A man and his city

City Manager Ray Kerridge sees Sacramento’s skyline as a canvas on which to splash interesting new architectural forms in creating its own distinct topography

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sacramento’s affable new city manager, Ray Kerridge, was “having a pint” at the Fox & Goose Pub one Friday when a city contractor walked in with his girlfriend. Kerridge never had met the woman before, so he started chatting her up. He didn’t realize at the time that he was looking the city’s future in the eye.

“She was about 25, 26—you know, tattoos,” Kerridge told SN&R with a slight English accent. She was an independent Web-page designer who worked out of her home office and made her own hours.

“OK,” he said, curious. “So, what’s your day like?”

“Well, I get up about 11 a.m., you know, and I start work about noon. And then I’ll carry on ’til maybe 10 at night, maybe even later. Then I’ll go out. And then I get back in about three or four in the morning,” she told him.

“Wow,” said Kerridge. “Are there many like you?”

The woman must have looked at him oddly. “We all do it,” she said.

Sacramento’s new frontier
Sure, the future has tattoos—everybody knows that. But the encounter helped Kerridge illustrate another point: The future was going to keep Sacramento awake 24 hours a day.

“There’s a generation out there that I realize I know absolutely nothing about,” Kerridge told SN&R. “A lifestyle I know nothing about. … My idea of a city, you know, that’s not really important. … What’s the vision of these young people? And how do we get them involved in this whole planning process?”

This is classic Kerridge. Only an optimist would want to infuse the traditionally dry city-planning process with a bunch of 25-year-old designers. Last spring, the city even invited college and high-school students to contribute their ideas to the ongoing General Plan update. After all, the future of Sacramento belongs to them.

Kerridge mostly has become known, in his first year as city manager, for streamlining a bloated, antagonistic city-development process and turning the city staff into a customer-service operation. Customer service, Kerridge has said, is his passion.

These innovations have improved the city of Sacramento’s reputation among developers and local architects; they’re the ones saving time and money and publicly gushing over Kerridge.

Council members have taken notice, too.

There are two things Kerridge already has taught the city, according to Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy: “One: We’re ready to grow. Two: We’re capable of having big buildings.”

“The city needed a captain to reinvigorate partnership between bureaucracy and the private-development community,” said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. “The image is that the city’s got the welcome mat out.”

Kerridge apparently brought the mat with him from Oregon.

Lured away from the Bureau of Development Services in Portland, the city he served for 25 years, Kerridge was hired by Sacramento as assistant city manager for development in 2004 because he was an infill-savvy, problem-solving revitalization expert. By February of 2006, former City Manager Bob Thomas had retired and Kerridge was named his permanent replacement.

“We are where Portland was 15 years ago,” said Kerridge. “And a lot of the things people like about Portland have occurred in the last 15 years.”

New Sacramento condo towers, hotels and late-night restaurants may get the most buzz, but the city is going through another transition, a power shift, according to CSUS public-policy professor Robert Waste. The day of the strong city manager is waning, he said, in cities across California.

“Sacramento is leaning toward an executive-mayor system,” Waste said.

Thomas was independent and competent, but he also could be an authoritarian hard-liner who regularly butted heads with the mayor. In contrast, Kerridge acts as a customer-pleasing people person. He prefers to implement Council’s public policy, not craft it. This has led the mayor—and just about everyone else—to feel “supported.”

City Manager Ray Kerridge: “We really need to think carefully about what the city looks like when you just turn the corner on I-5. It really should be a work of art.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Developers big and small, historic preservationists and even environmentalists, sprawl-fighters and other watchdogs seem to appreciate the shift. They embrace the city’s vision of 24-hour vitality in the urban core, holding Kerridge responsible for the influx of energy and excitement. In fact, it’s hard to remember that the new city manager didn’t create the cresting wave of city growth. He just rode in on it.

“You look at cities in California,” Kerridge told SN&R. “San Diego’s done a great job but they’re getting built out. L.A. is built out, pretty much. San Francisco is built out. Guess what? The next one on the list is Sacramento.”

The anti-Thomas
Kerridge and his development team have been credited with turning Sacramento into California’s new “It Girl,” even though many of the projects in the pipeline arrived while Thomas was in office.

Kerridge will have to meld the new Sacramento with the old, hopefully increasing housing options and downtown vitality, transit-oriented development and smart growth in Sacramento’s remaining green spaces while avoiding more traffic congestion and decreased air quality. He’ll help shape some of Sacramento’s largest design projects: the rail-yards redevelopment, the riverfront master plan, the revitalization of R Street and the building of high-rise housing downtown.

Sitting in a conference room near his office on the fifth floor of the new City Hall, Kerridge, a sandy-haired, fit-looking man with a cold-weather complexion, said he’ll strive to “keep the balance of that old-time feel and the big-city amenities.”

He clearly relishes the process of planning a city in transition.

During his 25 years in Portland, he said he couldn’t really see revitalization happening on a day-to-day basis. In Sacramento, he says, “I’m kind of living it in a more energized way.”

For now, Kerridge’s wife and two adult children remain in Oregon—his wife and daughter raise show dogs. His family intends to join him, said Kerridge, when he can find the right house at the right price—hopefully in East Sacramento.

Though he has little time, Kerridge has managed to carve out some space for spiritual practices like martial arts and meditation. A 37-year practitioner of karate, he trains a small group of students in an Arden dojo. He got started when karate was almost unknown in London, where he grew up. “I read books about it,” he said. “There was this lethal killing art out there. It fascinated me.”

He met his wife, an American, while studying in Japan in 1979. When she wanted to return to the states, Kerridge found himself in Iowa with little information about the United States, except what he remembered from episodes of Kojak, he joked. “I thought it was a very violent place.”

He said he applied for jobs in cities he’d seen on TV, favoring the Rockies, Portland and the setting of Hawaii Five-0. He feels lucky to have landed in Portland, where he was first offered a job as a building inspector.

Though he says his weeks away from home can get pretty intense, he seems both relaxed and composed, dressed in a sweater and sport coat. He has a slightly intimidating demeanor that he tries to hide behind anecdotes and jocularity.

“You look at the old City Hall,” Kerridge said. “You look at the new City Hall. Whoever did the architectural design here, I think they did a pretty good job of blending the two.”

How much faith one has in Kerridge’s ability to manage the next phase of the city’s makeover has a lot to do with one’s impression of his predecessor.

Condo projects—like John Saca’s recently stalled twin towers on the Capitol Mall—were already in the city’s pipeline when Thomas stepped down in 2005, retiring from both the city and the National Guard after 36 years in public service.

He left behind a City Hall that was off-putting to developers, who hated dealing with staff, which could be slow, surly and antagonistic. Community activists often say they felt attacked by Thomas, or simply ignored.

Graham Brownstein, the executive director of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, said the contrast between Thomas and Kerridge “could not have been more marked. [Kerridge] is not a big shot. He’s not a big ego. He’s clearly interested in having a dialogue with all interested parties.”

Mayor Heather Fargo also gave Kerridge a lot of credit for “making things more peaceful at City Hall.” She calls him a “very strategic thinker [who’s] good at getting good people around him.”

As city manager, Kerridge oversees not just the city government but also the city fire and police departments—something he never thought he’d do. “The buzz for me is to be able to help [the mayor and City Council] take the city to the next level. … I was expecting to do that on the development-review side. I never expected I would get the opportunity to participate on a citywide basis.”

Others have noticed the difference in management style as well. Kerridge promoted Gus Vina to assistant city manager in charge of budgeting. Vina had three weeks to create a new budget process that shifted major decision making back into the hands of the Council.

Thomas used to design the budget for them, explained Vina. “It’s easier,” he said, “when things are all organized for you and done. … Bob really did try to almost divide everything by nine.”

Now, the Council wrestles with its own tough decisions.

Ray Kerridge has impressed business people by making development in Sacramento easier for the developers, who have his ear at City Hall.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Thomas recently helped former City Council member Jimmy Yee successfully campaign for the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, and also helped PG&E fight SMUD’s proposed annexation in Yolo County. Asked if he noticed a difference in his style and Kerridge’s, he replied simply: “No.”

The differences were obvious to Waste, who calls himself a fan and a friend to both men. “Executive mayors” around California have gained veto power and the ability to hire and fire, he said. Though Fargo hasn’t gone as far as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who took over the local school district, Waste expects that charter reform could give her more executive power in the near future.

“[Kerridge] followed a strong, independent, capable former city manager,” said Waste. “Ray’s charge is to be less independent.”

Big growth vs. smart growth
In a weekly agenda-review meeting with city staff, Fargo listed 2006’s successes: The city helped Thomas Enterprises purchase the rail yards and the city took over the historic depot, new housing sprouted up on J Street and throughout Midtown, 53-story condo towers broke ground, a light-rail extension opened up and a new customer-service oriented attitude swept through city staff. But there’s more to do, said Fargo. “We need to strive to get on more magazine covers. We’re at that point. We’re doing things as significantly as other cities.”

Kerridge sat quietly beside Fargo while she spoke, letting her have the floor.

“I truly believe that there are investors sitting out there in Texas and back east somewhere looking at how they’re going to expand,” explained Vina. “Sacramento’s on people’s lists now.”

Thank the city’s new wraparound support service for developers—designed by Kerridge.

David Mogavero, an architect and longtime proponent of “smart growth,” was on Kerridge’s hiring committee. The city mainly wanted to steal a planner from Portland, but quickly became impressed with Kerridge’s can-do style. “I think it’s fair to say changes were happening before Ray got here,” he said. “but he really added some verve.”

Mogavero said there’s been a quick turnaround in the attitude of city staff. Decision makers hammer out details together. No one waits behind the next door, ready to jump out and yell “Gotcha!” at developers.

Streamlined government speeds up projects, but it also saves money.

Mogavero estimates that getting through the approval process so quickly could trim 5 percent off of building costs.

Paul Ainger, development director for the Community Housing Opportunities Coalition, went even further. Most of his projects have been in the county, he said, which took 15 months to approve a project a couple years ago. Last year, the city took half that time to approve a more complex project. “Costs will go up 20 to 25 percent if projects are held up half a year to a year,” he said.

“Get the customer to success,”—Kerridge’s motto—might sound like a public-relations slogan, something fresh out of Marketing 101—unless you think of yourself as the customer. This phrase, which has been printed on city business cards, clearly has favored developers. For instance, Kerridge says the city has a little pilot program going.

“We take land that is already fully entitled and put infrastructure in place,” said Kerridge. “And then when you go to a prospective client or customer, you can say: ‘Come here and we have this land available for you. OK. It’s already infrastructured, has the planning and zoning in place. All you have to do is come here, put your plans into our building department, our MATRIX. You get through that process easily and then you just build.’ ”

Some planners grumble privately that there appears to be no such thing as a bad project for Sacramento. Plans for the proposed subdivision in Delta Shores, for instance, include lots more regional retail and fewer high-paying jobs than the city wanted.

In her recent staff meeting, the mayor said she wasn’t satisfied.

“It’s sometimes a little bit tricky,” said Carol Shearly, the city’s planning director. “We have varied customers, sometimes conflicting customers.” Even the city’s priorities sometimes conflict. For instance, city leaders and residents want a healthy urban forest but they also want to build skyscrapers that leave no room for a tree canopy.

However, Kerridge’s motto doesn’t mean every project gets the green light, Shearly said. She repeated Kerridge’s advice to her: “If you’re going to tell a person ‘no,’ do it as quickly as you can.”

But how does Sacramento attract the development it wants to see?

Waste says he watches city government the way other people track baseball. He’s noticed that the city still is struggling to decide what good economic-development projects might look like. “They need to narrow their view to what a ‘win’ really is,” Waste said.

He thinks the city should be looking at possibilities like opening an Exploratorium in the rail yards. The San Francisco site is at capacity, said Waste. “Build an Exploratorium in the rail yards and people will come like crazy.”

In contrast, City Council members tout big retail, like the recently discussed Bass Pro Shop, for the rail yards.

Mayor Heather Fargo says Ray Kerridge makes her feel “supported"—unlike previous City Manager Bob Thomas.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Kerridge thinks of planning as “organic,” he said, peppering his descriptions with holistic, almost new-age concepts like livability and “how a city feels.”

He thinks about big spaces, but he also wants Sacramento to be full of little relief areas.

“You know, I come from London. It’s a really busy place. Huge. But you go down Holborn, which is a very old street, cars whizzing all over the place, and you go through a little archway and there’d be a little courtyard there—maybe 60 feet by 60 feet. So quiet. You see people in there, kind of smoking a cigarette or they’re eating their lunch on the bench, but it’s a total relief from the chaos of the city.”

Kerridge also has been heard to refer to the city skyline as art, a canvas on which to splash new architectural forms.

“What’s interesting here is that other cities, including Portland, have a topography that you need to fit the city into.” Without its own imposing mountain range or Columbia River Gorge, Sacramento has no natural features, said Kerridge: “There is no topography; let’s create it!”

In recent urban-design workshops, Kerridge said the city “wanted to engage the design professionals and the neighbors in helping us to see what a bunch of cities look like. … We need to have our own ideas. Yeah, I like high rises. Everybody knows that. I’m very much into a very interesting skyline.”

Now, the city’s hosting regular events and ordering phone surveys to learn what residents want to see as they glide toward town on nearby freeways.

“I mean, you talk about the canvas, you talk about what the skyline will look like. It is very much art,” he said, getting excited about the possibilities. “I don’t want to live in a scientific or a computer-designed city. You look at those futuristic films. You know, Blade Runner? They’re very mechanistic.”

Kerridge asked: Do you want to live in Lang’s Metropolis?

Kerridge’s ideas can be heard echoing throughout the city. Oddly enough, it’s not city staff so much as citizens who are repeating them.

The question is whether there’s room for great diversity in Kerridge’s metropolis. The city has set good housing policy in recent years, planning housing specifically for the chronically homeless, promising to maintain the number of single-room-occupancy hotel rooms, and supporting an affordable-housing ordinance that keeps the market from pricing out longtime Sacramentans. But there’s no room in Kerridge’s prized high-end housing projects for affordable units.

“Not one of those units will be affordable to any of the people cleaning those rooms,” said Ethan Evans of the Sacramento Housing Alliance.

“It’s basically a market-driven thing,” Kerridge explained. “You’re not going to be able to fit inclusionary housing into John Saca’s towers. It ain’t going to happen.” But Kerridge believes that other projects will make room for affordable housing. “You need to have this diversity of housing, from SRO to workforce housing to condos, even some single family. You’ve just got to have the whole blend.”

For instance, Kerridge would like to see families move into the downtown.

“We talk about little parks, building communities in the downtown, having schools in the downtown, having families in the downtown, having little areas of refuge in the downtown or relief areas in the downtown,” he said.

Like his preference for condo towers, the idea of bringing families downtown is one that’s borrowed from another fine city to our north. Vancouver, in this case. Though city leaders agree that Sacramento must have its own ideas for the future, many of the city’s plans rest on the success of cities like Portland and Vancouver. Pictures of their skylines are posted at public meetings, seeping into the dreams of citizen planners.

Architecture is destiny
Sacramento’s optimism barely has waned—even as a lagging economy, skyrocketing construction costs and investors fleeing the housing market slowly have let the air out of the housing bubble—but city staff admit that Sacramento’s downtown revitalization may take years to materialize. Mogavero notes that project diversity is one of the first things to disappear when the economy slows down.

The Saca towers, expected to be the city’s first big success in high-rise living, is so overburdened by cost overruns that it recently stopped construction, according to local media.

But city boosters like Fargo and Sheedy say they’re not worried. “I never believe a project is ready until earth is getting moved,” said Sheedy. “If eight out of 10 [skyscrapers] get built, that would be fantastic.”

If Sacramento slows down its revitalization efforts, that’s fine with some of those young people that Kerridge admires. They’re getting tired of hearing Sacramento referred to as the next Portland anyway.

Adrian Comenzind, a 21-year-old eco-friendly landscape designer, lives on busy J Street in Midtown. He said that the 24-seven lifestyle (the one Kerridge recognized in the young Sacramento Web designer with tattoos) might be the trademark of a big city, but “There’s still something very grounding about having a city that goes to sleep.”

What does a guy like Comenzind want to see in Sacramento’s future? More support for small local businesses and a locally produced food supply—sustainable commerce for a post-oil, post-auto world.

If the city really wants to be progressive, suggests fellow activist Kim Glazzard, director of Organic Sacramento, bring more of Portland’s sustainability agenda to Sacramento. She’d like to see Sacramento lead the nation in encouraging people to share community gardens and to grow their own food and drought-resistant landscapes in their front yards.

If Kerridge really wants a city for the next generation, young activists hope he’ll incorporate their concerns about global climate change and environmentalism into the downtown as well.