Everything I know about K Street …

… I learned from Jane Jacobs

The K Street scene reflected in an empty storefront window between Ninth and 10th streets.

The K Street scene reflected in an empty storefront window between Ninth and 10th streets.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Until her death on April 25, Jane Jacobs, that passionate city critic, charmed countless city planners into shaping urban areas directly to her specifications. Vibrant urban districts were to act like self-contained ecological systems nurturing shops, residences, nightclubs and even industries in their little protected nooks and crannies. Healthy districts were to fill spaces big and small with entrepreneurial chutzpah. Providing safety and comfort, residents with roots were to watch over the comings and goings of the human parade. And these areas were to resist egotistical city planners who wanted to divide and design and define and relentlessly micromanage them into smithereens.

Even after 45 years, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs’ first and most famous book, still reads like one big passionate war whoop against bad city planning—that drive to turn every street with a personality into one monolithic, monochromatic entity with no room for the big ideas of small-business people.

As city leaders consider so many defining projects for K Street, Jacobs would beg them to consider why lots of local attention and lots of local dollars have failed so far to produce a lively, mixed-use district.

If K Street were developed as a commercial district exclusively, it would continue to wither. As nothing but an entertainment district, it would suffer the same fate. If transformed into block after block of condos, exclusively, that too would fail. The main ingredient in all these bad ideas is the belief that one big, cohesive unit trumps lots of little diverse ones.

Jacobs’ ideal was New York City’s Greenwich Village, which once supported a 24-hour public ballet of round-bellied shop owners holding keys and packages for the neighbors, residents minding each other’s children from tenement windows and noisy bar-hoppers feeding the area’s round-the-clock energy. Residents, workers, shoppers and visitors crossed paths day and night in a frenetic messy street scene.

“In downtowns, the lack of sufficient primary mixture is usually the most serious basic handicap,” she wrote.

In a healthy ecology like Greenwich Village, new shops and studios sprang up like little organisms in abandoned spaces. Left alone, the neighborhood achieved a kind of stasis that was anything but static. It was, instead, the constant ebb and flow of users that the tide washed in, and the tide washed out.

City planning has learned a lot from Jacobs’ sentimental musings, and Sacramento has taken her wisdom to heart. We’re pretty proud of our central city these days, luring suburban types down into Midtown after dark, and building them lofts, and providing them with valets, and offering them an ever growing number of sushi options. But that wide, un-drivable strip of K Street that runs between two banks of monumental old buildings refuses to be reinvigorated by one IMAX and one Esquire Grill. K Street’s grandeur is still there under the “for lease” signs, but whole blocks have sat dormant for years while city leaders have tried on various redevelopment plans and then discarded them, as if nothing in their closet fit quite right.

There are those that would blame K Street’s grittiness, but that’s really part of its charm. There’s nothing inherently wrong with its proximity to the bus station or the residential hotels. But without other users laying claim to its streets and sidewalks day and night, K Street is out of balance, an unhealthy ecosystem. Jacobs would take one look and immediately point out what was missing: residences.

“Densities are too low or too high when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it,” said Jacobs, who liked to hold up the dense North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco as an ideal—100 dwelling units to the net acre. Of course, this was in 1961, when the beat poets could still afford the rent.

Housing, with a nod to low-cost options, has been on the city’s downtown agenda for years. It’s difficult to keep track of the many towers, full of hundreds of condos, seemingly ready to shoot up out of the rumbling earth. But K Street is already full of beautiful, convertible buildings.

New plans for the Seventh Street and Eighth Street blocks do include some housing, but the city and the developers seem to envision them as an extension of the mall, with chains like Z Gallerie and Urban Outfitters offering familiar goods on blocks now featuring completely unique independent businesses. If anything, this plan goes against Jacobs’ preference for little guys with big ideas.

“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts,” wrote Jacobs. “It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man.”

On K Street, there are no residents, and the grocer has gone out of business. You can still see the California Harvest sign on his empty storefront between 10th and 11th streets. Next to it, the Capitol Clothing Co. has also shut down. On the same block, two more huge buildings are vacant. One still shows the shadow of “Woolworth’s” on its facade.

As you go west on K, huge former state buildings take up valuable real estate but sit empty. In beautiful old buildings, graceful showcase windows sit bare, and grand entryways with ancient retailers’ names embedded in the stone are covered in flies attracted to the smell of urine.

Pedestrians promenade up and down the street, but these are 9-to-5 inhabitants. At night, the streetscape is dominated by the slow trudge of a few people with no particular place to be.

Jacobs’ top priority for a healthy city district was diversity: “The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.”

As Jacobs said, a city district doesn’t need to be unsafe to repel visitors; it just needs to appear that way. “The bedrock attribute of a successful city district,” said Jacobs, “is that a person feels personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers.”

On K Street, during the dark hours, there are hardly any strangers at all, and the ones you encounter make you feel anything but safe.

“Sidewalks must have users fairly continuously,” said Jacobs. “Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street.”

Jacobs said that anytime you see an old building redesigned and reused, you’re seeing the end result of years’ worth of preservation work.

Levinson’s Books once inhabited an odd little building with a peaked roof tucked halfway between K and J streets on 10th Street. The building survived and was recently redesigned as a new café offering Wi-Fi. Now, people stand on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes and attracting other curious night owls.

And on K Street proper, young restaurateurs have turned an old Chinese-food place into a quaint little corridor of a cafe for pasta and omelets. On a warm afternoon, in the narrow open kitchen of Osteria, Neil Ellis grilled panini while a waitress served big bowls of pasta with roasted red potatoes on the side.

The city helped the Ellises by providing about 10 percent of the costs of their redesign, he said. The lunch business is brisk, but the hours before and after are still frustratingly slow. In the year-and-a-half the restaurant’s been open, said Ellis, nothing else has changed on his block of K Street. He’s watched the city hatch plan after plan.

“It seems like it’s a question of guts,” said Ellis.

Jacobs would be proud. She would love the way the Ellises literally carved out their own niche, and she’d probably love the Toyroom Gallery further west on K. She’d love Bonehead Tattoo, which has stretched out on the second floor of a building between Seventh and Eighth streets, and she’d probably applaud the spirited reuse of Serlof and Co., a men’s clothier that has shoved its stock to the side and fitted in a mini market. With smoothie machines installed among the dress shirts and ties, a candy counter at the entrance and refrigerators for drinks, Serlof’s adapted to the dip in men’s suit sales.

The store still opens at 6 a.m., said Dee, who manages the candy counter. That’s when those in town for meetings come looking for a tie or a pair of slacks, whatever they forgot to pack.

Dee is one of those “public characters” whom Jacobs is so fond of. She keeps her eyes on the street, she knows her regular customers, and she’s become a direct observer of the public ballet on her own sidewalk. She’s not so optimistic about the future, though.

“Turning this into corporate America,” she said, “is going to detract a lot from the general ambience that you get down here.”

Jacobs would agree: “Wherever lively and popular parts of cities are found, the small much outnumber the large.”

That’s why, among Jacobs’ criteria for healthy cities, we find this gem: “The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.”

And you must have residents, lots and lots of residents. “There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people. … This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.”

This issue with residences is hard to tackle on a street where cars can’t pass, there’s no parking, and the streets are uncomfortably empty at night. But in spite of the challenges, Paul Petrovich wants to build two stories of condominiums above the Rite Aid at K and Ninth streets. Unfortunately, signs hang from the gorgeous arched windows: “Due to construction mismanagement by Walsh and Forster, Inc., this residential urban infill project has been delayed over a year.”

Those 34 units were going to be the first housing options on K Street, said Petrovich, who’s in litigation with the builder.

The delay is a real pity, especially since the gradual development of housing options is the one plan that Jacobs would heartily salute on K Street. She might even see it as the key to K Street’s salvation.