Anyone who’s been paying attention lately knows there’s something up with downtown Sacramento. And when we say “up,” we mean it.
Right now, nearly a dozen high-rises are slated for development in the downtown/Midtown area. Among the notables: the twin 53-story condominium and hotel towers proposed for 301 Capitol Mall; the huge West End state office project southwest of the Capitol whose planners remain undecided about just how tall (13-50 stories?) its tower will be; and, of course, the 28-story Tsakopoulos tower planned for 500 Capitol Mall. The latter, designed by architect Edwin Kado (who did West Sacramento’s golden pyramid building), comes with an either outrageously bold or off-the-charts-silly plan to top itself with a two-story replica of the Parthenon.
What are we to make of this sudden desire for upward growth? It’s kind of a mixed bag. It’s clear that at least a piece of the new height lust comes as an ongoing, defensive response (we’ll show you!) to the long-festering wannabe wound some suffer from as Sacramentans. It’s that feeling that our city is somehow uncool (we are not worthy!) as compared with hip cities such as, say, San Francisco and Portland. In this insecure scenario, in which flash dominates over substance, towers are modern, and high-rises demonstrate big-city power.
Hint: This is not a good reason to change a skyline.
Yet, much of the desire to reach new heights comes from the increasing perception that high-density projects, especially ones that prioritize housing, are desperately needed in downtowns across America, particularly in Sacramento. Otherwise, all the good words about building cities for the future, mitigating the traffic and pollution caused by sprawl through “infill” and “smart growth,” remain empty rhetoric. Let’s not forget: The Sacramento region is projected to grow by a million new people by 2025.
At the end of the day, whether the high-rises go forward should be determined on a case-by-case basis after a careful examination.
City leaders should insist on tradeoff from developers. Affordable housing should be a prioritized component. Mass transit should be greatly strengthened as a result. Down on the ground, in the undeveloped spaces that remain, planners should prioritize public spaces, parks, interwoven pathways, farmers’-market locales and open spaces. Clearly, none of the projects should be allowed to diminish and overshadow the crucial importance of the Capitol building, which historic preservationist Dan Visnich rightfully calls Sacramento’s “signature building.”
All the while, let’s remember: Good cities aren’t just about high-rises—or sports arenas, either. They’re about creating jobs, making homes, growing good schools, making life easier through quality infrastructure (from public transit to trash collection) and making it possible for businesses to thrive.
Ultimately, a skyline is not a symbol; it’s a skeleton. Success is not just about height and perceived power; it’s about how you make it all work.