Extreme makeover

The power brokers want a mega-project like the Kings’ arena. But some architects and builders see more housing in our future and a city with character.

Imagineering Sacramento: architect Ron Vrilakas in front of one of his loft projects on 15th Street.

Imagineering Sacramento: architect Ron Vrilakas in front of one of his loft projects on 15th Street.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“I am really very tired of hearing about the Kings,” Tony Giannoni said with a laugh, settling down at a large conference table in his Meridian Plaza office building overlooking Capitol Park.

For two months now, Giannoni has been the point man for an ambitious proposal to build a “sports and entertainment complex” at Seventh and K streets, in the heart of Sacramento.

The plan has been flogged in the press (including SN&R) as a public giveaway of funds to the very wealthy Maloof family, the folks who own the Sacramento Kings. Hardly anyone calls it a “sports and entertainment complex.” It’s known as the “downtown arena” in most people’s minds. And it is on many voters’ minds, given the amounts of public money being proposed. The city would have to come up with anywhere from $200 million to $500 million to get it done. But try to see it as Giannoni and his colleagues see it. It’s not about building an arena for a wealthy sports team. It’s about remaking downtown for the future.

“This whole notion of ‘subsidizing billionaires’ is one we look at in a little different light,” Giannoni explained. “If the city gets some substantial benefit out of it, we’re OK with it. We would sleep at night.”

The public benefit would be the creation of what he calls a truly “regional downtown.” It would be a place that would draw millions more sightseers and shoppers, tourists and concertgoers, from around the region, the Sacramento Valley and beyond, into downtown. He believes the arena, or entertainment complex, would stoke the development of shops, restaurants, housing, museums and theaters.

Alas, Giannoni has had little luck so far in talking to people about the regional downtown or his ideas about the future of the central city and how it will appear two decades from now. “As hard as we try,” Giannoni complained, “all we get asked about is the arena.”

On July 27, the Sacramento City Council will decide whether to go forward with a November ballot measure, asking Sacramento voters to give their opinion on the downtown-arena proposal. Although Giannoni hopes the council will put the question on the ballot, that leaves little time for any meaningful discussion of how an arena at Seventh and K might, or might not, help revitalize downtown—or what alternatives there might be to such a large and costly project.

Does Sacramento really need some major attraction—if not an arena, then something else big—to become the place we want it to be in the year 2025? Giannoni and other prominent developers and businessmen who are backing the arena complex will tell you yes, absolutely. And they may be right.

But SN&R also has talked to others—architects, developers and urban planners—who have some equally ambitious, but very different, ideas for remaking downtown.

Architect Greg Taylor near the water sculpture/traffic median on 13th Street.

Photo By Larry Dalton

For less than it would cost to build a downtown arena, they say, Sacramento could invest in an array of housing, transportation and public-space projects that would help Sacramento become—as one prominent architect put it—a place of “character and soul.”

And before we commit to any one mega-project, these urban thinkers believe we should hold a citywide “therapy session” on the future of downtown.

It’s a discussion you are not likely to hear at City Hall this summer or see in your ballot books this fall.

Where are we going

What have we thought

How are we loving

What we have wrought

So reads the inscription around the base of the sculpture and water fountain in the middle of 13th Street at the west end of the Sacramento Convention Center.

Perhaps you’ve seen it, or part of it. It features a cluster of floating, disembodied heads, which appear to be either submerging into or surfacing from the waters of the fountain. The inscription itself is partially hidden by the fountain’s perpetual waterfall and can be difficult to read, especially when you are driving by at 25 mph.

“To me, it sums up the problem perfectly,” said architect Greg Taylor. “Here you have this wonderful sculpture that really deserves to be enjoyed—to have people spend time around it. And they made it into a traffic median.”

Developer Tony Giannoni at his Meridian Plaza on L Street.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Taylor is an ardent preservationist and an advocate for downtown housing. He helped lead the effort to keep passenger-train operations in the historic rail depot on I Street, and he battled the state over the now-notorious East End Project—the massive state office complex that wiped out several blocks of housing and businesses next to Capitol Park. Taylor and others still grumble about that project, which he says created an urban dead zone around what was once a viable neighborhood.

Taylor also is a big proponent of quality public space, and he doesn’t love much of what Sacramento has wrought in its downtown in the last 20 years, including the area of the Convention Center and K Street. Taylor thinks city leaders, in pursuit of the big project, often lose sight of the little things that make for great urban places. “It’s all about public space down here, and so often it’s just not thought through at all,” he said.

Plenty has been written about whether Sacramento ought to finance a sports arena. Entire books have been written about the economics of such venues, and most of the literature concludes that the buildings, by themselves, are money losers for the cities that build them. But as tools to bring blighted areas back to life, to attract visitors and spur other kinds of development, the track record is more mixed. Indianapolis and Denver often are presented as successful examples of this type of revitalization strategy.

Most of the debate in Sacramento has been around the financing of an arena, and its supposed financial benefit (or lack thereof). Taylor and others worry just as much about what an arena would do to the urban fabric of downtown. It would take out part of the Downtown Plaza mall and the 100-year-old Marshall Hotel, one of the few single-room-occupancy hotels left in the central city. And Taylor and others think the new arena building would be drastically out of scale compared with the surrounding neighborhood.

But let’s assume, as Giannoni, Mayor Heather Fargo and even Taylor and many others do, that some significant public investment in Sacramento’s built environment is appropriate for the purposes of “revitalizing” downtown, of creating a vibrant, quality place for the future. The real questions, Taylor said, are: Where are we going? What have we thought?

“I, for one, think we ought to spend public money in the public realm,” Taylor explained: on housing, transportation and bona fide public spaces. Comparing the arena proposal with the “public realm” approach of Taylor and others, one begins to see two distinctly different strategies for transforming downtown.

The downtown arena has been the big idea for revitalizing downtown for nearly five years now, ever since Fargo first floated the idea while campaigning for mayor. In fact, more than any other single issue, Fargo’s tenure as mayor seems inextricably tied up with the question of whether the city should pursue a publicly funded sports arena.

Many City Hall observers say Fargo is afraid that the Kings will leave on her watch if they don’t get the city’s help in funding a new arena. Others point to Fargo’s connection with political consultant Richie Ross, who also worked as a consultant to the Maloof family.

But that doesn’t explain Fargo’s tenacity in pursuing a downtown arena. It is clear that she sees such a project as a powerful redevelopment tool, a sort of Apollo Program for downtown. She has always said that North Natomas was a thoughtless place to put an arena. Out in the Natomas floodplain, there is no public transit, and there are few shops or restaurants in the area. The current arena is in the middle of nowhere and does not interact with much.

Her tours of cities that have built downtown arenas have convinced her that arenas are mighty blight removers and downtown jump-starters.

Aerial and ground views of the proposed sports and entertainment complex at Seventh and K streets.

Courtesy Of Tony Giannoni

The project, as it is proposed now, would feature an arena to serve as the new home of the Sacramento Kings, but as Giannoni has stressed several times, it also would be a venue for scores of other events—ice shows, concerts and conventions—throughout the year. And a ring of shops and restaurants outside the arena is proposed to be built as part of the project.

In the past, the political will for subsidizing an arena with tax dollars just hasn’t been there. Fargo’s proposal to build an arena that would jump-start redevelopment of the rail yards north of downtown fell through when the financing plan left taxpayers footing too much of the bill.

This time around, Fargo has recruited a prominent group of downtown developers and businessmen to shepherd the arena proposal: David Taylor, Dave Bugatto, Giannoni and Randy Paragary. Most of the “Fargo Four,” as some stories have dubbed them, have played powerful roles in shaping the central city in recent years.

Giannoni’s Meridian Plaza building near the corner of 15th and L streets is a striking example of this new downtown. It looms over its smaller, funkier neighbor, which houses the Capitol Garage cafe, Beers Books used bookstore and Esoteric Records. All of these businesses will have to relocate soon; the new landlord is rumored to have plans for a high-end restaurant. Giannoni already is planning a second Meridian building on an adjacent lot and soon will begin construction on a Marriott hotel on the northeast corner of 15th and L.

Giannoni said that the Meridian, the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel (built by David Taylor) and the Esquire Grill (owned by Paragary) all were made possible by an earlier, very costly and very controversial big project: the Sacramento Convention Center. Completed in the early 1990s, the expansion cost $80 million and took out the old Merrium Hotel, which had been turned into an apartment building. Like the East End Project, the Convention Center has been criticized for tearing out old urban fabric and creating new dead space, especially in the evenings. But some, like Giannoni, credit the project with sparking new retail and office development.

“And I think we can do on the west end of K Street what the Convention Center has done on the east end,” he added.

Giannoni noted that the suburbs are growing as fast as ever, building their own shopping malls and even their own downtowns. Millions of dollars in sales taxes are being spent out there in suburbia while downtown Sacramento struggles to maintain its hold as the region’s economic and cultural capital.

“Sacramento is the heart of the region, and we want people to come to our heart and spend their money,” he said. And to do that, he explained, downtown needs a very powerful attractor. If the K Street sports and entertainment complex fails, Giannoni said, he’ll still be looking for some kind of attraction, something to significantly boost foot traffic downtown.

“If you can tell me something else that will bring two-and-a-half million people to K Street, I’d like to hear what it is,” he said.

This was almost the exact same conclusion offered up by the Downtown Partnership and the Downtown Development Group this spring, when these groups pushed two multiplex-theater projects on K Street, along with a remodeling of Downtown Plaza.

The arena project could include a significant chunk of new shops and restaurants, as in this artist’s rendition seen from Seventh and L streets.

Courtesy Of Tony Giannoni

History suggests there’s an endless appetite for big projects in the central city. If K Street doesn’t get an arena, perhaps it will get a multiplex cinema. Or perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, Downtown Plaza will undergo another major remodeling.

The problem is that “the big-project approach hasn’t worked,” said architect Ron Vrilakas.

“We’re always one project away from rescuing K Street,” said Vrilakas, who, like the Fargo Four, also has had a hand in transforming downtown. One can hardly turn a corner in the central city without seeing one of his urban-infill projects under construction. He designed the mixed-use project that is going up now at 18th and L streets. The Zocalo restaurant and loft apartments that will open soon on Capitol Avenue were designed and developed by Vrilakas. Perhaps his most high-profile work is on the corner of 16th and J, where an old auto dealership was converted into a Mikuni restaurant and several high-end loft apartments.

Vrilakas said that despite several multimillion-dollar projects to revive K Street, starting with the remodeling of Downtown Plaza and the creation of the car-free pedestrian mall there, the addition of light rail and the expansion of the Sacramento Convention Center—and even the recent construction of the IMAX Theatre and Esquire Grill—city leaders have yet to really figure out how to bring the entire stretch back to life.

“We’ve failed miserably at making it a place of character and soul,” Vrilakas said. He added, “It’s not an urban experience; it’s the shell of an urban experience.”

Part of the problem, Vrilakas said, is that on K Street, Sacramento forgot the basics of how great cities are put together. “What makes a great city is great neighborhoods, and what makes a great neighborhood is great main streets, with all kinds of different uses, where people of all different walks of life choose to go to shop, live and work.”

Cities like San Francisco have several of these vibrant neighborhood main streets. The most obvious, like Castro or Haight, are certainly “mixed-use” streets, where people live, work and play. Others—like 24th Street running through Noe Valley, or Valencia Street in the Mission District—are more subdued but feature a mix of housing and services that provide for people’s everyday needs, as well as unique shops, clubs and other spaces that draw people in from outside the area.

It’s really not that complicated, Vrilakas said. It is the way good main streets in big cities and small towns have operated for decades. But instead of getting back to basics, “we’ve always saved it up for the big splash,” he said.

Rather than searching for a magic bullet, Vrilakas said, the city might have been much better off had it spent the decade getting 50 apartments per year built on and around K Street.

It might not sound as dramatic as a multiplex cinema or a shiny new arena, but the effect of even 500 more apartments—and Vrilakas thinks the city could be much more aggressive than that—in that area today would be significant. “What might K Street look like today? What kind of retail and other uses would you see there now? I think it could look something like Portland’s Pearl District or San Diego’s Gas Lamp district.”

A public-space odyssey: This sketch by Greg Taylor shows how the sculpture at the west end of the Sacramento Convention Center might have been used as an entry to a public amphitheater. He believes the intersection still could be retrofitted to create better public space.

Courtesy Of Greg Taylor

Not that anybody is actually opposed to building more housing downtown. In fact, it is the one redevelopment strategy that seems to have almost universal appeal.

“We aren’t done yet,” explained Fargo. Whether there’s an arena on K Street, or anywhere else downtown, Fargo said, “my hopes are to continue to enliven K Street and our entire downtown by adding residents, by adding retail and adding places of entertainment, and hopefully recreating a lively downtown for everybody to enjoy, whether they live there, work there or just visit.”

But so far, it isn’t clear what the city’s strategy ought to be for recreating that lively downtown.

In fact, downtown is just beginning to see some significant housing developments in the area of K Street. A proposal by area developer Paul Petrovich to build lofts on K Street at Ninth Street, and another proposal by a Southern California developer to refurbish the old Sears building at 12th and K streets—both proposed to be done without city subsidies—are promising signs that significant chunks of new housing finally are being built in the central city. And around the corner at Ninth and J streets, 200 apartments are under construction by the Los Angeles-based CIM Group. That project has cost the city $16 million in redevelopment funds.

“Everyone is watching the CIM project,” Giannoni said. “But so far, we’re not talking about a major influx of new units.” He believes downtown housing construction will continue to lag until there is new retail and other attractions to draw people in and make them want to live there. “We believe you first need to build the attraction, and then fill in the housing,” he said.

Giannoni is confident that the sports and entertainment complex would spur housing development far beyond its current pace. If it were built, he said, the block across the street, where the Greyhound bus station is now, would be an ideal place for a 15- to 20-story high-rise apartment building.

“I would build it in a heartbeat, and I bet it would sell out before it was even built,” Giannoni explained, hastening to add that he has no commercial interest on that corner.

With all due respect, Vrilakas said, “those guys don’t build housing. They don’t know what they are talking about.” He added that “the way good cities evolve is not to put the retail in first.”

And whether it’s an arena or an entertainment district, Vrilakas said, the “top-down” nature of these proposals invariably leads to disappointment. “To me, the big-project approach is like the nagging, controlling parents that say, ‘You will be a dentist or an accountant.’”

It doesn’t create happy kids, or happy cities, he explained. Instead, he proposes significant investment in a framework of housing and public transit that allows and encourages a more “organic evolution.”

An alley between Ninth and 10th streets, as it is today (bottom) and as Greg Taylor imagines it could be (top). Taylor suggests looking to forgotten alleyways for developing unique restaurants, shops and walks.<p>For more sketches, <a href="/issues/sacto/2004-07-15/sidebar.asp">click here</a>

Courtesy Of Greg Taylor

“If we bring as many dwelling units and homes into our core as possible, that would plant the seeds for healthy things to happen,” he said. Call it the gardening approach to urban revitalization. “If there’s good soil, good things will happen.”

Ironically, Vrilakas said he’s not actually opposed to the idea of a downtown arena, somewhere in the central city. But he thinks Sacramento has some serious soul-searching to do first.

“We’ve let the project define us, instead of the other way around,” he said. He suggests looking at the arena and other big projects alongside alternatives, like housing, smaller-scale arts facilities, truly unique shops and other retail. “If we could cobble together $400 million for the Kings, surely we could scrape together $200 million for the long-term health of our downtown,” he said. The question is: What does Sacramento want to be when it grows up? “Would these things fit our vision of what we want this place to be? Of our soul? Or is it the arena?” Vrilakas asked.

If one does ask architects and planners what they might build instead of an arena, the answer most often is: housing, housing, housing.

But just as important is some kind of planning, even “getting down to cases” about how housing and other projects fit the city’s larger goal downtown, said Ken Wemmer, a longtime downtown activist who serves on the boards of both the Sacramento Old City Association and the Downtown Partnership.

“There’s been this vague discussion of an arts and entertainment district,” along K Street, Wemmer noted. “But I’m not sure that really means anything.”

If such a district is really what the city wants, he asked, why not sit down and draft a specific plan for an arts and entertainment district that includes theaters, art galleries and even some housing that struggling artists could afford to live in? “A real arts district could be very successful, and it could actually support artists,” Wemmer suggested.

Indeed, affordable housing should be a more prominent part of any future plans for the central city, said Wemmer. The high rents that already have accompanied the resurgent interest in downtown squeeze those artists and other folks who are doing the creative but not very lucrative work of making the city an interesting place to live. It is also pricing downtown out of its own workforce, Wemmer explained. “Diversity is a really important part of the mix. I don’t want to live downtown just to be around a lot of people who are like me,” he said.

Greg Taylor believes the city should invest more in good public spaces and what he calls “public theater,” places where people can interact with and watch each other.

Remember the sad and comical example of the “where are we going” fountain on 13th Street? Taylor suggested taking back half of the street on the Convention Center side and making the fountain the entry point into a public amphitheater. “It could be a place where you would have events or people could just hang out. Street vendors would begin to filter in, even buskers [street musicians].”

Another idea Taylor has for creating public space is to turn the numbered streets crossing K Street between J and L streets into two-way streets. This would slow traffic down and “encourage jaywalking,” Taylor said. “That’s what good streets do. Right now, those aren’t streets; they are roads.”

More esoteric, perhaps, is Taylor’s suggestion—worked up with a colleague, architect Kevin Donnelley—that we begin to develop our forgotten alleyways downtown.

San Francisco alleys like Claude Lane and Belden Place have restaurants and open-air seating, creating unique “outdoor rooms” off of the main streets, he explained.

In Sacramento, he said, the alleyway behind the old and abandoned Copenhagen building on J Street between 10th and 11th would be an ideal candidate. The alleyway dips down to the original street level of the 1910s, and the old brick building lining this new space would lend a sense of history and authenticity that has begun to disappear from the street fronts.

Developing alleys not only increases the usable surface area of the city; “it creates these little places of discovery and history,” Taylor explained.

Maybe Sacramento isn’t ready to develop its downtown alleys or start screwing around with its streets, but Taylor says a larger brainstorming process is in order.

“These are all just ideas. Maybe none of them would work. But I think we could start this kind of discussion,” Taylor explained.

And in the rush to get an arena question on the ballot, Vrilakas said, we won’t get a chance to have that discussion. “A high-priced ballot campaign is not the way to do it. It’s not the way to create a city that our grandchildren would want to live in.”

In the rail-yards area north of downtown, the city has begun to ask citizens and community groups to participate in a new “rail-yards visioning exercise” that they can do online. This might be one way to provoke a broader discussion of how downtown ought to be put together throughout the next two decades. Or perhaps a better model would be along the lines of a transportation-blueprint process that is just now being hammered out by all of the local governments that are part of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

Either way, Sacramento needs to come to grips with its downtown identity crisis. “I think we need to have a big therapy session,” Taylor said, laughing.

For more sketches, click here