stakeholders – city staff, labor officials, artists and business owners – attended the presentation.

Echoing the concerns of all local stakeholders, the team identified major change at Westfield Downtown Plaza as downtown’s top redevelopment priority.

The 1970s-era shopping mall is a visual and physical barrier that helps disconnect downtown from the central city’s grid and doesn’t contribute as much as it could to downtown’s economy. The city should consider replacing the internally focused plaza with externally focused mixed uses such as retail, office and residences, said Graham Stroh, a program manager with the American Architectural Foundation.

"That is probably ground zero for Sacramentans," he said.

The team offered plenty of other ideas. They include:

• Improve downtown’s connections to its near neighborhoods;
• Invest in quality for streetscape, landscaping, parks, trash pickup, maintenance and graffiti prevention/removal;
• Activate public spaces year-round with events and recreation that draw different demographic groups and make use of undeveloped lots;
• Promote informal, spontaneous uses of public spaces and different activities for different sites;
• Enhance major streets with more landscaping and a green infrastructure of open space and natural areas, starting with 10th and J streets, then expanding to I Street and beyond;
• Educate property owners and residents about the economic benefits of preserving and adapting historic properties, such as Sacramento’s original street level hidden away in basements and hollow sidewalks;
• Reform permitting and regulations to make development less confusing, less expensive and less time-consuming;
• Build safety by adding downtown guides at night;
• Review efficiency of one-way streets;
• Improve on the almost-nonexistent access to Sacramento and American rivers;
• Build downtown’s identity through mid-rise buildings that stand out from the low-rise residential buildings of surrounding neighborhoods.

The city should develop a "customer service approach" to building downtown and its image, Jackson said.

"The idea is you need to sweat these details," she said.

The other people on the team were Brad Cownover, a regional landscape architect with the U.S. Forest Service in Portland; Mark Dawson of Sasaki Associates in Boston; and Keith Lichten with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The team will present a final plan to the city within two weeks. The plan will be posted on the city’s website and then used to continue a conversation about changing downtown, said Kunal Merchant, Johnson’s chief of staff.  

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February 16, 2011 | 10:39 PM

To paraphrase, “It’s the river, stupid”.

Sacramento appears to have ignored other downtown renewal success stories, many of which leveraged “a river running through it” as a focal point: Chattenooga, St. Louis, Portland, Denver, and others have paid attention to a geographic focal point – and Sacramento has two! Permitting vehicular traffic on K Street and the construction of a sports arena are red herrings – give folks a reason to come downtown by leveraging the rivers and “they will come”.

February 20, 2011 | 8:53 PM

Agreed. San Antonio is another example of a city that’s done a nice job playing up its river. As you said we have two rivers. I can’t believe they’re nowhere near a focal point.

February 23, 2011 | 6:51 AM

All very well and good but and true BUT with an Interstate running so close to the river’s edge it will never happen. BTW San Antonio’s “river” walk was not started by but really came about by government WPA funding and was developed for flood control reasons. Maybe if we can find a ‘public safety reason’ to redevelop our riverfront? Anyway, part of the problem besides the freeway is that it’s visually there –but not that tangible. You never really get a real sense of the river even when you are walking along the leveed riverfront promenade. We need more pedestrian bridges and to develop a two-tiered walkway -one below- close to the water when the river is in low phase and the current one on top of levee.

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February 16, 2011 | 11:21 PM

Some interesting ideas. It sort of sounds like, “get rid of downtown plaza put it back to the way it was originally”. Now if they could only get rid of I-5, talk about a barrier.

February 17, 2011 | 10:40 AM

“get rid of downtown plaza put it back to the way it was originally” — You mean, put back in a skid row?

“Now if they could only get rid of I-5, talk about a barrier.”

The state’s main north-south thru-way? Not happening.

February 20, 2011 | 2:59 PM

no he means the way it was before the new plaza replaced the previous open-air incarnation of shops, pedestrian plazas, fountains, kids play areas etc.

February 23, 2011 | 6:28 AM

They couldn’t ‘get rid of 1-5 but they could move it. Some years ago Caltrans developed a proposal to build the “Westside Bypass” -essentially it would divert the through traffic around the city by constructing a freeway split from current one around the Freeport ares and run NW around West Sacramento and rejoin I-5 somewhere between the Airport and Woodland. If we built the bypass we could keep the majority of the existing freeway for easy access into and out of downtown –BUT replace the downtown section with a wide, tree-lined surface boulevard -ala the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

February 17, 2011 | 8:54 AM

No offense because I love good designers, but none of this is “hey why didn’t we think of this” material. Kudos to the MICD team for keenly eyeballing downtown in 72 hours, but really, to ANYONE who’s had a pulse downtown this is another round of “DOH”. Kudos too to DSP for their work downtown but they’re the lonely voice in the center city run by a City Council and State that frankly don’t focus on the center from their comfy homes in the leafy burbs. Downtown needs a strong political voice before any of this good work will see the light of day. Rant out.

February 17, 2011 | 11:21 AM

“they’re the lonely voice in the center city” meaning DSP. Actually central city residents, including Midtown, identified and have tried to get support for many of these ideas for the last two and one half decades but have been ignored by the suburban mindset of the Convention Bureau, most city council members (Fargo and Cohn exceptions), city employees of all ranks, suburban or corporate owned businesses, builders and all other interests who live elsewhere in or out of the region but never come downtown except for their jobs, then think they know what is best for downtown and unfortunately have the influence to see nothing gets done that does not mesh with their ideas of making money for them.

February 17, 2011 | 5:27 PM

I don’t know if the presenters actually met with any neighborhood groups–although DSP also has a neighborhood component, in the form of a board member whose only role is to serve as an advocate for those who actually live in downtown neighborhoods. Unlike some PBIDs, they aren’t just a business association.

February 23, 2011 | 7:22 AM

I totally agree with you Dale. These “ideas” are basic urban planning 101. Er.. thanks guys for the great advise (rolling eyes). The problem is that our city is ran by a bunch of suburbanites (both in government and business — I would put Fargo and Cohn in there to) who have no original ideas or vision themselves. And they refuse to listen to people who live in the central neighborhoods because meetings are usually hijacked by rambling old NIMBY’s or people with narrow causes or beefs that have nothing to do with issue at hand. People who are smart and have good, practical ideas never get a chance to be heard in Sacramento. So the no nothing council members trot off (working vacation) to Portland or Vancouver or someplace else successful to ‘get ideas’ .

What we really need to do is to change our council districts so that the historical central city: Downtown,Midtown, Southside Park, River District is one district –represented by one council member and not split up and attached to larger suburban districts– representing largely suburban interests. Then at least we’d have someone on the council who actually lived in the district where they are making the decisions for.

February 17, 2011 | 9:49 AM

Punch through 6th street. Leave the rest of the mall, but put street fronting retail with apartments above along 6th street. Put in Pedestrian overpasses for the upper level of the mall.

We’re spending a bazillion dollars on a 6th street Railyards bridge that is going to a street that will dead-end in 2 blocks.

February 17, 2011 | 5:26 PM

Fortunately for us, that particular bazillion dollars is being paid for primarily by a state grant–and considering that right now there is only one road in or out of the Railyards area (the 7th Street underpass) we need as much connectivity into that area as we can get. One of the points the presenters made is that lots of pedestrian, transit and vehicular connectivity with the Railyards area is absolutely essential–although I can’t argue with the idea of reopening 6th Street through the mall.

February 17, 2011 | 5:11 PM

We already had one…how do you think we got Capitol Mall, the K Street Mall, or Interstate 5 in the first place? All were efforts to “revitalize” the central city by bulldozing old neighborhoods and replacing them with a grand boulevard, a shopping plaza and a highway that would make traffic jams a thing of the past. They were all the product of an era when the central city was supposed to be strictly for business–nobody should actually live there.

In the long run, they didn’t work out all that well. The original idea was pretty much to demolish the entire central city and replace it with offices, a suburban-style shopping mall, and Corbusier-style residential “superblocks” (like Capitol Towers, between 5th, 7th, N and P) with high-speed one-way boulevards in between. What is now Old Sacramento was supposed to be a cluster of mid-rise condominiums with views of the river. They ran out of money after only demolishing about a third of downtown, but for the most part, the downtown Sacramento you see today is the result of mid-century urban planners with Haussman’s ambitions and even greater resources–and even less regard for the neighborhoods they demolished in the process.

They also assumed that by the 21st century, cars would have been replaced with personal helicopters (no, I am not kidding.)

February 17, 2011 | 3:30 PM

When you dig him up, Brandon, let me know. It’s amazing what happened in Paris in that brief, magical era of Haussmann- architecutrally, culturally, socially and philosophically. Talk about enduring architectural values.

February 17, 2011 | 4:37 PM

I attended and heard a lot of what we were talking about fifteen years ago. It is time for the Mayor/Council to engage the local design community, and get some things done.

February 17, 2011 | 5:15 PM

We already have plenty of pretty good overall plans, but what these presenters emphasized was that big flashy projects were less important than large numbers of small projects enacted over time–they cited Midtown as an example of gradual, organic neighborhood development (although a lot of Midtown’s success can also be attributed to the participation of its residents, as well as business and government cooperation.)

Government isn’t all that good at the details of placemaking. That is where the private sector shines. Maybe it is time for the development community to engage local small business and get some things done.

February 17, 2011 | 5:53 PM

All this talk of development, the consumer in Sacramento is broke!!

February 18, 2011 | 7:58 AM

Reality check: J and L streets ARE a corridor, from downtown to the “Fabulous Forties”, Sac State U, and Fair Oaks Blvd. I sense we have “urban planners” with no understanding of traffic realities.

And they want to “Build downtown’s identity through mid-rise buildings that stand out from the low-rise residential buildings of surrounding neighborhoods”, yet they don’t like the high-rise towers that do the same? Huh?

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