City of promise

Uninspired no more. By incorporating the region's history and natural charms, local designers, planners and architects strive to redefine Sacramento's urban identity.

illustration By Hayley Doshay

When Kimberly Garza entered a local urban-design competition two years ago, she knew exactly what made Sacramento stand out.

Not the generic high-rise buildings around the state Capitol. And not the ribbons of concrete freeways encircling the grid.

Instead, Garza saw a forest of promise in the city’s trees. And so, along with a partner, she drafted a plan to expand Sacto’s distinctive urban canopy into Capitol Mall and onto the riverfront.

Garza’s entry won first place—and sparked a debate about the city’s identity. Some critics believed the competition’s jury should have chosen a design with more iconic architecture. Others said Sacto should dream a little bigger and shed its reputation as an overgrown valley town.

Still, others agreed with Garza, who thinks the city’s urban designers should work with what they have.

“We were creating several spaces where people want to go, rather than a landmark,” said Garza, a Natomas native and landscape architect who now lives in Boston. “We were definitely playing up to what Sacramento is known for.”

But there’s just one question: What exactly is Sacramento known for?

On one hand, the city’s architecture has a reputation for being, frankly, a little drab. Sacto’s skyline supposedly suffers from a dearth of sexy buildings, unlike bigger metros, such as San Francisco or Portland, Ore., that bristle with innovative high-rises. Sure, Sacramento has the California state Capitol—peeking from behind a glass and steel curtain of downtown office buildings—and the Tower Bridge, but few modern structures that really pop out.

“There aren’t many buildings in Sacramento that will make it into the history books,” said Simon Sadler, a professor of architectural and urban history at UC Davis.

Then again, Sadler and a few others think the city might be distinguished in other areas of urban design. History, the natural climate and surrounding landscape have all helped to create an urban identity that’s distinctly Sacramento—and yet, often goes unnoticed.

Sactown, underrated? In architecture, it just might be true.

Still, believe it or not, the grid’s architecture was pretty hip back in the day.

Between 1850 and the 1930s, Sacramento’s downtown neighborhoods sported a distinctive look. During the late 19th century, gold-rush pioneers built distinctive “high-water”—also called “Delta style”—Victorian homes and bungalows on raised foundations in case the American and Sacramento rivers flooded downtown. And early 20th-century architects also made use of local building materials, especially terra-cotta from the Lincoln-based clay manufacturer, Gladding, McBean. Especially during the Roaring ’20s, real-estate tycoons built hundreds of beautiful brick and terra-cotta structures in Sacramento, such as the Elks Tower Sacramento, City Hall, the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, the Sacramento City Library, Weinstock’s department store and the Southern Pacific Railroad station.

The city’s landscape of glamorous terra-cotta buildings and graceful Delta-style homes once made Sacto feel like a true metropolis. And then, the city demolished hundreds of homes to build boring office towers and apartments along Capitol Mall.

“If you look at pictures of K Street before the second World War, it almost looks like Manhattan,” said Sadler.

Local flacks finally realized what they had, restoring Old Town in the late 1960s and passing a preservation law in 1975.

Jerry Brown also got elected. Riding a wave of 1970s counterculture, the governor packed the state architect’s office with mavericks to revamp the stagnant Capitol district.

One of those designers was Peter Calthorpe. In the world of architecture and urban design, Calthorpe is sort of a big deal. Years after working in Sacramento, he wrote a book called The Next American Metropolis which became the bible for “New Urbanism,” a radical approach to sustainable development.

“If you look at the ingredients of New Urbanism,” Sadler said, “it’s about recovering the architecture of the past, like Victorian-looking houses; and it’s about building tree canopies and making walkable neighborhoods.”

Ring a bell, gridsters?

In fact, Sacto’s historic districts inspired Calthorpe’s designs in the 1970s. The designer realized that the city’s gold rush- and Victorian-era structures took advantage of the area’s mild climate by using basic ventilation techniques, lots of shade and denser building materials to stay more energy efficient. “These are all attributes that the historic buildings in Sacramento used to do,” Calthorpe said.

The architect eventually helped design some of the country’s first green office buildings right here in Sacramento.

“This was a pretty bold social experiment that was going on the in ’70s and ’80s,” said Sadler.

At the same time, downtown was starting to perk up. Victorian homes and eco-friendly buildings were starting to seem distinctly Sacto.

The skyline, on the other hand, still needed work.

To that end, local developers started building new midlevel high-rises in the 1980s. Most of these structures, like the U.S. Bank Tower on Capitol Mall, stand between 20 and 30 stories tall.

Sure, they’re modern and nice, but iconic? Nah. Sacramento’s contemporary structures haven’t done much to stand out from other cities, critics say.

Things could have been different. In 2007, a gaggle of local developers had at least four sexy projects floating around town, like the twin towers on Capitol Mall or the Manhattan-sized Capitol Grand Tower proposed for 12th and J streets.

“That would have sort of been a game changer,” said Sadler. “We’ve tanked completely on those.”

Developers scrapped those plans when the housing market crashed a few years back. So the city’s visionaries rebooted and tried something else. In 2011, Sacramento hosted the Catalyst Capitol Mall Design Competition, a program to spice up the boring boulevard leading to California’s statehouse.

“It’s kind of been a no-man’s-land,” said Kris Barkley, a local architect who oversaw the design competition. “It’s just a big strip of grass. It’s not very usable for public events.”

More than 50 student designers from around the world entered the contest. Garza, the Natomas native, took first place with her urban-forest plan. “I think the city grid itself is very strong and distinct,” she said. “I think Sacramento, in that regard, is so pedestrian-friendly and walkable.”

Like Garza, Sadler also believes that Sacramento’s distinctive features include affordable and accessible urban design rather than towering steel skylines.

“It’s sort of in that sweet spot, insofar that it remains one of the nicest and affordable cities in California,” said Sadler.

Last October, local designers from the American Institute of Architects hosted the Central Valley Region Architecture Festival to encourage discussion about the capital’s buildings. The festival featured workshops and tours of the city’s vintage and modern landmarks, including the stately Elks Tower and two modern water facilities on the Sacramento River.

Kimberly Anderson, executive director of the Central Valley chapter of AIA, said they are planning another festival later this year and possibly a separate symposium on Sacto’s architectural identity. Meanwhile, Barkley wants to create a task force to brainstorm new urban designs for the city, using the most notable concepts—including Garza’s plan—from the Catalyst competition.

The overarching goal, Anderson said, is progress.

“I think you should always remember your roots, but you also have to think about moving forward.”