Old schooled

The central city's preservationist group gets a new look

For four decades, the Sacramento Old City Association has been a champion of Sacramento’s architectural character and its historic neighborhoods. And it has been an important force guiding Sacramento’s growth, advocating for more housing and more human-scale development downtown.

In its way, SOCA has helped shape the city as much as any developer has. Midtown wouldn’t be Midtown without SOCA. Same goes for the R Street corridor or the Memorial Auditorium. The list goes on.

But the “old city” association itself may soon be a thing of the past—sort of—as its members decide whether to rebrand and reorganize SOCA. “To keep this organization going for another 40 years, some changes are going to be necessary,” says SOCA president William Burg. Perhaps not surprisingly for a preservation group, some members aren’t happy with all of the changes.

At its height 20 years ago, SOCA had about 900 members, says Burg. When he became president in 2012 that number was closer to 80. But now SOCA is growing again, up to about 180 members. And as development in the city rebounds with the economy, SOCA leaders want the organization to be more effective and better suited for today’s political environment.

Some of the proposed changes are symbolic, like the name. Many assume the old-city association is all about Old Sacramento. But the “old city” actually refers to the downtown and Midtown grid, and Burg notes the group is increasingly involved in planning and preservation issues in other parts of town.

The SOCA board is suggesting changing the name to “Preservation Sacramento,” and there’s a new logo proposed as well—a Victorian house in the foreground, a cluster of skyscraper shapes in the background.

But some changes have met more resistance. In December, SOCA members voted to reject changes to the bylaws that included a controversial provision to take away members’ ability to directly elect the SOCA board of directors.

“Essentially, it took control away from the membership. I found that to be startling and quite undemocratic,” says Jon Marshack, a long-time SOCA member and a member of the City of Sacramento’s Preservation Commission.

That proposal followed advice given by SOCA’s lawyer, who said the current bylaws left it too vulnerable to lawsuits. Worth thinking about when you’re going up against wealthy developers. Burg also says the bylaw changes were intended to help SOCA to respond more quickly when development proposals and other issues pop up.

The proposed bylaw changes were really just a prequel to a bigger discussion going on in SOCA about the group’s overall organization. SOCA is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and has been since the 1970s. That structure is great for doing political advocacy, but it means memberships and donations aren’t tax-deductible. And most modern preservation organizations (if that’s not an oxymoron) are organized as 501(c)(3)s.

That’s getting a bit technical, suffice it to say SOCA has a few structural issues to address, if it’s going to last into the coming decades. And members will meet again on February 8 to start hashing those out. The new name and logo could be voted on that day. The organizational stuff will take longer.

Karen Jacques, a SOCA board member and longtime Sacramento preservation activist, conceded that SOCA members were asked to vote on too many changes last month, with too little discussion. “In hindsight, we got a little ahead of ourselves on a complicated issue.

“But whatever the bylaws finally look like, I think we’re going to be much stronger in the end,” says Jacques.

How much is Sacramento’s streetcar proposal really going to cost? Like every other media outlet in town, SN&R last week said $150 million.

But that’s not really true, noted Craig Powell with the city government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento.

Downtown property owners are being asked to pay for a $30 million share of the $150 million sticker price. The plan is to sell $30 million worth of bonds and then raise downtown property taxes in certain areas in order to pay off the bonds. But because the bonds have to be paid back, with interest over time, the real cost to property owners will be somewhat higher than $30 million down the road.

How much higher? Powell says that $30 million share could be more like $50 million or $70 million by the time it’s paid off. City officials say they can’t hazard a guess because they don’t know what the interest rates they’ll end up with.

Either way, it is true that the streetcar is going to cost somewhat more than is being advertised. Of course, that’s true of anything that has to be financed and paid off over time—streetcars, arenas, houses, you name it. But the city and streetcar proponents ought to make that clear, and so should we reporters.