On the future of Sacramento’s K Street: The Kay after tomorrow

Following decades of blight and blues, K Street’s on the comeback. But some say it’ll be a short-lived revitalization fad without new housing.

Author and historian William Burg’s book <i>Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born</i> is a rich, comprehensive history of the block. His next book, <i>Sacramento Renaissance</i>, comes out this fall—and he thinks downtown needs more housing for true revitalization.

Author and historian William Burg’s book Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born is a rich, comprehensive history of the block. His next book, Sacramento Renaissance, comes out this fall—and he thinks downtown needs more housing for true revitalization.

photo by Nicholas Wray

Photographer Nicholas Wray, whose studio space is a half-block from K Street, was interviewed for this story—and then SN&R commissioned him to photograph the “The Kay” for this piece.

A man brandishing a high-powered water hose blasts away at K Street’s grime, cleaning the block in the same way wardens bathe prisoners in the movies. It’s dawn, and a hazy, straw-colored sunrise overwhelms the street’s urban canopy. In fact, the light startles, as if someone’s whipped back the curtain on this lifeless weekday morning. There is one other person on the strip, a man smoking while seated on a black metal bench near the 12th Street light-rail stop. Just him and the guy purging the mall, readying it for another day.

At this point in the typical story about downtown Sacramento’s K Street, one probably would deliver some kind of snarky punch line about how the water wash can’t mask the block’s lingering urine stench. And that’s fair—pee persists!—but lately, it also feels like a cheap shot.

These are new times for K Street.

Once the sun shines on K, it buzzes. Cars spin up and down the block. People actually eat out at the neighborhood’s restaurants, of which there are many new popular spots. And when the sun sets, there’s sexy night life, trendy pizza spots, karaoke bars. Plus Middle Eastern buffets, new painted murals and soon, possibly a new arena. The street’s even adopted a fresh, if mocked, nickname, “The Kay,” which was part of a recent marketing campaign by downtown’s business district.

This new K can draw a crowd. A younger, clubgoing, mermaid-watching bro contingent, but still, a crowd. It’s a huge transformation.

Sid Garcia-Heberger, who’s operated the Crest Theatre at 1013 K Street going on 27 years, says the atmosphere on the mall “is such a night-and-day change from what K Street was like even a few years ago.”

This has some people worried, though. They argue that the city’s emphasis on nightlife, hospitality and a new Kings home is but a higher-stakes version of the very mistakes that rendered K Street a dead zone for more than half a century.

William Burg, who’s written books about the street and Sacramento’s history, called the latest revitalization plan “exactly the same thing” the city has always done: a shopping, nightlife and entertainment scheme without the most critical element—housing, housing, housing.

“And I think it will continue to fail,” he said. He could be right: Downtown’s population was 50,000 in 1950, but today is only 28,000, he reminded.

Meanwhile, city and business leaders want to double down on K Street’s latest successes. They hope to take The Kay’s clay—plus a few hundred million—and sculpt a neighborhood that will thrive and survive for decades to come. A regional destination anchored by a new entertainment and sports complex at the Downtown Plaza site, and a 101 reasons to spend your hard-earned dollars downtown.

photo by Nicholas Wray

If it succeeds, leaders say K Street will be the city’s ultimate treasure. Failure, however, would be less than OK: If the plan stumbles, it will cost the city hundreds of millions in bad debt and generate unwieldy deficits.

Not OK

There’s a dearth of actual things to do at K and Seventh streets, yet it’s still one of the busier corners in Sacramento. On a Wednesday afternoon last week, young kids mess about and tell jokes and, later, hop on light rail. Down the block, a vendor shouts, “Free cellphone!” A downtrodden-looking man lies passed out in the entryway to one of the street’s empty buildings. A blond teenager, who looks too young to hang out downtown alone, lounges on a park bench, writing in her notebook.

Forget about the loitering and drug dealing and more, and the 700 block could be a jewel. It features the largest sidewalk in Sacramento, a park with a glorious water fountain (though it’s blanketed by concrete, because the county requires public restrooms for it to operate), a psychedelic 1970s mural that puts Haight-Ashbury to shame, easy access to public transit, and proximity to the Capitol and a bustling flock of state workers. It boasts everything you need for commercial, residential and nightlife prosperity.

Yet it’s the most wasted block in the region.

That wasn’t always the case.

“This is where the heart of the business district has been. And it’s only been in the last 50 years where we’ve seen it become one of the more blighted areas,” explained Ali Youssefi, whose company, CFY Development, is shovel-ready to rebuild the 700 block with a $48 million project (more on that later).

He’s right: This stretch of K Street was once the city’s gateway. The first-ever U.S. president to visit Sacramento, Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, for instance, paraded down this block.

More than any other street in the region, K Street’s experienced drama. Since its inception 165 years ago, the block has seen epic floods (including three-years straight from 1851 to 1853), calamitous fires and riots (one featuring the founding publisher of The Sacramento Bee), burlesque and striptease joints, American Graffiti cruisers, and some of the region’s most crushing poverty and drug use.

The street’s decline truly gathered speed in the late 1950s, when suburban sprawl introduced shopping centers to the greater region. Historian Burg, who also heads up the Sacramento Old City Association, says this was part of a concerted effort to move people out of downtown and off of K Street.

“The philosophy was that nobody should live downtown,” he argued.

Whether or not this was in fact an overt city policy, it worked. “The loss of downtown jobs and eastward population shift turned K Street from the center of town to a remote end of the urban region,” Burg wrote in Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born, published in 2012.

“Half of the population has left the urban core in the past 50 years,” Youssefi explained. “It’s crippling. There’s no other way to look at it.”

photo by Nicholas Wray

Back in the day, midcentury commercial stores within a close proximity to K accounted for more than 75 percent of the county’s total sales tax, according to Burg. Take a stroll down the strip today, from the 700 block to 12th Street, and such revenues are difficult to imagine.

The city threw money and ideas at K Street over the past six decades in hopes of resurrecting the hot spot of yore. In 1969, Sacramento used redevelopment dollars to transform it into a pedestrian thoroughfare—that’s how it earned the name “K Street Mall.” Cars were banned. The grand opening of the new K was a major to-do. There’s no way it would fail, city officials assured.

The project flopped.

“Despite the high expectations of the mall and a great deal of fanfare, reaction to the K Street Mall was not as strong as expected,” Burg wrote in Sacramento’s K Street. “A temporary surge in visitors helped sales tax figures.

“But K Street could not overcome the basic problems of a downtown shopping district in the era of suburban malls.”

As more and more people moved to the suburbs to live, the street’s troubles worsened. Not even a Macy’s, bizarre-looking water structures in the middle of the road between Seventh and 12th streets (they made it “look like a jungle” is how Youssefi described them), or hundreds of millions of subsidies on luxury lofts, theaters and restaurants could resuscitate the block.

Moe Mohanna, who owns a gaggle of property downtown and on K street and has been vocal in his opposition to redevelopment and public subsidy, insists that “these subsidies, they did not help.”

Would housing have made a difference? Maybe. But there’s no denying what K Street became: a barren and oft-maligned scapegoat for all things wrong with urban Sacramento.

Brand-new K

Just five years ago, K Street was still “kind of a wasteland.”

Or at least that’s how local artist Nicholas Wray described it. Yet that didn’t stop him from moving his photography studio just a half-block off of the street on 10th. He says he saw promise.

“It had the potential to rival the kind of community we see in Midtown,” he explained. (Disclosure: Since he works near the block, SN&R paid Wray to snap photos for this story.)

He wasn’t alone in seeing K in a new light.

photo by Nicholas Wray

In 2009, the Crest Theatre restored its neon, which has nightly soaked the 1000 block in rays of scarlet and yellow going on 60 years. On a July summer evening, a crowd gathered for the glowing, towering sign’s unveiling. It was a compelling moment, seeing all these locals celebrate an icon of Sacramento history.

And, perhaps, it was also some kind of an omen.

Because that same year, life started shining on K Street. City council approved spending nearly $6 million, from the sale of the nearby Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel, on buildings across from the Crest: Dive Bar, Pizza Rock and District 30 (once planned as a 30-plus nightclub called Frisky Rhythm). Say what you want about mermaids and pizza juggling, but for the first time in decades, the block underwent new development.

Two years later, the spots opened to much fanfare and success. And even today, on a recent weekday night, there was a gaggle of more than two dozen bodies outside the bar, plus a handful of cabs.

“It’s a marked difference from what we had in the past,” the Crest’s Garcia-Heberger said. “I can recall 10 or 12 years ago, where, late at night, the Crest was the only thing open.”

Fast-forward to this summer: By all accounts, the 1000 block is thriving. Nearby Grange Restaurant & Bar, in The Citizen Hotel, and Ella Dining Room & Bar are packed. Happy hours and Friday-night Concerts in the Park mean big crowds at KBar, at the K and 10th corner. This coming year, a California Family Fitness will open across from the Crest, and it’s rumored another new restaurant will overtake the movie house’s basement level soon.

“And every Second Saturday, it’s just popping down here,” Garcia-Heberger added.

Tom Pace, head planner with the city of Sacramento, says everyone’s optimism is tangible. “I think people are a lot more hopeful. In the past it was, ’Well, I’d like to see this area change.’ And now, they are seeing it change,” he explained.

“Every time that I go to the movies at the Crest or go out to dinner in that area, I’m just amazed at all the people who are out and about. At the L Street garage, you now have go up to the top levels; you can’t park just outside the main gate anymore.”

But there’s an elephant on the block: Is this latest K Street incarnation a nightlife fad? Or can this brand-new K blossom into a real, lasting neighborhood?

Here we build housing?

It costs $2.50 to ride the light rail for five blocks on K, but the journey offers a front-row seat to the street’s challenges. Empty storefronts. Still-vacant state-building offices. Panhandlers, drug addicts and the desperately poor. Come-and-go state workers and at-risk youth. They all breeze by in a matter of minutes.

Exit the train at Seventh and K and—ready or not—you’re standing at ground zero of the city’s let-it-ride solution: entertainment and sports complex.

Which way K? The block now buzzes with nightlife, but also sometimes hums like a vacuum.

photo by Nicholas Wray

Developer Youssefi was one of the couple dozen locals—the “mini whales”—who put up $1 million to buy and help save the Sacramento Kings this past spring. And so, while his focus is now on redeveloping the 700 block, he’s of course thrilled at the prospect of a new arena and neighborhood possibly going in at the west end of the mall.

“But I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago about K Street,” he said, adding that he realizes that housing is “crucial” to its success.

Youssefi walks up to a building along the 700 block and points out a vintage photo from the early 20th century resting in the window, a black-and-white portrait of hundreds at a parade: Sacramentans converging on this very block, waving flags, frenzied and festive.

He believes that the new arena, plus his project and forthcoming developments on K all the way down to the Community Center Theater, will have a “catalytic impact” on downtown, that there will be a “flow” from the arena to his block (which will include 137 units of mixed-income housing, plus a music venue and restaurants) that will inspire new housing and hospitality all the way to 12th Street.

“Thinking about what this downtown area will look like in 10 years is exciting,” he said.

Burg is an advocate for Youssefi’s project, which will be built in conjunction with D&S Development’s Bay Miry, who’s responsible for the R Street Corridor mixed-use project near 14th Street and the Maydestone Apartments across from the Memorial Auditorium. But Burg also knows that one block of housing won’t nearly be enough, and he worries that the city—whose arena plan doesn’t include any guarantees for more downtown housing—hasn’t learned its lesson.

Historically, the densest areas of the city were populated by 90 people per acre; today, that number is around 20. And 20,000 fewer people live downtown today than in 1950.

“The city just assumes people will build housing,” Burg said. “But if it was a priority, it would be included” in the arena term sheet. He also reminded that “Sacramento is still building suburbs,” such as Cordova Hills east of Rancho Cordova; why will developers stop sprawl only to embark on more challenging urban-infill projects?

And, he questioned, “Do people want to live near an arena?”

City planner Pace said there is “sort of a national trend of people moving back to cities,” and that, yes, City Hall wants “to have the nightlife and the entertainment there, and we want to have housing.”

There’s meat to what he says. The city’s latest general plan, approved in 2009, places an emphasis on mixed-use housing in the urban core. And, this past April, his department updated code and eliminated the minimum parking requirements for housing, which might encourage more residential development on the grid and K Street, but also makes it easier for commercial projects, too.

“We’ve been a city of suburbs for quite a long time,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central-city grid. “But now cities are learning that it’s hard to sustain an urban core when you’re only activating it eight hours a day. The only way the core of the city prospers is by adding many more residents.”

The entertainment district and poverty collide on K Street.

photo by Nicholas Wray

The sticking point is that few investors want to be pioneers. “I was told people who are investing typically want to see two other projects first,” he explained. So, in theory, if the new arena and the 700 block rises, then there could be a domino effect along K.

Burg says he’ll believe it when he sees it.

“The crystal ball is blurry.”

Will K be OK?

Last month, a series of murals by local artists went up on the corner of Eighth and K streets across from the so-called Darth Vader Building. Money for the art project came from a fundraiser, which was put on a by a group called Turn Downtown Around and featured downtown restaurants like Blackbird Kitchen & Bar serving eats and drinks. It raised thousands, and the sharp-looking murals replaced outdated, cheesy billboards touting K Street’s former “attractions.”

This new art is also symbolic: A new community of Sacramentans actually gives a damn about K Street.

Councilman Hansen, who’s lived and worked near K during his entire tenure in Sacramento, says solutions to sustaining a K Street for everyone lie in the bigger picture. “The intense focus on K Street alone has not been as productive as looking at the J-K-L corridor as a whole,” he said.

Indeed, it’s important to remember that downtown’s future doesn’t hinge on just one street. He reiterated how the urban core lost nearly half its residents over the past 50 years; that’s not something that will be remedied overnight, but getting more people in the greater downtown area will feed the block.

“How do we get back to a place where K Street doesn’t have to be a blockbuster, but instead [is] about restoring a sense of community?” he asked.

Good question.

So, what will happen to those who’ve lived and worked on the block during its K Street blues years as the new Kay continues to grow? The low-income hotel residents? Or senior-citizen moviegoers, who’d like to see the Crest return to screening art-house films during weekdays? And the store owners selling suits to businesspeople, or the mom-and-pop taquerias and pawn shops, who are concerned about rent increases on the heels of K’s revitalization?

The Crest’s Garcia-Heberger envisions a K Street with a little something for everyone. “[K Street is for] people who don’t want a cookie-cutter experience, who don’t want to go to Applebee’s or Olive Garden,” she said.

So, she’s been around for a while, what would she like to see pop up on the block? “Bowling. I love bowling.”

How very K Street: strikes and gutters.