Leveraging history

The Marshall School, one of Sacramento’s last abandoned masterpieces, could get a makeover

The Marhsall School, designed by Rudolph Harold, the architect who designed Sacramento City Hall, has been empty since 2009.

The Marhsall School, designed by Rudolph Harold, the architect who designed Sacramento City Hall, has been empty since 2009.

Photo by Eric Johnson

Lou Demas walked into a public hearing at the Clunie Center in McKinley Park, casually hobbling with the help of a black cane, white hair flowing from under a black beret. The meeting had already started, but Demas seemed as comfortable as if he owned the place—or the place under discussion. And that’s pretty close to the truth.

Six-plus decades ago, Demas was a student at the Marshall School, an abandoned and slowly deteriorating 1903 architectural gem that spans G Street between 27th and 28th streets, just blocks from the auditorium he had just entered with calm authority. He still lives around the corner, in a house his family built in 1939. This, clearly, is his neighborhood.

Over the next 40 minutes or so, Demas listened with about 40 of his neighbors as the three principals of two partnering companies described their ambitious plan to turn the Marshall School and the crumbling parking lot surrounding it into a notably ambitious housing project. Builder Katherine Bardis, her partner and cousin Rachel Bardis, and architect David Mogavero were familiar to most present at the meeting after more than a year of outreach.

The project, which would revitalize one of the most historically significant undeveloped structures in the region, and replace a neighborhood blight with a community resource, is still in its early stages, but the concepts are pretty much in place. The Mogavero-Bardis team, which will take possession of the property through a 99-year lease from the Sacramento City Unified School District, is preparing final plans to submit to the district in coming weeks.

The inside of the old school will be gutted; its top three floors will feature units of various configurations. The ground floor, which is referred to as the basement, where the school’s big, bright kindergarten was housed, will likely include a publicly accessible facility—Mogavero referenced the Hacker Lab on I Street. A gazebo would be built in the front yard.

“We imagine it will be a gathering space for the entire community,” Mogavero said.

On either side of the old school building, two new four-story structures would be built. In each of these wings, above ground-floor parking, plans call for two floors of six units each, and a set-back fourth floor of four units each. More than 50 units total, in a place that now houses only occasional squatters.

Mogavero explained that the project is aimed at upscale residents, and opined that if built, the Marshall School project would be “some of the nicest housing built in the city since the Sawyer”—the luxury downtown hotel and condominium complex.

In this era when NIMBY naysayers might dominate any local-government effort to substantially alter a neighborhood, this public hearing was stunningly civil. William Burg, the local historian and president of Preservation Sacramento, was in attendance, and he credits the overwhelming support to the developers.

“David came to a Preservation meeting to show us early plans more than a year ago,” Burg says. “They got the neighbors involved right away. When you do that, it isn’t ’your’ project anymore; it becomes ’our’ project.”

It helps that the development team has the kind of track record that inspires trust in neighborhood watchdogs. Mogavero was the president of the Old City Association, which later became Preservation Sacramento. Burg recalls that the architect was on the barricades of the fight to save the historic structures in the R Street corridor, which were slated to be torn down and replaced with office towers. Similarly, Bardis Builders has been involved in the kind of infill-development favored by fans of progressive city planning.

“The [Bardis] family was once more well known for the destruction of historic homes than their preservation,” Burg quipped—referring to Chris Bardis, Katherine’s father, who battled preservationists back in the 1980s before becoming a hero by relocating and thereby saving the beloved Dunn Mansion.

“Katherine and Rachel don’t have a long history of building with an eye toward historic preservation,” he said, “but they are definitely moving in a new direction.”

During a Q&A session following the presentation, the first question came from a woman who said she was a long-time resident of the neighborhood, and had recently experienced several months of homelessness. She said she was quite concerned that there wasn’t an affordable housing component in the project and asked a pointed question: “Do you have any sense of civic duty?”

Mogavero responded that the majority of his business involves designing and building affordable housing. In fact, he worked with Mercy Housing on the city’s last true affordable housing project, a 150-unit development at Seventh and H streets—one of many projects he’s developed with that mission-oriented nonprofit. With this property, he said, something like that was not possible. Katherine Bardis said the team had dug around to see if any kind of funding was available to subsidize the project, to no avail.

“If the redevelopment agency was still around, we might have been able to do something,” she concluded.

Afterward, the formerly-homeless woman, who asked not to be named, said, “I suppose I can see their point.”

Burg looks back longingly to the time before Gov. Jerry Brown dismantled the state’s redevelopment agencies, when local municipalities could raise money for projects like the Marshall School. But he says Sacramento is still very good at doing development that fosters sustainability, conservation and preservation—three values that he says are “deeply intertwined.”

“We are now on our third generation of people moving back to the city,” he says, “so we have a wealth of experience as to how this works.”

He explains: The first generation of urban resettlers arrived in the late ’60s.

“The baby boomers went off and got college degrees and decided they wanted to come back to Sacramento, and when they got here, they had no interest in living in the suburbs,” he says. “They wanted to live within walking distance of downtown. Some of them had jobs in the Capitol and they wanted to walk or bike to work.”

Burg himself witnessed the second generation of resettlers when he himself was part of the punk-rock and DIY-art scene that boomed in Midtown in the 1980s. (Burg documents both of those historic events in detail in his book, Midtown Sacramento: The Creative Soul of the City.)

“What we’re seeing now is a bunch of returning millennials, who famously don’t feel that they need a car to get around. They want to live within walking distance of a place that’s active, like Midtown.”

He argues that there’s no reason to tear down the old to make room for the new. “The greenest building,” he says, “is one that’s already been built.”

He points to the Warehouse Artists Lofts on R Street, as well as the new condominiums down the street, in former industrial lofts above the Shady Lady Saloon and the Fox & Goose Public House. The old Globe Mills flour plant, a blight in Alkali Flats 10 years ago, was converted to senior affordable housing. The Ransohoff Building was recently developed as a mixed-use project including 22 residential units and a ground-floor restaurant. In several cases, preservation-oriented developments are aimed to confront one of the area’s pressing problems: limited housing stock driving rents skyward.

Burg points out that many of these projects are possible thanks to government programs. Local preservationists, housing advocates, public officials and developers worked together to secure federal tax incentives earmarked for affordable housing and historic preservation.

Twenty percent of the cost of rehabilitating the Marshall School will come from federal preservation programs.

Katherine Bardis says her passion for historic buildings came from birth.

“My dad built a lot of new buildings, but he does have a very large appreciation for historic buildings and materials, and likes to play homage to that. And so I think that’s carried forward with us. And when you have a beautiful asset like the Marshall School, although it’s sometimes easier to tear a building like that down, it kind of does a disservice to the community,” she said. “Sacramento’s such a cool, funky, historic town. You go to big cities like Boston, Chicago, even certain areas of San Francisco, you see a lot of these historic buildings preserved, and it really helps complete the community.”

Developments like this can require extra effort—a fact that was apparent at the Clunie Center public meeting. Three days earlier, Mogavero and the Bardis cousins learned that federal guidelines making historic preservation monies available for projects like this do not allow the units to be sold as condominiums.

The team pivoted, and now the homes that will be built inside the old school will be rental units—for at least five years. None of the development team is in the business of renting apartments, but they are going to roll with it for now.

“We believe ownership is good for neighborhoods,” Bardis said, “but some of the best neighborhoods I’ve ever lived in were mixed-use, with some owner-occupied and some rentals.”

Asked whether that means she and her team have hatched a plan to make these units available for renters indefinitely, Bardis couldn’t say.

“It’s been three days,” she explained.