It takes a ‘McVillage’

Despite overwhelming neighborhood opposition, McKinley Village is very close to becoming a reality. After 25 years of development fits and starts, why might this project succeed?

New village in town: If the city council approves the McKinley Village project (shown in yellow) later this month, model homes and sales could start in early 2015. Nearby residents are upset a third vehicular access point at Alhambra Boulevard is not being built to complement entries at A and 40th streets.

New village in town: If the city council approves the McKinley Village project (shown in yellow) later this month, model homes and sales could start in early 2015. Nearby residents are upset a third vehicular access point at Alhambra Boulevard is not being built to complement entries at A and 40th streets.

Real-estate developer Angelo Tsakopoulos is possibly the most powerful man in Sacramento. But tonight, he's just another citizen inside City Hall. One of several hundred, in fact, during a standing-room-only meeting to debate and vote on the fate of McKinley Village, a contentious neighborhood planned for East Sacramento. Tsakopoulos owns the land, so obviously he favors fellow developer Phil Angelides' vision to build 336 homes on the almond-shaped 48 acres. Everyone else in the room, including nearly a dozen neighborhood groups? They pretty much despise the idea.

Wearing a navy suit and with bushy eyebrows, Tsakopoulos sits in one of the front rows of the Planning and Design Commission meeting for what will be a nearly five-hour affair. That’s a Homer-esque endeavor even for City Hall. But the multimillionaire is patient: It’s already been a 25-year journey.

Developers have been trying to do something with Tsakopoulos’ landlocked, low-lying plot for nearly a quarter century. In the late ’80s, a developer hoped to build high-rises and apartments on the property, which, at the time, was referred to as Centrage. But that development didn’t fly with neighbors, who ferociously opposed and eventually crushed the idea. Current Councilman Steve Cohn, a leader of that opposition, used his newfound influence to springboard into city council nearly 20 years ago.

Today, Angelides wants to build what he calls a heritage-style 336-home neighborhood called McKinley Village. He’s been working on this project since 2007, and says he’s held more than 80 community meetings during this time. The gatherings have sometimes been anything but neighborly. Shouting matches drew in TV cameras. Residents have even swatted large renderings of the McKinley Village neighborhood from easels.

But the meetings have also been fruitful. They’ve led to some four-dozen major changes to the project, Angelides says.

At the planning meeting on March 27, the last one before the project goes in front of city council, he’s asking the Planning and Design Commission to vote in favor to develop what even he admits is a “very difficult site.”

“This is a rare opportunity to do at-scale infill development to meet our region’s goal to grow more compactly,” he tells the commissioners.

McKinley Village will be 336 homes, including a few multi-unit residences, that will range in price from the high $300,000 to $600,000. The new neighborhood is tucked in between railroad tracks and Business 80 near the American River, East Sacramento and Sutter’s Landing Regional Park. Amenities will include a recreation center, bike lines and a park, and homeowners will pay neighborhood fees.

The only access to the homes will be via A Street, at the now-unused vehicle bridge over Business 80 (that also leads to 28th Street and the new Midtown dog park), and a tunnel under the railroad tracks at 40th and C streets, which has yet to be built. (See map for details.)

A storm of East Sacramento and Midtown opposition sits in Angelides’ way. At tonight’s meeting, more than eight neighborhood-group leaders speak out against the new homes, which they not-so-affectionately refer to as “McVillage.”

Julie Murphy is head of the Marshall School/New Era Park Neighborhood Association, whose residents say they will be impacted by increased traffic on 28th Street.

“Vehicular access is needed on Alhambra Boulevard,” she says.

Angelides and the city have rejected adding another car tunnel under the railroad tracks at Alhambra and B Street. He says this is due to construction costs, which would be at least $7.8 million, according to city analysis. The city also says the tunnel isn’t needed because additional traffic won’t have a detrimental impact.

Angelides says another tunnel’s construction costs would kill McKinley Village.

To the left, eastbound Business 80. To the right, the field that someday will likely house 336 new single-family homes.

photo by Jonathan Mendick

“Quite frankly, it’s not something the project can bear,” he tells the commissioners.

The former state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate instead hopes to build a bike and pedestrian tunnel at Alhambra. But many residents, such as East Sacramento Improvement Association president Paul Noble, doubt this will ever be built, especially because the city isn’t mandating that Angelides do so.

City planning commissioner Philip Harvey says the reason the tunnel isn’t binding is because of Union Pacific, the railroad company, which is notorious with its feet-dragging. “U.P. could literally take three or four years to say yes or no” on the tunnel, he says.

Traffic is the meeting’s foremost point of contention. The city’s environmental-impact report estimates an additional 1,700-plus vehicle trips each day due to new McKinley residents. Neighborhood-association leaders have zeroed in on this and lobby aggressively for a third access point at Alhambra. But traffic isn’t only reason neighbors are pissed off.

Speaking on behalf of residents, former lawmaker and current lobbyist Alberto Torrico worries about the dangers of children playing too closely to railroad tracks. Resident Jan Rein says the homes will be unpalatable and just “bring suburban sprawl into the city.” Some worry about flooding. A couple advocates for the Swainson’s hawk say the neighborhood will destroy the bird’s vital foraging ground. And 37-year East Sac resident Jennifer Cummings says that pollution from commuter traffic and trains makes it “morally indefensible for the city of Sacramento to approve this development.”

Nearly three-dozen speakers opposed to McVillage squeeze into an hour’s worth of time at the meeting. There’s also an hour’s worth of supporters, although most of them include business interests, such as developer Gregg Lukenbill and a spokesman for the chamber of commerce.

In an interesting twist, it’s an election year for city council’s District 3, which includes East Sacramento. Most of the candidates make an appearance at the night’s meeting. Some even speak out.

Born-and-raised East Sac resident Rosalyn Van Buren is the only candidate to come out in favor of McKinley Village. River Park resident and candidate Jeff Harris says he can’t support the project without vehicle access at Alhambra. Candidate Deane Dana also opposes.

Cyril Shah, the race’s de facto frontrunner, if only because he’s raised the most money, attends the meeting but doesn’t take a side. In fact, the candidate refuses to do so, arguing that he doesn’t have to because it will be decided before he takes office.

East Sacramento Preservation Neighborhood Association president Ellen Cochrane is also one of the eight District 3 candidates. She challenges the commission to actually go out and walk the land; she says that if people go out there, there’s no way they’ll want to live there.

“Have you visited the site and stood in the land between the freeway and the trains?” she asks.

It’s illegal to cross the Union Pacific railroad tracks at Lanatt Street in East Sacramento without permission, but joggers and dog walkers do so often. The crossing leads to the land where McKinley Village will likely one day rest. Standing in the middle of the acreage—just like Cochrane said to do—the field is dressed with gold and ivory wildflowers. The freeway hums, but at a surprisingly lower decibel than anticipated. Four trains, including one Amtrak, pass in a matter of 20 minutes on a recent Sunday afternoon, horns blowing. There’s an unexpected and impressive view of the downtown skyline.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Kiyomi Burchill says the meeting’s turnout is the biggest she’s seen in her three years. No surprise, residents are impassioned. In another city such as Roseville or Elk Grove, their disapproval might be enough to kill a project like McKinley Village. Or at least get a consolation-prize tunnel.

But that’s not the case tonight. Just before 10:30 p.m., a vote to unanimously send the McKinley Village project to the city council next month enters the books.

At this point, the room is nearly empty. Commissioners pat each other on the back and offer congrats for what they say was a smartly run marathon. The meeting adjourns.

Only one resident remains: Tsakopoulos.

He’s loomed large the entire night without saying a word. Finally, he rises from his seat, walks to the dais, thanks the commission chairwoman, then exits into the cool spring night.