City planning is the new black

Everyone who’s anyone wants to design a livable environment

Urban alchemists Wendy Carter and Lisa Nelson want to bring community-driven redevelopment to Alkali Flat.

Urban alchemists Wendy Carter and Lisa Nelson want to bring community-driven redevelopment to Alkali Flat.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If you’ve been enticed by the recent explosion in neighborhood groups, public advisory boards and development workshops, you’re not alone. Sacramentans are diving into the public planning process like never before, eager to have a voice in the future of Sacramento’s redevelopment, especially with plans for downtown condo towers and K Street and the Union Pacific rail yards constantly under discussion.

With so much energy around the big question of what to do with Sacramento, many groups are embracing the new urbanism, a trend toward redeveloping central-city spaces, protecting their historic character and turning them into walkable mixed-use districts.

“We are committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and the making of community, through citizen-based participatory planning and design,” explains Chicago’s Congress for the New Urbanism.

In Sacramento, groups are a mix of professionals and novices. The Urban Design Alliance, for instance, calls itself a “collaboration of citizens and design professionals dedicated to shaping the urban form and quality of their city.”

Other groups are managed by people who are still in college.

Wendy Carter is one of the original board members for Alchemist, a community-development corporation in Sacramento focusing on Alkali Flat, one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the city. The nonprofit corporation grew out of class projects for UC Davis’ community-and-regional-development graduate program.

“We saw all this development happening, and not happening,” said Carter, sitting outside a diner on the corner of 12th and F streets.

Across the street, a huge, neglected historic building continued to shed paint chips in spite of the fact that 12th Street has been targeted for redevelopment for decades.

According to Carter, the neighborhood is in favor of mixed-use projects but wants development that fits into the current historic fabric. Residents want higher-density housing and ground-floor retail along the 12th Street commercial corridor. Carter’s already envisioning a community-owned cafe and a market with fresh produce, maybe even a cooperative, on the bottom floors of those large neglected buildings.

A document from the Alkali Flat Neighborhood Improvement Association recently referred to 12th Street as a listed City Preservation Area: “However, due to its loss of streetscape, the area no longer qualifies for listing on the National Register. … The local community has attempted for over 25 years to revitalize the 12th Street business corridor for neighborhood support and services but has yet to succeed.”

Dominated by the La Valentina light-rail station and tracks running to and from downtown, 12th Street seems like a sacrifice to the transportation needs of the city. But an influx of energy from active neighborhood groups, including Alchemist, could give the area new life. In May, Alchemist hosted a neighborhood workshop introducing the community to a new tool for transforming Alkali Flat into a new urbanist’s dream: form-based zoning codes.

The difference between current zoning and form-based zoning rests on one word: use. Currently, a planned building’s use matters more than its design. In form-based codes, the public space created by the buildings, the combination of design and form, is primary. Use is secondary.

For languishing areas like Alkali Flat, city Planning Manager David Kwong said the first step would be to “determine what the built environment is already.” An inventory of existing buildings and traditional architecture would be used to develop a zoning code for appropriate infill.

Form-based zoning codes are used differently in areas planning complete overhauls, like the rail yards. Sean Wright, president of the Alkali and Mansion Flats Historic Neighborhood Association, said that form-based zoning would allow the surrounding community to choose a theme—“maybe a quaint type of design, like an Old West town.” Or, he said, the community could go modern and envision a mini-Vancouver. Codes would be developed to prescriptively guide architectural design, density, building setbacks and parking strategies. Developers would know exactly what they could and couldn’t build.

In hopes of experimenting with this new strategy, the city of Sacramento set aside $60,000 for a pre-test, said Bill Crouch, Sacramento’s new urban-design manager. Alkali Flat petitioned to be an experimental subject, but it has competition. Active neighborhood groups in East Sacramento and Oak Park are also interested.

Though the process has bogged down in recent weeks, Kwong said the city is just about to release a request for proposals.

Though form-based codes provide a zoning tool for creating harmonious districts, they aren’t exactly a cure-all.

The city of Petaluma recently used form-based codes to redesign 400 acres adjacent to the historic downtown. Recently, Michael Moore, Petaluma’s community-development director, wrote an article for Northern News called “Form-based zoning is not the (whole) answer.”

“We find developers unwilling or unable to build what is envisioned by the plan and ‘smart code,’” reads the article, “because of compelling market forces—not enough parking; insufficient retail demand; construction costs that restrict building form, placement and height.”

By phone, Moore said, “The notion is really that you just adopt one of these things and get all these great developments. … It doesn’t really create a different environment in terms of what the market is driving.”

And Alkali Flat has already had trouble attracting new development. A condo project that would have brought 34 condos onto 12th Street was recently scrapped because the developer worried about a softening market and vibrations from the light-rail line, according to Angela Jones of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

Crouch is still hopeful. He sees Alkali Flat as a unique city district, one that is just starting to generate new excitement.

“I think it’s been waiting to be discovered, hasn’t it?” said Crouch. “It takes time for people to get excited. … In a way, I’m pleased development didn’t happen too quickly. We could have been caught off guard.”

If Alkali Flat is chosen for the pre-test, the neighborhood’s new urban planners won’t be caught off guard. Carter said Alchemist is already planning a second workshop, hopefully for early July, so that residents, including planners and architects, can really begin exploring the possibilities for designing their own built environment.