None dare call it sprawl
But just because you call it ‘smart growth’ doesn’t mean it is
Sacramento’s favorite daughter, author Joan Didion, once told SN&R that she couldn’t bear to come home to Sacramento and look around the great sprawling developments in Natomas; those concrete-covered acres used to be the most beautiful green spaces in the region.
Just drive up Truxel Road to see what she means. At one intersection, seven lanes of smelly, smog-inducing traffic come to a stop on their way north. Pedestrians wait endlessly at the corners in order to dash from one shopaholic’s paradise to another. They look as edgy as greyhounds waiting for the light to change.
North Natomas was supposed to be a walkable, bikeable, smart-growth community, but it isn’t. Housing tracts are so far away from schools, stores and jobs that everybody’s completely dependent on their cars. Though smart-growth policies were incorporated into a community plan that was approved in 1994, recommendations, the city found, were not the same as regulations. The grand visions of unique, inviting spaces integrated into neighborhoods and clustered near light-rail stations never materialized—nor did the light-rail stations. It takes someone like the city’s New Growth Manager Scot Mende to point out the progressive principles that did make it into North Natomas.
“For its time, it was ahead of its time,” Mende said. “It was the smart-growth model, part one.” In the ’80s and ’90s, developers and city staff weren’t plopping smart-condo and retail projects in the middle of the central city, or replenishing the city’s residency-hotel stock in order to preserve diversity, or building 50-story condo towers—which went from new thing to old news in the time it took to get the permits.
North Natomas was one of the first developments to cluster new houses around parks and school sites; nearly 80 percent of North Natomas homes were planned within walking distance of open space. Within housing tracts, “snout houses,” with their garages thrust forward, were banned, and porches and balconies were added to bring people outdoors. To “create a sense of place,” North Natomas got its own town center, with a satellite community college and a new high school.
The town center also was supposed to have a public community center and a large library, but those have yet to break ground. The community currently shares one tiny library site with high-school students; it even sits on the Inderkum High School campus.
Though residents snapped up the homes far quicker than the city anticipated, the planned employment districts that were supposed to minimize commute hours still could take decades to mature. Without their developers’ fees, there’s no money for community centers. In the meantime, developers are pushing through rezones that turn prospective employment-center land and open space into even more housing and shopping. The small neighborhood-serving businesses that create the diversity found in vibrant areas like Midtown never materialized, neither did some of the small school sites anticipated by residents, but there’s plenty of big-box shopping.
The transition from community plan to sprawling community irritates the hell out of residents like Barbara Graichen, president of the Natomas Community Association.
“In East Natomas, a golf course was proposed. That was the first project that was pulled out,” she said. Bike lanes are inconsistent and stop short at numerous barriers. No one is safe walking through the sprawling shopping centers, and neither are the students who walk to middle schools on streets with no sidewalks and gutters. Though the plan was to get people closer to their jobs and off the roads, Interstates 80 and 5 are at a standstill during commute hours. North Natomas’ “Town Center” was supposed to bring people together, but it’s mainly a big shopping center, one that Graichen equates with “Anywhere, USA.” With no place to walk to within their neighborhoods, residents end up driving to shopping centers for entertainment.
Whatever the developer wants to build, Graichen said, they call “smart growth.”
“Developers aren’t evil,” Mende said. “They’re just responding to their perception of the market.”
Traditionally, say city planners, local governments ask developers to innovate—to push good, sustainable, environmentally responsible design forward—but developers are building what they know how to build and waiting to see how their peers and competitors handle the same challenges. Progress happens incrementally, especially in large undeveloped areas. Suburban developers look for economies of scale and tend to cluster similar uses together, inspiring phrases like “cookie-cutter development.”
Mende said that developers are becoming better at designing communities, but it still takes a long time to attract the live theaters, museums, churches, and small unique businesses and communal civic spaces that enrich people’s lives. “Fine-grained diversity,” he said, takes time and money. “It’s very costly to build and it takes a long time to build that fine-grained infrastructure.”
But without that kind of diversity, North Natomas resembles nothing more than sprawling neighborhoods facing as many malls as can fit on the landscape. And even the malls aren’t walkable.
“You have to drive your car from one side of the shopping center to the other,” said Graichen. “They couldn’t be less pedestrian friendly.”
“The elected officials have all these wonderful policies,” she said. “They just don’t implement them.”
Though North Natomas is expected to mature and attract more employers, churches, parks and civic uses eventually, smart-growth advocates wonder whether future developments will fail to meet the city’s smart-growth ideals, too.
Delta Shores, 926 acres at the southern border of the city adjacent to Interstate 5, is one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in Sacramento. Developers who are proposing a “master-planned community” say they’re committed to smart-growth design. If you’re wondering, they say they won’t allow acres and acres of stucco in varying shades of tan and gray. “We hate that,” said Tom Karvonen, SunCal Companies’ project manager for Delta Shores. “We’ve got blues and greens and reds.”
The developer’s early November application to the city described Delta Shores as “a compact residential community of approximately 4,600 new homes oriented in a modified traditional grid pattern and anchored by two mixed-use retail centers—a regional oriented Town Center and Neighborhood Village Center.” Mende said the village will be right in the middle of the project and will provide neighborhood-serving retail.
Delta Shores is a huge opportunity and a tract of land that’s been skipped over for years, said Mende. “It’s closer to the central city than Elk Grove, which can reduce vehicle-miles traveled.”
Like parts of North Natomas, Delta Shores originally had been zoned for employment—high-tech offices, generally. But employers never materialized. As in North Natomas, the developers want to rezone light industrial land for housing and retail—the “regional” retail along Interstate 5 probably means big boxes and more cars.
Mixed use, as an ideal, means that houses, jobs, entertainment and shopping are clustered together so people can walk, bike and ride mass transit. Like North Natomas, the Delta Shores development bases its transportation plan on the future expansion of light rail.
But unlike North Natomas, said Karvonen, Delta Shores will include enough senior housing, smaller village-style retail, and 40 acres of wetlands. Fifteen percent of residences will be affordable (apartments only) and the development will include a 1.5-mile long walkable, bikeable linear parkway. “This is going to be 800 acres as opposed to 9,000,” he said, “so we can cluster open spaces together.”
Because the development is small enough, developers also can make it very permeable. They won’t have to wall it in, which means bikers and walkers can move freely.
Altogether, Mende sees this as evidence that developers are moving toward smarter growth. “There are fewer cul-de-sacs, fewer gated communities occurring,” he said. Developers also have seen that customers will pay a little extra to have walkable, bikeable trails, so those trails are incorporated into plans.
But there’s still very little of the mixed-use development that’s begun to fill in the holes in the central-city landscape. Attractive, walkable centers with shops on the ground floors and condos or apartments above? That’s something that doesn’t make it into suburban communities, Mende said. “We try to push as much as we think the market will bend. … To hold Delta Shores to the fine-grained diversity in a downtown project isn’t going to work.”
If the city insists on uses that don’t pencil out, projects may not get built at all.
Developers may not be ready to create the mixed-use spaces planners like to see, but the city is running out of open space and opportunities to get it right. One of the last opportunities might be the rail yards, and if Sacramentans want a particular kind of development, they’ll have to attend city-council meetings and planning-commission meetings to demand it.
North Natomas had a smart-growth community plan that was supported by residents, and look at it now.