Boulevard dreams

Franklin Boulevard has always had a certain gritty charm, but can it become Sacramento’s newest urban destination?

The North Franklin District Business Association’s Kathy Tescher and South Sacramento Pharmacy owner Frank Cable hope Franklin Boulevard will become the city’s newest urban destination.

The North Franklin District Business Association’s Kathy Tescher and South Sacramento Pharmacy owner Frank Cable hope Franklin Boulevard will become the city’s newest urban destination.

Photo By Anne Stokes

In 1986, The Sacramento Union called Franklin Boulevard the ugliest street in Sacramento. It was deemed too neglected, too cluttered, with a rat’s nest of old telephone and electric lines hanging over cracked sidewalks. Even today, there’s little landscaping or shade along the street, and the few old ash trees left standing are full of mistletoe.

In the intervening years, some things have changed on Franklin. The tangled overhead lines have been buried underground, and many of the storefronts have been spruced up. New sidewalks have been poured in some places. Nevertheless, the boulevard continues to lack the modern businesses and services many Sacramento neighborhoods take for granted.

For example, there is no major bank and no dry cleaner on the street. No Safeway, no McDonald’s. As Kathy Tescher, executive director of the North Franklin District Business Association, points out, “We have no parks.”

What Franklin has is a diverse, close-knit network of small, independent business owners, providing products and services that recall a simpler time, before the era of supermarkets and big-box stores. La Esperanza Bakery has been in business on Franklin for 40 years. Morant’s Old-Fashioned Sausage Kitchen coexists happily with Red’s Plumbing Supply, Scott’s Burger Shack and Silver Star Noodle Company. Tescher puts out a quarterly newsletter, The District Link, which is printed in both English and Spanish.

As the association’s only paid staff member, Tescher lobbies local officials and drums up support for new projects on the boulevard. The association’s dreams for the boulevard are ambitious, to say the least.

“Our five-year vision is to become Sacramento’s newest urban destination,” Tescher explains. The vision is starting to materialize on the stretch of Franklin just south of Broadway that runs alongside Curtis Park. Tescher calls it “the new Franklin.” Here, four years ago, Michael Madsen decided to open the first coffee shop in the area, the Coffee Garden. On a typical weekday morning, it’s packed with McGeorge School of Law students and other regulars pecking away at laptops. Indoors is cozy, but more impressive is the sprawling back patio, chock-full of plants and tables.

“It’s changed a lot since we got here,” Madsen says. While nearby Gunther’s Ice Cream is a neighborhood institution going back years, new restaurants are opening on the block. “There used to be drug dealers across the street,” he continues. “We don’t have that anymore. There’s a lot more foot traffic, day and night.”

In a short time, the Coffee Garden has become a real community space. There’s an open-mic night on Thursdays, and the shop recently hosted a memorial service for one of its regulars. In March, it will serve as a wedding venue.

About a year and a half ago, Madsen opened the Tangent art gallery next door, establishing a new southern frontier for Second Saturday art walks. Tescher wants to bring more art to the boulevard, including along the “old” Franklin, south of Sutterville Road, the Franklin Boulevard Redevelopment Project Area.

Franklin is one of 12 redevelopment areas administered by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. It was formed in 1992, but as redevelopment zones go, it doesn’t get a lot of attention. The downtown redevelopment area, with its heated politics, and Florin Road, with its high-value auto dealers and big-box stores, are more likely to make the news and grab the attention of City Hall.

The construction of Highway 99 during the 1960s was a damaging blow to Franklin. The freeway cut the neighborhood off from Oak Park and diverted commercial traffic away from the businesses there. Franklin suffered more as the workforce at the Campbell’s Soup plant (at Franklin and 47th Avenue) began to shrink.

At one time, up to 3,000 workers manned the plant at peak times, said Lorna Warrington, the former CEO of the Campbell Employees Federal Credit Union. Today, the number is much lower, about 500 people during the busy season. As the workforce shrank, Warrington said, the credit union struggled. “There just weren’t enough people to be viable anymore,” she said. In 2007, the little credit union merged with the Sacramento Credit Union. It’s still the only bank on the street.

The shrinking factory workforce affected other businesses as well.

“It used to be that a big percentage of my customers had Campbell’s Soup insurance cards,” said Frank Cable, owner of South Sacramento Pharmacy and president of the Franklin Boulevard Business Association.

In 1993, Campbell’s Soup threatened to leave town altogether. The city and county worked out a deal letting Campbell’s keep a portion of its taxes to reinvest in its own plant. As a redevelopment area, any growth in sales taxes or property taxes on Franklin Boulevard are supposed to be reinvested into the area, instead of going into the city and county coffers.

But the Campbell’s deal was a blow to the newborn redevelopment area—a loss of about $500,000 every year, according to SHRA officials. The other major landowner in the area, St. Rose Catholic Church, doesn’t pay into the redevelopment kitty, either.

On the other hand, the boulevard, and the city, may have fared worse if Campbell’s had left. Tescher says the company has been more generous of late; it recently donated $20,000 toward construction of a new community center on 41st Avenue. The center will provide a program for day laborers in the area, including a safe place for them to gather in the mornings before work. It will also include a community health clinic, a GED program for Mexican nationals, youth-counseling services and even a “kitchen incubator” for caterers and other entrepreneurs. There, participants can take advantage of a clean, safe kitchen as well as technical assistance to help grow their business.

The residential areas around Franklin once provided housing for the Campbell’s workers. Today, Tescher says homeownership rates are much lower than in other neighborhoods. So low, in fact, that there is no neighborhood association in the area.

Most of the houses in the neighborhoods are modest, 1950s models. The fortunes of the neighborhoods vary from street to street. One street boasts yards as tidy as anything on Land Park Drive. On another street, someone has spray-painted a big black “XIV” on the side of a house. On 26th Avenue, one of the many vacant lots in the area has sprouted a community garden.

Slowly but surely, Franklin is being remade. Commercial rents are reasonable, and there are few vacant storefronts anymore. In the last two years, $6 million have been spent on new sidewalks, bike lanes, curbs and other “streetscape” improvements. Tescher says the district has aggressively encouraged local businesses to take advantage of the “facade grants” to refurbish aging storefronts. Indeed, Franklin might finally get its first park. The SHRA is in the process of buying property at 21st Avenue and Franklin Boulevard for a new 2-acre park and cultural plaza, which will include green space and space for a farmers’ market and other events.

But the deeper problems running through this stretch of the boulevard—poverty, crime and lack of resources—aren’t going to be so easy to pave over.

“The neighborhood is getting bad,” says Joan Borowski, who volunteers at the St. Patrick’s Thrift Store, run by the St. Rose’s Catholic Church. She says the store has been hit twice by taggers in the last month, “from the gangs.” She’s been robbed twice while working in the thrift shop. Sacramento Sheriff’s Deputy Vu Nguyen was fatally shot in the neighborhood a year ago, allegedly by a 17-year-old gang member.

The extent of the crime problem partly depends on where you are on the boulevard. Jimmy Dart, who works at Bike Builders, a used bike store and repair shop a few blocks north of St. Patrick’s, says he doesn’t have many problems. Then again, the shop isn’t far from a police substation. In spite of the problems, the boulevard and its eclectic assortment of unique small businesses—the tortilla factory next to the Mexican grocery store, the funky costume shop at the north end of the street—continues to exude a gritty charm, even if it tends to go unnoticed.

“Sometimes you’ll see we’re like a little blip on the radar,” Dart said. “Mostly it seems people are focused downtown.”

Tescher and Cable say City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond has been a strong advocate for the boulevard, but they believe the extreme focus on downtown has left their neighborhood out of the loop. Cable is hopeful that Mayor Kevin Johnson’s campaign promise to create a “city that works for everyone” will be good for the boulevard.

He has some reason to think the mayor might look fondly on the neighborhood. In happier economic times, the annual Little League parade marched right down Franklin Boulevard. Cable recalls one of the kids marching along was none other than Kevin Johnson. “We think he’s on the same page,” Cable says. “So we’re hopeful.”