Growing pains

In booming West Sacramento, two mayoral candidates have different visions of the city’s future

Mary Lasell is running for West Sacramento mayor to oppose gentrification of her home town.

Mary Lasell is running for West Sacramento mayor to oppose gentrification of her home town.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As she approaches River City High School on a glorious Friday morning, Mary Lasell slows her blue minivan and says, “Something’s going on here.”

A West Sacramento native and mayoral candidate in next Tuesday’s election, Lasell is a big fan of keeping up to date on local goings-on. “OK, so I’m nosy,” she says. “If there’s a lot of police, or something’s being built, I’m going to go ask what’s going on. I want to know what’s happening in my community.”

Her tip-off this morning isn’t particularly subtle. She’s been passed by two police cars while heading to the high school, where her daughter is a senior. She arrives to find three police cruisers and two television trucks parked outside the main entrance. “I’m gonna find out what’s going on,” Lasell says, and reaches for her cell phone. Before she can finish dialing, the West Sacramento Police Department’s school-resource officer walks out of the school and approaches her van, smiling and waving.

“What’s going on, Mark?” she asks.

“Don’t worry,” says Officer Mark Kirkland. “Everything’s fine.”

Kirkland tells Lasell that there’s been a rumor that someone is planning a drive-by shooting that afternoon—the second such rumor in two weeks.

“Here it is, a nice Friday again and there’s a rumor about a drive-by so everybody can get out of school early. That’s what we think it is,” Kirkland says. “Nothing to worry about, but we’re being careful.”

Lasell and Kirkland keep it brief, and then the candidate is driving off again, on a tour of West Sacramento that starts at West Capitol Avenue and Fifth Street and winds through the city in a loop that includes landmarks new (city hall, the Riverwalk) and old (Whitey’s Jolly Kone, which according to Lasell has the “best burgers on this side of the river”).

Like her opponent, popular incumbent Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, Lasell is a native in love with her city. Also like Cabaldon, she believes that unifying a city divided by railroad tracks, highways and waterways is a top priority, and that preserving the unique personality of West Sacramento is not only necessary but also desirable.

But Lasell disagrees sharply with the incumbent on how to accomplish those goals, and is outraged by her perception that the concerns of longtime residents are not being adequately represented by the current city officials. No one seems to think that she’s got much of a shot at beating Cabaldon on November 7. She simply wants to make sure that West Sacramentans have an alternative on the ballot. She’s raised no money, put up no yard signs and done little active campaigning. “I’m not a politician,” she says.

Lasell’s approach is all grassroots. She talks to people everywhere she goes, cataloging their complaints—and kudos—about how the city is run. The concerns are mostly quality-of-life—parking, water and sewer, street repair. But those issues have an undercurrent of resentment. According to Lasell—and she says many of the people she talks to agree with her—there’s an “invisible barrier” dividing West Sacramento into the “haves” and “have-nots.” “This overpass right here, south on Jefferson under the interstate,” she says, pointing up while driving beneath it, “marks the border for where neighborhoods get treated differently.”

The newer area of town gets “first place for services, for police, for redoing streets. This side of the freeway gets most of the attention,” Lasell says.

To prove her claim, she drives through these favored neighborhoods—newer developments, many of them with nautical names and accompanied by new shopping areas. “These are all less than five years old,” she says, pointing around a subdivision full of spacious homes, all painted in shades of tan and tucked onto stamp-sized lots along meandering streets and cul-de-sacs. “I’m not a drinker, but if you came home after having a few, you wouldn’t be able to tell which house was yours!”

Then, simply by crossing Jefferson into older neighborhoods, she points out streets with no sidewalks or streetlights that are in obvious need of repair. Among the items she notes in her own Broderick neighborhood is a park where the fencing has been cut and damaged in a number of spots. “It would never be left like that in those other neighborhoods,” she says.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon.

Photo By Larry Dalton

There’s no question that West Sacramento is growing at a rapid clip. With slightly over 50,000 residents—and new home, condo and apartment construction underway all over town—it’s feeling growing pains as it stretches from big town to small city. But Lasell, a talkative woman who easily puts the “neighbor” in “neighborhood,” is concerned about what she describes as a loss of connection between neighbors, neighborhoods and the city.

While city leaders—including Mayor Cabaldon—talk of “smart growth,” Lasell isn’t impressed with what seems to her like nonstop expansion of subdivisions. “A lot of this building is to accommodate Bay Area people,” she says, which is “solving the housing problems for the region, not for our own folks. If we wanted to get into a house now, we couldn’t afford it. Local people that have been around for a while, they’re not moving into these new developments.”

She blames the city administration. She’s running for mayor because the city “needs to be more accountable,” especially to longtime residents.

Cabaldon acknowledges that West Sacramento has a history of the kind of division of resources that Lasell finds so disturbing, but feels that a great deal of progress is being made. He points to the way that the railroads, port and freeway have divided the city geographically. “That’s sort of the history of the city, of being sliced in half over and over again,” says Cabaldon.

But the mayor’s view is that the city is growing in a fashion that’s being managed positively and fairly. “We’re doing very steady work, a few projects in each neighborhood per year,” he says. “We’re not tearing down a neighborhood and doing a master plan with a bidding process to see which developer wants to build a Disneyland sort of Main Street. We’re trying to do this in a way that’s organic, where we can kind of get a feel for how the neighborhood is improving.”

That’s an overly optimistic assessment, according to Lasell, and doesn’t match up with what she sees. “These new people come in and say, ‘We’re paying all these taxes and we want this and this and this,’” she says. “Well, some of us have been living here for a long time, and paying taxes when it wasn’t considered such a great place to live. So they want all this stuff, but we’re still waiting.”

Cabaldon sees the growth in housing—and the subsequent rise in home values—in West Sacramento as “an unqualified benefit” for longer-term residents. He points to increased equity that is allowing working-class homeowners to send their children to college, for example.

While Lasell acknowledges that the boom has raised the value of her home, and of her neighbors’, she doesn’t see it as that large a benefit. “The newcomers say, ‘We raised the property values,’ like making our houses worth more was doing a big favor,” she says. “But we’re not going to move! We’ve lived here for years. We’re not in West Sacramento for the money.”

One of Lasell’s particular sore spots is a development called The Rivers in an area that was home to a public golf course. Lasell didn’t believe a gated community was the right thing for the neighborhood, but she points to a wall—painted yet another shade of the ubiquitous new-construction tan—that separates the development from the older neighborhood, literally next door. “They like their gates,” she says. “Even the park is gated.” She says that neighbors weren’t aware that the development was to be gated.

West Sacramento City Council member Oscar Villegas, who lived across the street from The Rivers when the development went in, points out that during a long negotiation process that included public hearings, the city negotiated with the developers to scale back the gates and enclosures. “The city also negotiated public access to the riverfront,” says Villegas, “and that the developer would have to put in pedestrian and bike trails along the river that the public would always be able to access.”

But Lasell points to black-barred iron gates blocking the trail, which is accessible to pedestrians but appears intimidating.

“How can they be part of the community when they’re always putting up barriers?” she asks.

It’s one of the more divisive sides of gentrification.

“No one in the country—including all the progressive newspapers—has ever figured out how you make a neighborhood more attractive for the people who live there without having it attract other people with more resources,” Cabaldon says. He thinks that West Sacramento is doing all it can to rejuvenate the city while retaining its economic diversity. “We’re at the leading edge among cities in the region on affordable housing, on environmentally friendly and energy-efficient design, on historic preservation—all the things that you do” to fight gentrification, he says. But “it’s not a comprehensive solution to gentrification.”

He’s confident the way growth is being managed will balance out. The city’s growth plan, he says, is “motivated less to save working people because in West Sacramento, they’re doing pretty well. It’s more about how to save that income diversity that makes West Sacramento special, that makes it different from Granite Bay, into the next generation and into the generation after that.” That is, Cabaldon says, “the kind of challenge that I really like, because no one really has solved it anywhere.”

Lasell isn’t sure about a solution, either. She longs for the West Sacramento where she grew up, one she feels is rapidly disappearing. “This is home. No matter where you stand economically, we lived side-by-side.”

She turns down another West Sacramento street. “This is home,” she murmurs.