Where did the downtown population go?

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Many who visit downtown Sacramento note that, on evening or weekends, it seems like a ghost town. There is little pedestrian traffic, and most businesses are closed. In some ways, downtown Sacramento became a ghost town when half the central city’s population was forced to leave, and their homes were destroyed. Perhaps the ghosts of 30,000 former residents wander the streets, wondering what happened to their downtown neighborhood?

The drop in Sacramento’s downtown population after 1950 is easy to see using census data. The US Census tracks population down to the “Census Tract” level, neighborhood-sized chunks of about 4,000 people. In 1950, the portion of Sacramento now known as “the grid,“ or “downtown” and “midtown,” the rectangular zone from the Sacramento River to Alhambra Boulevard between the B Street railroad levee and Broadway was often called the “Old City,” the original city limits.

Fourteen census tracts are within this boundary, numbered 4-14 and 19-21. In 2010, three census tracts (9, 10 and 11) combined into Tract 11.01. The information in this article was derived from United States Census reports, and a paper by Prof. Robin Datel and Dennis Dingemans, “Historic Preservation and Social Stability in Sacramento’s Old City,” published in Urban Geography, 1994.

8th and K Street, circa 1935

Downtown in 1950 – 58,000 people

In 1950, the Old City held more than 58,000 people, representing almost half of Sacramento’s population of 138,000, and about a quarter of Sacramento County’s population of 277,000. State government was not Sacramento’s largest employer then. Most worked in the massive Southern Pacific locomotive shops and railyards just north of downtown, the Western Pacific main shops in Curtis Park, or one of the enormous canneries, mills and other factories along the Sacramento waterfront, R Street and the city’s north edge.

About 5,000 migrant workers lived along the waterfront, where hiring halls connected laborers with farms throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys; about 15% of California’s agricultural hiring was done there. Sacramento’s streetcar system ended a 75-year operating history, with the last streetcars taken out of service in 1947. Sleek new General Motors buses replaced the streetcars in the same year, but an upsurge in private automobile ownership was already clogging downtown streets.

The most heavily populated tract was Tract 7, the old “West End” that now includes Old Sacramento and Downtown Plaza, with 5,866 residents. Most were the aforementioned migrant workers and the population of Sacramento’s Chinatown, nearly 80 residents per acre. Southside Park (Tract 21) was a close second with 5,832 residents, followed by Mansion Flat and Boulevard Park (Tract 5) with 5,426 and Tract 12 (around Fremont Park, south of Capitol between 12th and 21st) with 5,376. Each of these four residential tracts averaged about 40 residents per acre. Tract 8 (Capitol to R Street, river to 7th), with 4,467 residents, was the home of Sacramento’s Japanese neighborhood, whose residents had recently returned after internment during World War II. This tract also included much of Sacramento’s African American community, tripled in size during World War II, filling jobs, homes and businesses vacated by the Japanese during the war.

The smallest tract was Tract 10, H and Capitol between 7th and 12th, the neighborhood Downtown Sacramento Partnership calls “The Kay,” with only 1,338 people in 25 blocks, or about 21 residents per acre. Tract 10 was the heart of the business district, filled with department stores, movie theaters and office buildings, so those 1,338 residents were crowded into dense apartment buildings and residential hotels.

Overall, there were 19,318 “housing units” in the old city, including single-family homes and apartments, but often not counting boarding houses or residential hotels. 27.8 percent of these housing units, about 5,000 homes, were owner-occupied. The remaining 72 percent were rentals. By comparison, 63 percent of Sacramento County’s households were owner-occupied in 1950.

Major changes were in store for downtown Sacramento. Massive federal highway projects were underway, and millions of returning World War II veterans were eligible for subsidized home loans. These loans were often not usable in downtown neighborhoods, considered “redlined” and thus unsuitable for FHA or VA loans. Redlining discouraged investment and depressed property values because they were considered a higher risk for home loan default. Redlining was the result of several factors, the most important being the race of a neighborhood’s residents. Between 1949 and 1954, a series of federal laws were created to address the problems of downtown districts, commonly called “redevelopment.” The mid-1950s included a unique method of paying for redevelopment, called “Tax Increment Financing,” a means of paying for construction via bonds to be repaid by the increased future property value of redeveloped land. Sacramento pioneered tax-increment financing on an urban scale as a way to pay for redevelopment projects.

K Street, 1950s

Downtown in 1970 – 27,000 People

Redevelopment was originally intended to replace substandard housing in America’s downtown slums, but the policies of redevelopment changed quickly. Few redevelopment projects were executed until 1954, when the requirement that housing within a redevelopment zone be replaced within the same zone was removed — a neighborhood’s families could be relocated elsewhere and the properties converted to commercial use. Instead of focusing strictly on the worst slums, the term “blight” was used to describe neighborhoods that were not slums, but those likely to become slums. Redevelopment zones often became the site of major public landmarks, high-profile business districts and retail areas, like the St. Louis Arch or San Francisco’s “Japan Center,” but these projects generally displaced most or all of the neighborhood’s original residents.

This was the case in Sacramento, where the densely populated West End and Japantown neighborhoods were emptied to make way for Capitol Mall, state office buildings and private commercial buildings, the K Street pedestrian mall, Downtown Plaza, and Old Sacramento. Construction of Interstate Highways 5 and 50 removed entire rows of city blocks, displacing more people and destroying homes. The Southern Pacific and Western Pacific Shops remained open, but required less manpower as the railroads converted from steam to diesel-electric locomotives, and railroad passenger travel slowed dramatically.

As the canneries and other industries along the waterfront docks relocated to the Port of Sacramento in West Sacramento or other sites outside the city, industrial jobs within the city disappeared, and the homes started to disappear too. Between the 1950 and 1970 census, Sacramento’s central city population dropped to 27,205, a loss of over 30,000 people. Hundreds of small apartment buildings replaced older houses, intended for entry-level employees of the expanding state government or Downtown Plaza.

Downtown was not considered a place where any sensible person would want to purchase a home or raise children, so virtually no new single-family homes were built during this era. The number of housing units dropped to 16,522, despite the new apartment buildings, due to the demolition of thousands of single-family homes and older apartments. Owner-occupied housing dropped to 13.3%. Some neighborhoods were replaced with parking lots, offices or garden apartments. One project, Capitol Towers, was constructed as an example of things to come — a “superblock” of low-rise apartments with a mid-rise tower at its center, leaving no trace of the city neighborhood it replaced, and a total capacity of about 25 percent of its previous population.

The most dramatically altered neighborhood was Census Tract 9, between Capitol and R Street from 7th to 12th, where the population of 2,388 dropped to only 120. Tract 10, “The Kay,” dropped to only 120, losing more than 90 percent of its population. The old West End still had 1,131 residents, in part because of Sacramento’s main jail, whose several hundred residents were counted in the census, but the neighborhood lost almost all of its residents not behind bars. Even the neighborhoods least affected by redevelopment like Newton Booth/Poverty Ridge (Trac t 19) dropped by one-third, from 4,353 in 1950 to 2,823 in 1970, due in part to Highway 50 demolishing blocks between W and X Street. Tract 14, now the heart of Midtown (between H and Capitol, 21st to Alhambra) lost half its population, dropping from 4,216 to 2,176.

By contrast, Sacramento’s city and county population exploded during this period. By 1970, Sacramento County’s population had more than doubled to 631,498 and the city grew to 257,105. Downtown went from nearly half the city’s population to less than 10 percent in less than 20 years. 

Downtown Sacramento aerial shot, 1968

Downtown in 1990 – 31,000 people

Between 1970 and 1990, the tide began to turn. Abundant postwar funding for federal projects like highways and redevelopment dwindled away in the wake of the Vietnam War and economic recession. Efforts to save the Alhambra Theatre from demolition, while unsuccessful, helped ignite interest in restoring and repairing Sacramento’s architecture, including its residential neighborhoods spared the bulldozer and wrecking ball. Young people, including college students, counterculture hippies and a newly empowered gay and lesbian community, moved to the central city seeking inexpensive rent and a more tolerant atmosphere than the suburbs.

A new generation of state workers who wanted to live closer to their workplace began buying up dilapidated homes, sometimes using credit cards as the homes were still redlined, and formed a club to exchange tools and techniques for restoration of older homes, the Sacramento Old City Association. The city’s first preservation regulations slowed the demolition of older homes and promoted incentives to fix them up. Redlining eventually became illegal, and people could once again purchase central city homes using conventional home loans. The newly formed Capitol Area Development Authority (CADA) slowed the demolition of downtown apartments south of the State Capitol and created a limited amount of new housing, and Sacramento’s first clusters of low-rise condominiums popped up on long-vacant parcels along P and Q Streets, in the shadow of downtown office buildings of the previous decades. In 1987, electric railroads returned to Sacramento streets via Sacramento Regional Transit’s first “Light Rail” line.

The gains of this era were modest. Tracts 4 and 5 (Marshall School/New Era, Boulevard Park/Mansion Flat) became the most populous districts with 3,939 and 3,754 people, still well below their 1950 levels, because fewer homes were demolished (except along 29th and 30th Street, where the Capital City Freeway stood.) The central city’s population grew 5 percent during the 1970s and 11 percent during the 1980s. Tract 9 was still the least populated with 275 residents, up from a 1980 low of 69 people. Alkali Flat lost several hundred due to expansion of Crystal Dairy’s industrial facilities and new Sacramento County administration and courts buildings. The rate of ownership housing dropped to 11.1 percent in 1990. Housing units increased to 18,512, an increase of about 2,000, primarily small apartment buildings, public/senior housing, and a few low-rise condominiums like the Stanford Park townhomes at 16th and P Street.
The city of Sacramento’s growth continued at a slower rate, reaching 369,365 by 1990, and Sacramento County’s population rose to over 1 million. Only 3 percent of Sacramento County’s residents called the Old City their home in 1990.

Downtown in 2010 – 30,000 people

Despite the growing interest in Sacramento’s central city and some new infill, the population of the Old City has lost about 2 percent of its population in each of the past two decades, with a population of 30,544 in 2010. Some of this loss may be attributed to gentrification and rising property value, and the loss of hundreds of inexpensive SRO rooms. Sacramento’s central city still has a large quantity of affordable rental housing compared to most other Sacramento neighborhoods, intermixed with more expensive apartments and even more expensive ownership housing. This has created neighborhoods of mixed incomes that preservation economist Donovan Rypkema calls “economic integration.”

Census Tract 7 saw a boost in population when the new Main Jail was completed, holding 2,400 inmates, but adding little residential vitality. In 2010, 2,806 people lived in Tract 7. In addition to the jail, there was new housing constructed in Old Sacramento (the iLofts and Orleans). Despite a few well-publicized efforts to build new residential condominiums (the Saca Towers at 3rd and Capitol) and the Daniel Libeksind designed “Aura” at 6th and Capitol) there was little residential growth in Census Tract 7.

In 2010, census tracts 9, 10 and 11 were combined into a single tract, 11.01, reflecting the permanent loss of residential population. In 1950, 6,530 people lived in these three tracts combined, but in 2010 only 2,047 called Tract 11.01 home. This tract saw an increase of only about 150 residents between 2000 and 2010. Marshall School/New Era Park still led the central city in residents with 3,667 people, but Mansion Flat/Boulevard Park was overtaken by Tract 12 around Fremont Park, from 12th to 21st between Capitol and R Street, with 3,323 residents. New CADA residential projects, and lofts like the 14th & R building, increased the population of this tract. Despite this limited growth, none of the central city census tracts comes close to the population it had in 1950.

The number of owner-occupied units dropped even more, with only 2,015 units (including condominiums) in 2010, of 20,129 residential units — an ownership housing rate of just over 10 percent. Compared to 1950, when ownership housing was 27.8 percent, there were about 5,300 owner-occupied homes — now there are only 2,015 owner-occupied homes. Despite the reputation of neighborhoods like Midtown and Southside Park as districts of single-family historic homes, they are a tiny minority of the housing stock, while 90 percent of the housing is rental.

While the loss of 30,000 downtown residents had a profound effect on downtown, the population of Sacramento always grew decade after decade, primarily due to annexation and new suburban construction. Cities like St. Louis and Detroit lost more than half a million people during the same era, greater than the entire population of Sacramento! Downtown Sacramento has an extremely high jobs/housing balance, with three times as many people working in the central city as it has residents, a figure which is responsible for crowded commutes during the weekdays but a relatively unpopulated downtown at night. Midtown and Downtown are regional destinations for nightlife entertainment.

But while Midtown’s clubs are as well-attended by neighborhood residents as visitors from other parts of the region, Downtown has almost no residential base to support local businesses, and the perception of the central city as a nightlife hub has caused friction between business owners and neighbors. There has also been an increase in crime, including several high-profile homicides.

Downtown in 2030 – ???

Urban planners, civic boosters, business leaders and real estate developers look back at historic photos of K Street at its peak and lament downtown Sacramento’s loss of urban vitality. Some blame the demise of the downtown business district on the 41-year period when K Street was a pedestrian mall, but that was a desperation measure, as downtown Sacramento’s businesses were already suffering by the 1960s. Some claimed that highways would be the savior of downtown, but they made the central city as easy to leave as it was to enter, and easier still to avoid entirely, while the highway’s path destroyed thousands of homes. Some blamed a lack of parking, but the parking demands of 90,000 commuters from other parts of the region already fills tens of thousands of parking spaces, while downtown residents need not own a car at all if they work in the same neighborhood.

The missing factor in the downtown equation is people. Once people were removed from downtown, either willingly or unwillingly, few had any reason to return, and the businesses they supported closed. Until there is sufficient housing for thousands more central city residents, downtown Sacramento has little hope of revival, and even the encouraging signs of recent successes are vulnerable to the next economic downturn or political shift. Residents bring economic stability and political representation to a neighborhood; if Sacramento’s central city still contained 58,000 people, it would have sufficient population to comprise its own City Council district.

Midtown also lost population, but enough remained for restoration by community activists, small businesses and neighborhood residents. Visitors are more comfortable in a neighborhood where people are visible on the street, and are encouraged to join in the neighborhood by friends and coworkers. Today, there are apartments for rent and homes for sale (if limited in number and often high in price) in Midtown, and despite its problems, it is considered a desirable and expensive neighborhood, held up for other cities to emulate. But downtown Sacramento has very little rental housing, and virtually no for-sale housing. Its empty streets are less comfortable for visitors, and there are few downtown residents to encourage their friends to come visit. The sites of boom-era residential condo towers Capitol Towers and Aura sit vacant, while the sites of entitled but still unfunded buildings like the Metropolitan at 10th & J and the Cathedral Lofts at 11th & J prevent use of existing building stock, leaving blocks to sit vacant and unused for untold years. These placeholders for nonexistent buildings present downtown visitors with the impression that these blocks have been simply left to rot.

Could Sacramento’s downtown be back up to 58,000, or even more, by 2030? It is possible, but details of how to do that will require another article. By regaining its lost population, downtown Sacramento could once again become a vibrant, lively central city. There is room downtown for a mixture of entertainment, employment, commercial activity, public transportation, and tens of thousands more downtown residents, who can then join commuters, visitors and friends from the greater Sacramento region in the intricate dance of modern city life. Such a city would be very familiar to the ghosts of those 30,000 missing Sacramentans – a downtown more like the one they called home.

  • Tony Sheppard

    Detroit lost even more people than mentioned, according to “Detropia.” This is part of my review of that film:

    “As the film points out, in 1930 Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world and it is now the fastest shrinking city in the US, having lost more residents than most cities have ever had (the population has declined from approx. 1,850,000 to approx. 700,000, since a peak in the 1950’s).

    That has created 100,000 vacant houses and lots and enough unoccupied space that you could drop the Cities of Boston and San Francisco, as well as Manhattan, into the gaps with room left over.”

    Thanks for the article.

    • William Burg

      Still kicking myself for missing the showing of “Detropia” at the Crest. Thanks for the clarification.

    • It’s not just Detroit, which I used to visit on business….it’s that entire Rust Belt which has lost hundreds of thousands of people: Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, St. Louis, etc. It just amazes me how there can be entire blocks of seemingly wonderfully, well-built homes which are all vacant.

  • Neil Pople

    This is a really great article. I clicked through the photos in semi-rapid succession and it’s really interesting to see those colors go from dark to light with every census count. It seems as though the core transportation services played a huge role in the vacating of downtown. Will returning streetcars be part of the solution? I know so many people would love to live in a vibrant city center, but they won’t want to hoof it on foot…

    • Richard Hanson

      The Sun City (Lincoln) retirement community has wide separate golf cart lanes. Residents find the electric-powered golf carts more convenient than cars when getting around in the local area — every household has one. Could work for Sacramento — some road lanes would have to be sacrificed and more streets made one-way.

    • William Burg

      Neil: I hope it will. Streetcars connect neighborhoods and promote walkable development. They would also promote development in any neighborhoods sitting on the other end of a streetcar line from downtown; that’s how neighborhoods like East Sacramento, Land Park, Oak Park and West Sacramento got built in the first place!

      Richard Hanson: Golf carts for every house, and developments like Sun City Lincoln, are the utter antithesis of walkability. Of course every house has one, because the typical senior citizen would take their life in their hands walking from their cul-de-sac to the nearest retail store, assuming they could even find their way back! I took a look at Sun City Lincoln on Walkscore, it is utterly car-dependent.

      However, I was pleasantly surprised to look at downtown Lincoln. It’s a lovely little community with all the ingredients for walkability, like gridded streets with sidewalks, a business district that still has some businesses that face the street instead of having parking lots in front, small lots, and a mixture of uses in close proximity–including two nice city parks, and a major employer (Gladding McBean) within walking distance of their central city “grid.” And while WalkScore gives Lincoln an overall score of 26, they give high marks to many parts of the old town! IThe kind of walkability I’m talking about does not require big cities; it scales down to the size of small towns too. But it doesn’t work at all in places like Sun City Lincoln, where every citizen is an exile from the public realm and the automobile (or, in this case, the golf cart) is king!

    • Tony Sheppard

      I wasn’t familiar with WalkScore but we were in England last week and I revisited Salisbury, where I had lived between the ages of 8 and 11, and thought it looked like a neat place to live, largely because the central city is so pleasant to walk around with shopping, movies, the market all readily accessible. So I checked Salisbury’s WalkScore and it gets an 88/100.

  • Thank you so much for the wonderfully written gem, which is this article.

  • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

    Great article William. Sacramento, with its gentle topography and bordering wide open spaces, was almost destined to be a poster child for suburban sprawl. The effects of the housing bubble are still with us and will likely remain for some time. With so many houses vacant that sell for less than the cost of infill units (even excluding the cost of land), it’s harder for both builders and buyers to justify a project or purchase in the old city. I think a lot of improvement to the old city in the next decades will be organic, due to changing demographics and desires, as well as increasing traffic and transportation costs.

  • Che Perez

    One of the more interesting articles I’ve seen on SacPress – good stuff.

  • Doug Vincent

    I’ll never understand why Lightrail was brought down K street. Anywhere vibrant in most cities puts Public Transportation close to night life, but people tend to “linger” near stops, which scares off people. Go to any bus station or lightrail stop in another city and it’s the same. K street will always remain empty because people are afraid to walk it at night. (sorry for getting slightly off topic, this was a great article)

    • lmw

      They have a bus that goes down the same type of area in downtown Denver. I prefer the quieter light rail.

  • Dan Allison

    Do you see any solution to bringing people, and the necessary housing, back to downtown, or should downtown be urban triaged out (Jeff Speck’s term) in favor of a focus on midtown?

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      It wasn’t clear from the last paragraph whether Mr Burg is planning another article, or simply that a discussion of the possible solutions was beyond the scope of the current article. I’d also like to get his take. For instance, I thought the recent changes to the parking code would be considered an unequivocal win for downtown housing, but Mr Burg sounded a little more equivocal.

    • William Burg

      Midtown is already the subject of a great deal of focus, and the small number of Midtown infill parcels are rapidly being filled by new housing. The point of triage is to select the patient who is critically wounded and needs immediate attention, instead of those who are too far gone to treat, or those who are stable enough to wait until the most critical needs are met. Since Midtown is already relatively healthy, there is little need to “triage” the neighborhood–just keep doing what we’re doing, namely fix up the old places, build new places in the vacant lots, and open the storefronts with businesses that appeal to both residents and visitors.

      The points for triage are specific points within downtown Sacramento where there is a greater unmet need for housing, in the cleared and formerly industrial zones. We start with adaptive reuse of existing buildings, as the city of Los Angeles did to triple the population of their downtown. The next simplest is targeting parts of town already identified by the 2030 General Plan, and specific plans already laid out by the city, for more urban types of residential development, like the Railyards and the Docks. Those are the sites for more heavy-duty adaptive reuse projects (like reuse of the General Shops, the CADA Warehouse, etc) and new construction of mid to high rise residential. Additional commercial and employment uses will be concurrent with that–the hardest thing to explain is that these neighborhoods could and should have multiple uses at multiple times of the day, not a single use that becomes dormant the other 16 hours.

      ryuns: There are always unintended consequences. Reduced and eliminated parking requirements mean that developers will be able to build less-expensive housing units since they don’t need that expensive parking appendage, but if there isn’t a safe, interesting and useful pedestrian environment and a transit network that runs later than businessman’s hours, those units will be hard to sell since their inhabitants will still need cars. For administrative reasons, parking and housing and public transit are run by separate agencies. But if they can’t work in conjunction with each other, two of the three can do everything right and still fail because of poor follow-through by the third.

    • Tony Sheppard

      One thing the City needs to do is to be more creative and adaptive with permitting and permitting fees. When review roles were combined, one of the outcomes was that a special use (such as residential in a commercial zone) goes to the full review level, which can be prohibitively costly on a small infill project.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      Thanks for the response William. Count me in for a vote for a follow up article, as time permits of course.

  • lmw

    Excellent article, William. Very enjoyable to read. I’ll probably read it again! Love the photos of when things were flourishing!

  • Kudos for a great, detailed article….although this issue of population loss in a city’s core is hardly unique to Sacramento. What I’ve found interesting as they’ve tried to reinvent, reinvigorate, renovate, revitalize (yadda-yadda) our downtown area is the housing focus has been on high-end stuff and a bunch of subsidized affordable housing. There’s very little—-rental or ownership-wise—for people in the middle. So, they’re relegated to the ‘burbs.

  • Thank you for the lovely stroll down memory lane. My beloved father, whom sorely passed away in 2008 would have really enjoyed your article as well! My mom and dad moved from Elk Grove,
    they had a house with 5 acres to downtown Sac in 2001 ( major change of pace!) and my father really was happy in downtown Sac, loved to walk around, ride his bicycle and “people watch”.
    My mom still lives there and will probably live out the rest of her life in downtown Sacramento.

  • Kathleen Johnson

    Fantastic article William! You sure know our city better than all of us put together :-)

    • William Burg

      I disagree–I learned what I know about Sacramento from other Sacramentans!

  • Excellent article, William. I’m excited by the possibility of more downtown residents.

    Q: Did the population drop to “only 120” people in both Tract 9 and Tract 10 in 1970?

    As to the challenge of selling/renting housing with less parking, this is not likely to a problem. With lower parking minimums, the market gets more choice it what it wants. They can still build the same parking as before, if there is actually demand for it. Do you think the city should have continued to effectively subsidize parking to lure more residents downtown? Or do you think we need parking maximums to restrict the market from over-supplying parking? I see that we need a better pedestrian environment, but as you say that comes largely from higher population density–which is served by lower parking density.

    • William Burg

      121 in Tract 9, 120 in Tract 10..

      SOCA (and I) actively supported the adoption of the new parking regulations that have dropped the parking requirements for commercial properties within the central city and “traditional” neighborhoods (like Land Park, Curtis Park, East Sacramento, Oak Park etc.) to, for all practical purposes, zero. We also advocated to city staff to include an “adaptive reuse” section of the parking code that would exempt historic properties converted from commercial to residential use from parking requirements (since most historic buildings don’t have parking lots.) But changes don’t happen in a vacuum; if there is not the transit service needed (high-frequency, late-night) by the residents of future parking-free units, they will still have to own cars to leave the neighborhood. They will then have to park them somewhere, which incentivizes land clearance for parking lots (limiting population density) instead of infill and adaptive reuse (increasing population density.) Changes don’t happen in a vacuum, they are part of a bigger picture. North Natomas and Laguna West were supposed to be models for “transit-oriented” development, but when they were built without transit services, developers asked for exceptions to every planned rule and they became autocentric by default.

  • Dale Kooyman

    When I moved to Sacramento and bought my house in early 1976, the entire central city was” redlined.” No lender would talk to a buyer unless the buyer’s assets equaled or exceeded the value of the property being bought. There were only four parcels in the entire central city for sale, the one in Boulevard Park, the most accessible to the CBD and desirable in my opinion. When I bought it, fellow worker suburbanites scoffed at me for buying in a “slum full of social services, halfway houses, boarding houses and hippies.”

    My broker said I had made a wise choice because the “city’s redevelopment plans were to tear down the structures on the block immediately to my west and replace with a three or four story office building” and ” any houses in the area between H and L ” (including my house) “would be rezoned to commercial, upping the value considerably,” That was because “all the single family houses on the blocks north of H and to the south of L were going to be torn down and replaced with rows of two and three story low income apartments.” Any housing in the strip between would be ‘live-in lawyer, legislator, lobbyist, businessmen offices and small convenience markets but all other buildings would be replaced with three story or high rise office buildings.” As late as the early 1990’s zoning maps showed only three and a half partial blocks of houses on L Street from 21st to 29th remained residential with the rest small offices or shops.

    I could not imagine the city destroying the quality of housing construction that would never be again and architectural gems that could never be replaced. But I traveled over 85% of the time so was consoled by my broker’s words that my house was exempt. Fortunately, the city’s “know best plans” never materialized in large part due to the activism of preservationists who moved in and were forced to fight the city, absentee property owner “investors” and many businesses every step of the way.

  • This is a thorough and well-researched article on city census, but I must say it pains me to read the perpetuation of the myth that Sacramento is a “ghost town” on nights & weekends. And that we must strive towards some vague higher ideal to be a “real City.”

    I have lived in central Sacramento since 1977 – Midtown, East Sac and now Land Park. I have always relished relative quiet of the weekends. In Sacramento, one really knows the weekend from the working day. The city is a dream for weekend walking and bicycling, precisely because it is not tightly packed 24 hours a day with with adventure-seekers.

    Some of Sacramento’s best features are a result of the city’s not-exploding population density and slow growth. I would only caution – be careful what you wish for.

    • William Burg

      There are parts of Sacramento that are very lively on nights and weekends, but I’m not talking about late-night adventure seekers, nightlife or nightclubs here. I’m talking about residents; people living in the central city who call it their home. Downtown Sacramento’s census tract has only 8 people per acre; that’s less population density than Land Park!

      A vacant city is not a safe city–the street where you are least safe is an empty street with no witnesses. Residents in a neighborhood provide eyes on the street, passive security that deters crime from occurring in the first place. It also provides a customer base for downtown businesses, instead of stores that close at 3 PM on weekdays and are never open on weekends because their entire customer base is office workers.

      Also note that I’m not talking about East Sacramento, Midtown and Land Park, but the downtown core, surrounded by the older residential neighborhoods. A higher population density in the central city would not make Land Park any less quiet, in fact it would mean fewer commuters driving through Land Park’s thoroughfares on their way downtown. Our growth really is unchecked and massive–but it’s horizontal sprawl, destroying farmland, lowering air quality and increasing flood risk. I realize there are a lot of people who want to maintain the myth of Sacramento as a bucolic farm town–but it is a lie, and always has been. History tells a different story.


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