God, cars and shoppers

Business interests want cars on K Street Mall

Could cars someday be part of this picture?

Could cars someday be part of this picture?

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s 9 a.m. Thursday in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. A single visitor sits in the church, which is quite dimly lit—a man who looks to be in his 30s, neatly dressed, perhaps an office worker from nearby. He sits upright with his hands quietly folded on his lap. Perhaps he is praying. Perhaps he is only taking advantage of a few minutes in a quiet place before he starts his day.

Across the street, at Espresso Metro on 11th and K, the scene gets a bit more hectic. There is a line of people, some chattering away, others looking still asleep, most waiting impatiently for the lattés and scones they should have trundled up to their offices 20 minutes ago.

Caffeine and God—just two things the citizens of a modern metropolis may need to get them through their day—are in ready supply on K Street Mall. So are panoramic movies, cigars, burritos and automated teller machines.

But there is one common fixture of modern life that is missing all along this stretch: the automobile.

K Street Mall, between 7th and 13th streets, has been car-less for over three decades. To many Sacramentans, that is what makes it special—a unique public space that is free from the otherwise ubiquitous automobile. It is really the only space of its kind in Sacramento, and it represents a dying breed in cities across the country.

But some think closing off the street has hurt the strip over the years, and that it is time to end the automobile’s long exile from K Street. So city officials and downtown business owners are quietly considering the possibility of reopening K Street Mall to auto traffic.

“It’s something we are exploring,” said Traci Michel with the city’s Economic Development Department. But she warned that the city staff was far from making any concrete proposals.

The idea is being pushed, cautiously, by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, a coalition of merchants and property owners.

“We want to advocate for any project that will benefit our members. I think anyone in their right mind would think that this would,” said the Partnership’s deputy director and spokeswoman, Danielle de l’Etoile. She added that many shoppers might not feel safe downtown unless they can see where they are going before leaving their cars. The additional activity of vehicle traffic may add to the feeling of security.

But de l’Etoile acknowledged that reversing the ban on cars is easier said than done.

“We know it will be expensive and difficult. At this point we don’t know how expensive or how difficult,” she added.

The biggest challenge would be figuring out what to do with the light rail tracks that are there now. The tracks could be moved to a different street, which would be a massive undertaking. Or the street could be redesigned to accommodate both rail and limited auto access, which might be just as difficult. Regional Transit officials are not enthusiastic about the idea.

“We have a major investment in the K Street Mall. We definitely don’t want automobile driving on our tracks or interfering with our operations,” said Regional Transit spokesman Mike Wiley.

Although the notion is still in its infancy, some downtown residents are already angered at the idea.

“I don’t think that public funds should be used to increase automobile access,” said downtown resident and environmentalist James Pachl, adding that he believes the city should do more to promote light rail to shoppers, spend more money on better street-scaping, pedestrian walkways, bike-parking and police patrols.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the strip was a popular cruising venue for young people from all over the area. The section was closed off to cars in 1969. Some think it was specifically to stop the cruising. But it was also done at a time when the idea of pedestrian malls was becoming popular all over the country. The mall was seen as a tool for urban revitalization, a way to encourage street life in downtown commercial areas that had declined during the flight to the suburbs. But since the initial rush of pedestrian mall building, cities have gradually reopened streets to traffic again.

In 1987, the mall was given a makeover and light rail was routed through. The two stations on the mall quickly became among the busiest in the Regional Transit system, and helped to further enliven the strip. Around lunchtime, the street gets fairly crowded. One constantly has to dodge people who are talking and eating, making their way among the shops and to and from their offices. Like any busy downtown strip, there are a fair number of panhandlers, people talking to themselves in loud voices and others who look like they just have nowhere to go.

And there are a number of empty storefronts, at least one on every block. During the lunch hour, these spots don’t seem to take away much from the overall liveliness of the strip. But in the evening, when the offices empty out and the “five o’clock desert” effect spreads throughout downtown, the dead spots can seem that much more dead.

K Street Mall has steadily but slowly improved over the years. This is in part due to efforts by the city and the Downtown Partnership to recruit new business to the area, and also the presence of some unique businesses like the Crest Theater, one of the few venues for independent films, and the popular IMAX theater, in addition to some popular chain stores such as Starbucks and La Bou.

But community activists like Brooks Truitt think the strip will never be truly healthy until there are enough people living downtown to provide a base for nighttime businesses.

“Cars don’t shop,” said Truitt, adding that he doesn’t believe allowing cars, even very limited traffic, will have the intended effect.

It’s almost 10 o’clock at night. At Marilyn’s bar on 12th and K, Sacramento Kings fans are hunkered down for another overtime game. That means a few more rounds and an even more boisterous crowd. But outside on the street, at least for now, all is quiet.