Global preservation

After decades of fire, graffiti and neglect, Globe Mills renovation options will be presented for public comment next week

This Globe Mills building, designed by the same architect who designed City Hall, likely will be turned into senior housing units.

This Globe Mills building, designed by the same architect who designed City Hall, likely will be turned into senior housing units.

Photo By Cosmo Garvin

The Globe Mills, on the corner of C and 12th streets, may be an important remnant of early Sacramento agrarian society, but multiple fires, the work of graffiti artists and sheer neglect led the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency to refer to it as a “physical eyesore” in planning documents. After almost a decade of debate about what kind of rehabilitation and restoration would suit the 90-year-old buildings, the city granted the project to a local team of developers that include preservationists and architect Michael Malinowski. Malinowski since has produced a series of plans for a mixed-use development including low-cost senior housing, market-rate lofts and commercial space. With new developers in place, Sacramento officials are now convinced that the mills can be revitalized, but they very narrowly escaped demolition.

Bruce Booher, currently a member of the city’s Design Review and Preservation Board—which, ironically, once voted for the complex’s destruction—was one of the site’s most ardent fans in the early 1990s. A contractor who restores properties downtown, Booher said he had asked the city to look into the ownership and possible reuse of the property as early as 1992. Paula Boghosian, an active preservationist and original member of the first city preservation board in the 1970s, also was interested in the buildings. She explained that the mills were designed by Rudolph Harold, the same architect who designed Sacramento’s City Hall and the gorgeous Masonic Temple building on J Street.

The Globe Mills site currently consists of seven structures, including banks of silos and the prominent five-story Main Mill Building, which is listed on Sacramento’s register of historic places.

In spite of Booher’s inquiries, the mills remained abandoned from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, while Booher just happened to be working on a different downtown project, the old mill caught fire.

“I saw the whole thing, and it was sickening,” said Booher. After the fire, the property was deemed an “imminent danger” by the city and was slated for demolition. Through a series of meetings, Booher and other preservationists, including Boghosian, were able to convince the city council to stabilize the building rather than destroy it.

“I think Mayor [Joe] Serna was the swing vote,” remembered Booher.

With a reprieve from the city council, Booher joined forces with Malinowski and Boghosian to try to save what was left of the historic mills. They were able to identify the owner but found that the mills were saddled with nearly $2 million worth of debt because loan payments hadn’t been made and property taxes hadn’t been paid. It turned out, according to Booher, that the owner had passed away with no adult heirs, and the estate, under the care of an attorney, had not kept up with the maintenance of the property or its finances.

In 1996, said Booher, he and a number of partners purchased the property from the owner’s estate for $1 and, impressed by redevelopment projects like Oakland’s Jack London Square, began to envision a combination of lofts and retail. The mid-1990s, however, were a difficult time to propose rental properties in the Alkali Flat neighborhood, which was still a depressed area. Although other communities were experimenting with the same challenges, and even converting their historic mills into loft projects, using the round grain silos as living spaces, the Globe Mills languished as preservationists wondered what to do to preserve the site’s historic value while supporting a vibrant, financially feasible project.

In the late 1990s, as the rental market improved, the city’s redevelopment agency gained control of the mill buildings and two of the site’s four parcels because of back taxes, leaving Booher and his team with two. When the city tried to interest big-time developers, Booher’s group joined forces with local developers Cyrus Youssefi and Skip Rosenbloom to submit one of the only two proposals the city received. After nearly a decade of politicking, the city finally awarded the Globe Mills Investors a contract for all four parcels, giving local preservationists the authority to envision a new use for the property they’d been watching over continuously.

Booher, no longer the development contractor but still a consultant on the project, since has become a member of the city’s Design Review and Preservation Board and may have to recuse himself from future votes on the project.

The project, as currently envisioned by architect Malinowski, likely will preserve the Main Mill Building visible from 12th Street, as well as between nine and all 40 of the grain silos located on the western half of the property. Plans call for the construction of one or two new buildings and anywhere from 77 to 141 housing units. Preservationists prefer to preserve as much of the facade and interior buildings of the original mills as possible, but that’s an expensive option.

Options for financing the redevelopment are still under consideration but likely will include federal grants, loans, and a combination of low-income tax credits and historic- rehabilitation tax credits. As a partner, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency will donate its portion of the complex, and Catherine Camacho, chairwoman of Alkali Flat’s Preservation Area Committee, said that a portion of the Alkali Flat tax increment will go to the Globe Mills project, though no dollar amount has been finalized. With an early estimate of more than $25 million for the entire project, depending on which proposal is approved, the development will need the support of the local community to move forward.

Boghosian says there’s strong support for the project from the preservation community. People are beginning to realize, she said, that “preservation is not just about the governor’s mansions of the world. … Industrial buildings are just as much a part of history as fine mansions.”

The development team’s four proposed options will be presented in an environmental-impact report due out on September 10, and Alkali Flat residents already have identified some of their concerns: whether there’s enough on-site parking for residents, whether the low-cost senior housing units are too small and whether there will be appropriate on-site amenities for seniors.

In Booher’s mind, no option has distinguished itself yet as the best for the Globe Mills, but he’s anxious to see the project move forward. Booher watched Old Sacramento’s historic Ebner Hotel languish for three decades, he said, waiting for the perfect proposal, before it finally was demolished.

“The perfect proposal,” said Booher, “will never come.”