Forget arenas and mermaid bars and nightlife. What Sacramento needs is more housing.

A Sacramento historian suggests a population of 58,000 in the central city will fix downtown’s woes

How will we know when we’ve fixed downtown Sacramento? What does a revitalized urban core look like, and how should we measure our progress? Sacramento historian William Burg suggests a goal that is both rational and ambitious: 58,000.

That’s about how many people lived in Sacramento’s central city—the “grid” area bounded by the downtown rail yards, the Sacramento River, Alhambra Boulevard and Broadway—in the year 1950. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, only 30,000 people lived in those same neighborhoods.

The grid was depopulated when the federal highways came in, of course, and when the West End neighborhood was demolished to make way for the sterile Capitol Mall district. The West End was considered “urban blight” by city planners. Burg has written about it as a mixed-use, mixed-race neighborhood, center of the city’s jazz scene, and a place where segregation broke down at least a little bit.

His most recent book (one of many he’s penned on local history) is Sacramento Renaissance: Art, Music and Activism in California’s Capital City, and it tells the story of the artists and rabble-rousers who came up in the wake of redevelopment.

While redevelopment was pushing people out, new suburbs also tugged residents to the city’s edge. This wasn’t just a drain on downtown. According to Census data, even Sacramento’s first burbs, places like Land Park, Oak Park, Tahoe Park and East Sacramento, have fewer people living in them than they did 60 years ago. That’s partly because of highways, partly because policy at every level favors sprawl and decentralization.

By 1970, the number of people living in the downtown census tracts had dipped to just 27,000 people. They’ve recovered slightly from their lowest point, but even during the 1990s and 2000s, through the Midtown renaissance and Sacramento’s “smart growth” years, the overall central-city population kept backsliding.

A while ago, Bites noticed Burg was using #58000 as a hashtag when discussing urban development online. He suggests we make an explicit goal of restoring downtown to its historic high population. “The 58,000 idea captures both what we lost the last time we made such a dramatic change to the city and a goal to strive toward,” he explains.

He’s on to something. We spend an awful lot of time fretting about being a world-class city. We want to revitalize our downtown, and will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do it. But what do “world class” and “revitalize” mean? What is the goal? We’ve chased every trend, boxy shopping centers, pedestrian malls, Hard Rock cafes, mermaid bars and now basketball arenas. None of those brought people back to live in the urban core.

“There are always a million excuses why housing doesn’t work for this project or that, why we can’t save this building, why affordable housing won’t pencil,” says Burg of the city’s apparent aversion to putting housing front and center in its redevelopment strategy. Sure, there’s been some, but the numbers tell the tale. “Worst of all, they assume that the free market will take care of housing—the most important part. But the marketing and promotion part—the visitor attraction—gets careful planning and extensive subsidy.”

The economist Edward Glaeser calls cities “our species’ greatest invention.” In his book Triumph of the City, he makes the case that it is the urban density of people—not a collection of stuff like monorails and arenas—that drives innovation and economic development. He argues that cities should build up, allow for dense neighborhoods where creative people can mix it up and stop subsidizing sprawl. He’s somewhat critical of the historic preservation movement, something he and Burg would likely disagree on. Then again, Burg believes Sacramento “could double the population of downtown without demolishing a thing,” through reuse and infill development.

What if we worried less about the flashy mega-projects—which for some reason keep failing—and focused our attention (and limited funds) on building human-scale neighborhoods, with housing and shops, bars and restaurants, where people could live and work and play?

Doesn’t mean we couldn’t spend a bunch of money on a basketball arena, assuming the economic benefits really penciled out. But projects like that would need to serve an overall strategy, a vision of an urban place, filled with new residents living their lives, not just a collection of stuff that we hope will attract visitors for a while. The 58,000 would be the first priority, and the guiding principle.

That would be a big change, and an important accomplishment in terms of supporting transit, a “revitalized” downtown, and reduced greenhouse-gas pollution. But it’s something we can get our heads around. After all, we’re talking about the residential density of Sacramento in the Eisenhower years. Not Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Forget the world-class city stuff. Let’s shoot for 58,000 and see what happens.