Is proposed 15-story Midtown high-rise Yamanee exciting—or just too darn tall?
Sacramento Planning and Design Commission to consider the project soon
Midtowners will be craning their necks if plans for one of the tallest new mixed-use condo projects in the city becomes a reality in the next few months.
Amid scores of Victorian and single-story retail shops on J Street, developers plan to drop Yamanee, a proposed 15-story high-rise, on the corner of J and 25th streets. The housing complex would be significantly taller than any other residential building in the area—and with such great heights comes a loftier debate over how vertical Midtown should grow.
Consider Angela Tillotson, interim chairwoman for the Midtown Neighborhood Association: She said her board had mixed feelings after Yamanee developer Ryan Heater presented to the group earlier this month. So, MNA will send a letter to city planning staff highlighting both the group’s excitement and concerns about Yamanee.
“This project, it seems, has evoked very strong feelings in people,” Tillotson explained.
But it’s worth noting that the feeling that Yamanee mostly evokes is enthusiasm. A number of city staff and elected officials already support the project. At least 36 residents, business owners and community advocates have written letters of support for Yamanee, which the planning and design commission discussed on December 10 and will consider for final approval in May.
“When we look at smart growth and infill—how we support transit, better air quality—this is the type of project that we talk about,” Councilman Steve Hansen told SN&R.
A few critics aren’t as enthusiastic. They deem the project incongruous with several points of the city’s 2035 General Plan, which was gathered with community input over the course of multiple years and is meant to guide development in Sacramento over the next two decades.
The general plan says that buildings in Midtown can peak at 78 feet. At 171 feet, according to reports in the Sacramento Business Journal, Yamanee would be the second-tallest Midtown building, behind the 179-foot Sutter Hospital tower that opened last August.
Preservation activist Karen Jacques wrote to the Planning and Design Commission ahead of its meeting last year that, if approved as proposed, Yamanee would send a message that the public needn’t take part in the general plan process “because their comments don’t matter and the promises they thought were made aren’t honored.”
But general plans can be amended to fit projects and protect the city against lawsuits. (The Environmental Council of Sacramento, one source for lawsuits, told SN&R that it’s monitoring Yamanee.) Building projects can be approved even if they violate the general plan, provided they serve greater community good.
Some worry, though, that Yamanee could set a precedent in Midtown.
“This will completely kick open the door, and every developer who wants to build is going to come to you and ask for this same thing,” Sacramento County analyst Vivian Gerlach told the Planning and Design Commission last year. “Because you’ve made the exception for one, it now will become the rule.”
Heater insisted to SN&R that he’s not looking to develop more high-rises in Midtown. Yet his architect, Chris Smith, told the Planning and Design Commission last month that members of the Yamanee team “really are trying to set a precedent.”
People aren’t knocking the high-rise itself, however. The building could be LEED certified and offer ample green space. “It doesn’t have anything to do with aesthetics of the project, because personally I think it’s a nice-looking building,” Preservation Sacramento board member William Burg said.
“It’s the kind of building I’d want to see downtown. I’d want to see it in the railyards.”
But Heater, who lives and owns property on the grid, doesn’t want to build a high-rise anywhere else. “I’m doing this project because I like the neighborhood so much, because I live here,” Heater said. “It wouldn’t be this project if I didn’t live here.”
A Sacramento-area native and 1993 graduate of Rio Americano High School, Heater moved back to Sacramento after working in commercial real estate in New York and Honolulu. A few years ago, he got the idea to open a restaurant in a different location in Midtown and enlisted Smith, a New York friend, to weigh in.
“As a business owner and a restauranteur, I told him, ’It’s a terrible business. You should not go into this business,’” Smith told the commission last year of his advice to Heater. “And I said, ’The building that’s there is a nice building, but really should be torn down, and there’s a lot of opportunities in this area.’”
Heater said he enjoys showing off Sacramento to people like Smith, and that friends generally come away thinking of the city as a well-kept secret. Smith, now the principal architect for Yamanee, said as much to the commission.
“After coming back—I don’t know, seven, eight, nine, 10 times—I kind of fell in love with the place,” Smith said on December 10. “It’s like Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Close to me. It’s something that’s up-and-coming. It’s a place that has vibrant people, young people, and I see opportunities here that I see in other areas where we do development.”
Heater has spent the past couple of years on the project. He purchased the two current buildings on the parcel. He said Yamanee is uniquely suited for this location and might not work elsewhere in Midtown.
“It makes sense to build on retail corridors and in areas where there will be demand,” Heater said. “I can speak to the Midtown demand. I think it’s here.”
He’s also talked to impacted residents and business owners, such as Toni Budworth, co-owner of The Birkenstock Store, which could be temporarily displaced by construction. Budworth spoke in support of the project. “I think he wants to make sure it’s something he can be proud of, that he’s contributing to Midtown,” Budworth told SN&R.
Heater impressed city staff like Bruce Monighan, urban design manager for the Community Development Department. “I’ve met a lot of people on the development side in my career,” Monighan said. “I find him to be an incredibly honest and candid person who has sort of all the best thoughts in mind on why he wants to do something.”
In his love for Midtown, though, Heater might be doing something that other developers aren’t: gambling on a high-rise residential development.
Stacia Cosgrove, a principal planner for the Community Development Department and supporter of Yamanee, said she doesn’t see the building creating a trend among other developers.
“What I hear anecdotally is that Sacramento doesn’t have a real proven market for high-rise residential development, which is much more expensive than the mid-rise residential buildings that we commonly see throughout Midtown,” Cosgrove said.
Others say there’s potential for more high-rises in Midtown, such as Craig Stradley, a principal for Mogavero Architects.
“The market is changing,” Stradley said. “There’s a new generation of people that want to live in the urban core and are willing to live in smaller units to be in the center of an active, energetic urban environment.”
Whether the Planning and Design Commission gives final approval next month, and that council will greenlight the project later this year, remains to be seen. The commission was split when Heater and Smith went before it on December 10.
Some members of the commission expressed concerns about Heater’s ability to obtain financing and the potential for a long-term hole in the ground. Burg said Heater’s financing model is investor-driven and similar to that of a tech firm.
Heater told SN&R there’s a lot of false information floating around. “We have no debt on the project,” Heater said. “We own it.”
That Yamanee means “mountain” in Maidu, a Northern California Native American tribe, didn’t win everyone on the commission over.
“This might be a mountain, but this is not a mountain range,” Commissioner Kiyomi Burchill told Smith and Heater at the December 10 meeting. “This is a series of small hills.” Burchill urged them “to come back with something dramatically different when you come seeking approval.”
Other commissioners supported both Yamanee and the general plan. “But having sort of a slavish adherence to plans when you see something that’s unique and special like this building seems to me to be kind of a lost opportunity,” Commissioner Todd Kaufman said.
Hansen called the general plan “a moment in time,” suggesting it need not provide rigid guidelines for development. City staffers Cosgrove and Monighan each suggested the greater good matters most when assessing how development projects satisfy the general plan.
“We have lots of things within the general plan that are goals we’re trying to achieve,” Monighan said. “If you modify one goal in order to strengthen another goal, and the end result is a better project and a better city, then I think we’ve done something good.”
One thing’s clear: Don’t expect any significant revisions when Heater and Smith return to planning and design in May for final approval. Smith told the commission that he and his partner “would rather not do the project than compromise.”