On the rise and fall (and rise and fall, again) of Franklin Boulevard
Will life ever be mmm, mmm, good for one of Sacramento’s original suburbs?
South Sacramento's 47th Avenue light-rail station is going to waste.
Passengers get off the train and are greeted by a high fence and an idled Campbell Soup Company plant. Across the parking lot and street are industrial buildings and truck fleets. Kitty-corner from those, another warehouse and a big, empty lot. Not the kind of land use you want if you’re going to take take full advantage of a high-end piece of transit infrastructure like light rail.
Leaving the station, travelers have a long walk before they get to anywhere in particular. Some nearby stretches of Franklin Boulevard don’t even have sidewalks. The one bus line that used to feed the 47th Avenue station was eliminated, due to budget cuts, in 2010. The bus stop is stenciled over with the words “No bus.”
“You’re kind of stuck,” says Tong Thao, a government-studies student who attends Sacramento State University. Thao grew up not far from here, in the south Sacramento neighborhood of Parkway. North of the station and the Campbell plant, the area is called City Farms, or just Franklin Boulevard. “Some of those neighborhoods are not the best to walk through,” he says.
You don’t have to be an academic to see that the neighborhood doesn’t function as well as it ought to. Franklin Boulevard is like a lot of old suburbs: overlooked and underplanned, while money flows into building on the suburban fringe or into favored downtown areas, like Sacramento’s heavily subsidized entertainment district, “The Kay.”
“When you don’t invest in a neighborhood, that’s when it really starts declining,” says Jesus Hernandez, a sociologist at UC Davis. Franklin’s got some of the highest crime rates in Sacramento County. It was once named “the ugliest street” in Sacramento.
Contrast Franklin Boulevard and 47th Avenue to the new Township Nine at the River District development and its light-rail station north of downtown Sacramento, planned to anchor a mixed-use cluster of homes, offices and shops. Or the Iron Point Road light-rail station in Folsom, which connects riders to a bustling retail district, bike trail and greenbelt.
“This is the difference between planning in south Sacramento or planning in Folsom,” says Hernandez, waving toward the moonscape of the Campbell Soup plant’s yard. “Here you have this infrastructure gem that really has no connection to the neighborhood,” says Hernandez.
For 20 years, Franklin was a redevelopment area. There was considerable progress, but most of the money promised from redevelopment never materialized.
Now, Hernandez has teamed up with Marti Brown, executive director of the North Franklin District Business Association, in trying to craft a community plan to “reboot” and “reconnect” the neighborhood—in the post-redevelopment era.
“We’re trying to revitalize the area, in terms of economic development and in terms of transit-oriented development, making the urban design and streetscape more pedestrian friendly and more business friendly for everyone,” says Brown.
“And there’s no redevelopment anymore to pay for it.”Main Street, USA, disconnected
This story could probably be about any neighborhood in south Sacramento, or any neighborhood in north Sacramento, or similar places in any other California city. The patterns are the same.
Franklin Boulevard gets its name from the town it used to connect to, Franklin, now just a divot on the edge of the sprawl city of Elk Grove. The north end of Franklin intersects with Sacramento’s central-city grid at Broadway.
It was, for many years, a major commercial corridor, anchored by the Campbell Soup plant, whose workforce shopped in its stores and sent their kids to neighborhood schools.
In the 1960s came the construction of Highway 99, and if even you don’t know exactly what happened to Franklin Boulevard then, you probably know what happened to a lot of places like it.
“With the primary transportation flow diverted to the new freeway, Franklin Boulevard was bypassed by new commercial development and gradually deteriorated”—that’s from a short history of the strip in the revitalization plan put together by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.
Around the country, the highway building boom of the 1950s and ’60s chopped neighborhoods in half (in this case, City Farms and Oak Park), fueled the growth of outer-ring suburbs, and left the inner neighborhoods behind. And so Franklin became somewhat disconnected from the economic life of the city.
“Connection” is a word that comes up a lot when Brown talks about what the neighborhood needs. “We’ve got a disconnectivity problem. When you have one in five people who don’t have a car. When you’ve got three crosswalks in the 2-mile distance between Fruitridge and Sutterville [roads].”
The North Franklin District begins at Broadway and runs south along Franklin for 4 miles, almost to Florin Road. The western edge of the district is the Union Pacific railroad tracks, then 24th Street, as far as Sutterville Road. The eastern boundary is Highway 99.
And while the neighborhood has been skipped over for new development, a byproduct is that it is largely free of the fast-food and retail chains that are found in other commercial corridors.
Franklin Boulevard boasts a remarkable set of long-running family businesses, many of which have been on the strip for decades. In fact, this year, there are more than 25 establishments in the North Franklin District that have been in business for more than 50 years. Some of the businesses, like Red’s Plumbing Supply (opened in 1950) or Caballo Blanco (1961), or South Sacramento Leader Pharmacy (1941) are Sacramento institutions.
For a while, in the 1970s and ’80s, Franklin was a main drag for Sacramento’s cruisers and Latino car clubs. One provocative headline from an October 1979 issue of The Sacramento Union reads, “Low Riders forcing Franklin merchants to their knees.”
The story quotes the then-owners of the Burger Shack, on Franklin at 18th Avenue, explaining why they simply gave up painting over the graffiti and regretted buying the tiny restaurant, with the beer-drinking cruisers in the parking lot every Friday and Saturday night.
Those particular owners didn’t last long. Scott Hackett and his dad bought the Burger Shack in 1981.
“A lot has changed and a lot hasn’t changed,” says Hackett. He laments the number of empty lots in the area—there are so many empty lots. The low riders are long gone. The Shack sports a metal grating around its windows, a precaution against nighttime vandalism. But beyond that, Hackett says, “I don’t think Franklin is rougher than anywhere else.”
As for business, “it’s spiked in the last five years.” Hackett figures tasty cheap food is always in demand.‘Ugliest street' in Sacramento
The Sacramento Union in 1986 called Franklin the “ugliest street” in Sacramento, much to the annoyance of the then-city councilman for the area, Joe Serna.
“It just inflamed Joe that the ’ugliest street’ in town was in his district,” says Frank Cable, owner of South Sacramento Leader Pharmacy.
The fight against blight has been on ever since.
SN&R visited Cable’s pharmacy on a busy Friday afternoon. He took a break while a couple of employees manned the counter, toggling easily between English and Spanish. Years ago, a high percentage of the customers in Cable’s pharmacy held Campbell Soup Company insurance cards; the employees had their own credit union. As the workforce was winnowed, that credit union joined the Sacramento Credit Union branch on Franklin Boulevard. Today, there’s no credit union, no banking of any kind on Franklin.
Over time, the Campbell workers in Cable’s store were replaced by Spanish-speaking construction workers, who made their livings on the suburban building boom to the south. Cable explains, “The carpenters, the roofers, the landscape-installation people” made pretty good money, and spent it on prescriptions or in the carniceria across the street. When building went bust, “Many of them just moved on. The last five years, we lost a lot of people on the boulevard.”
Out of Serna’s aggravation with the title of “ugliest street” was born the North Franklin Business District Association, of which Cable is now president. (He’s only the second owner of the pharmacy, which he bought in 1973.)
Serna and the district got the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to cough up money to put all the telephone and electric lines on Franklin Boulevard underground, considerably reducing the ugly clutter that had earned the Union’s scorn. There was a tree-planting effort, and the district helped business owners remove outdated street signs. More recently, the district brought back the classic cars as part of the annual Hispanic/Latino parade. Two years ago, local artists painted murals on many of the walls of Franklin shops.
Connie Herrera’s La Pantera Club, on 26th Avenue, has thrived over the last 20 years as a spot for Latin music and dancing. She’s like a lot of business owners in the area who say things are better than they were 10 or 20 years ago. But she added that progress has been slow, and lately, there have been setbacks.
“There’s been a lot of beautification, a lot of changes. We definitely have more streetlights and sidewalks. But there’s a lot more to be done,” she says.
Illegal dumping is rampant in the numerous empty lots throughout the area, and sometimes in the streets themselves. Sections of some streets still lack sidewalks, and have open ditches instead of covered storm drains.
The neighborhood was dealt a blow when the Sacramento City Unified School District decided to close the 60-year-old Maple Elementary School—part of a round of budget cuts and controversial school closures that mostly hit south Sacramento’s poor and nonwhite neighborhoods. Hernandez says the closures just perpetuate the cycle of neighborhood neglect.
“You stunt the growth of the neighborhood. People don’t want to be here, and they move to different neighborhoods.”
The North Franklin District crisscrosses city and county boundaries. The northern portion is inside the city limits, the southern part in the unincorporated county. Just south of the city limits, you find The Avenues, bounded by 41st and 47th avenues and Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, an area of some of the highest crime rates in the city or county.
This is the spot that the Sacramento County Economic Development and Marketing department picked earlier this year for a possible “re-entry” facility for federal parolees.
“You’ve got high rates of gang activity, drugs, firearms—everything is right here,” says Hernandez. “This is not the most conducive place for parolees to re-enter society. You are really setting them up for failure.”
That plan was fought off by merchants and neighbors, who testified to the County Planning Commission.
The neighborhood also played defense when local Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer started talking with Safe Ground Sacramento about a possible homeless camp just off of Franklin near Fruitridge.
“We already have quite a few challenges to deal with,” says Brown. “We don’t need a massive homeless population wandering the streets of Franklin Boulevard, along with federal parolees trying to find jobs in a place where there aren’t enough jobs for the people who already live here.”
Schenirer told SN&R that when the neighborhood objected, “that was the end of it. I wasn’t going to force it.”
He says he supports the North Franklin District’s effort to revitalize and mentions the Mississippi Avenue area of Portland, Ore., as a possible model: “There are no chains: It was completely redeveloped with local incentives.”Was soup good for Franklin?
Incentives can be tricky. In 1993, 20 years ago, the county approved an ambitious redevelopment plan for the 1,400 acres around Franklin Boulevard.
It worked like this: Any improvements in the area would lead to increased business and, therefore, generate additional tax revenue. This “tax increment” money would be collected by the redevelopment agency and reinvested in the area. Often, redevelopment areas borrow money for projects by issuing bonds against that estimated future tax-increment money.
At the time it began, the SHRA estimated that some $231 million would be plowed back into Franklin over the course of 35 years. In reality, less than one-tenth of that money was ever raised and invested by the SHRA.
That’s in part because Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment this year. The economic stagnation of the last few years also didn’t help, as it meant less tax money captured by redevelopment areas.
And for the Franklin Boulevard Redevelopment Project Area, the area’s biggest asset also turned out to be one of its biggest challenges.
The Campbell Soup plant had been an important economic engine on the boulevard since 1947. But in 1993—the same time locals were trying to launch their new redevelopment area—Campbell was threatening to leave town and ditch its aging plant. At the time, Sacramento leaders were also bracing for the economic blow caused by closure of local military bases, like Mather Air Force Base. To keep Campbell Soup, county leaders agreed to give them back a portion of its property taxes to invest in its own facility.
But that meant millions in taxes that would never be collected by the redevelopment area.
“It’s always been kind of a hindrance for us on the boulevard,” says Cable. Today, he wonders if the big subsidy to Campbell was worth it.
“What the hell? Maybe it would have been like Mather, and been all done and cleaned up, and we’d be another 10 years down the road.”
The Campbell deal presented other problems for redevelopment. Because Campbell wasn’t paying taxes into the redevelopment area, SHRA was not able to issue bonds to fund redevelopment projects—a tool that was available to other redevelopment areas.
As a result, projects moved forward piecemeal. There were several streetscape improvements. The SHRA gave business owners matching funds to improve their facades. The money was already in the pipeline for new sidewalks going in along the west side of Franklin, between 47th Avenue and the city limit. And a new community center, to be built on 41st Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, broke ground earlier this year.
But the list of unfinished projects is a long one. Plans for a new small park—there is no park on Franklin Boulevard—are off.
Plans for a new affordable-housing development, a proposed “mixed use” project, and a “weed and seed” rehab of some of the distressed apartment buildings in The Avenues are also on hold, as the state Legislature debates what sort of housing entities will succeed with the redevelopment agencies.
In the end, about $25 million was raised in the Franklin Boulevard Redevelopment Project Area over 20 years. About $6 million of that had to be returned to the county when Gov. Brown eliminated redevelopment.
“With the dissolution of redevelopment, we just weren’t able to accomplish the vision in our urban design plan,” says SHRA’s assistant director Chris Pahule.Reconnecting the boulevard
Franklin, and south Sacramento generally, represent what some call the “first ring” suburbs. Built in the mid-20th century, the inner ring has been overlooked as money and attention flow to outer suburbs, or to the inner core, as cities remake their downtowns as playgrounds for the wealthy.
But Lynn Ross, of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, says these inner neighborhoods have a lot going for them that makes them worthy of attention and investment.
“A majority of Americans are looking for compact, mixed-use areas. And these first-tier suburbs have a lot of the elements that folks are looking for. They are generally well-located, [and] they have good transportation options.”
Franklin is 7 miles from downtown, and has two light-rail stations: 47th Avenue, and the stop just north of there, Fruitridge. Sacramento City College is 1 mile away. It has acres and acres of developable land close to existing infrastructure.
“If you really want to talk about sustainable neighborhoods, here’s one that’s ready to go,” says Hernandez.
Hernandez teaches urban sociology at UC Davis. One of his recent papers explored how Sacramento’s history of racial discrimination in housing created the north-south axis of poor neighborhoods that exists today. Another tracked transportation spending in the region, and found it follows a “doughnut” pattern, with older, poorer areas like south Sacramento in the middle of the donut hole.
Marti Brown took over as director of the North Franklin District last year. She has a background in redevelopment; in fact, she worked for seven years for SHRA, though not in the Franklin area.
She actually lives in Vallejo and commutes to Franklin every day. At home in Vallejo, she’s an elected city councilwoman.
Brown says that in her experience, new sidewalks and tax breaks only get you so far. “It isn’t enough just to look at the businesses. You have to look at education, job readiness, employment. If the people who live here aren’t doing well, they certainly aren’t going to be shopping or spending very much money. All of it is connected.”
The first step, says Brown, is triage and trying to keep the neighborhood from becoming a “sacrifice zone” to dump the city’s social problems.
Next, she is working with Hernandez to collect data, making a sort of inventory of the neighborhood’s assets and needs, infrastructure and social goods. Then, a more complete economic development plan.
In the past, the North Franklin District would try to talk SHRA or the local economic-development department into providing some money to hire consultants to do a study. That’s not an option anymore, so Brown has had to improvise.
“It’s awesome working with no money. The freedom is just amazing,” she deadpans.
That improvisation is likely to be a big part of the post-redevelopment era. “There is no redevelopment. I think increasingly, we’ll see districts like North Franklin finding unique, creative ways to revitalize their districts. Because there really isn’t any funding.”
Even without consultants and expensive studies, it’s obvious that Hernandez and Brown have some ideas. “Part of rebooting a community is turning it into a place,” says Hernandez. “It’s hard to turn a neighborhood into a place when you have four lanes of high-speed traffic running through it.”
He proposes a “road diet,” replacing traffic lanes with bike lanes, and wider sidewalks in some areas. They are thinking the neighborhood might benefit from a shuttle system, to help make up for the lack of other transportation options.
Does the neighborhood want shuttles or road diets? “That’s a fair question,” says Brown. They won’t know until they gather that information.
But it seems clear that Franklin’s future is tightly connected to the soon-to-be-vacant Campbell Soup site, and the district’s two light-rail stations.
Light rail is a huge investment, which transit agencies make—over cheaper bus lines—in part because it’s seen as a catalyst for nearby development. Which, in turn, supports more transit ridership.
“When you have a light-rail stop like this, it’s supposed to be an event. It’s supposed to bring retail, it’s supposed to bring housing. And you can’t see any of that here,” says Hernandez.
Brown says Campbell’s transition is a rare opportunity. “It’s our hope that the fence would come down, and we’d create some more synergy and connectivity between the site and the light-rail station, and really capitalize on the opportunity for transit-oriented development.”
Hernandez elaborates: He sees a matchup in the site’s historic role in food processing and the local push for a “farm-to-fork” economy.
“You could have food courts, educational places. You could put housing down one strip,” he says. “The idea is to open this up and connect it to Franklin Boulevard.”
The general manager of Sacramento Regional Transit, Mike Wiley, says that RT’s policy has long been to encourage transit-oriented development around its light-rail stops. RT has written policies concerning possible transit-oriented development around both the 47th Avenue and Fruitridge Road stations—a part of the agency’s long-term “Transit for Livable Communities” planning process.
“If the county sees this as an opportunity to change the area,” Wiley says, then RT already has guidelines in place. The SHRA’s plan also called for transit-oriented development around the light-rail stops.
Councilman Schenirer says it’s “a tremendous opportunity. It could be a real economic catalyst for the neighborhood.” And the Urban Land Institute’s Ross likewise remarks, “Here’s a huge physical symbol of what the community was. You can create a new symbol of what the community wants to be.”
But none of those people get to say what happens to the Campbell site. The statement sent to SN&R by the Sacramento County Economic Development and Marketing department director Troy Givans was more general—and less inspiring.
“Sacramento County has reached out to Campbell Soup Company with a list of priorities for the site, which includes bringing high quality jobs to the neighborhood. When the sale is complete, we will encourage the new owner to develop the property in a way that benefits the community.”
The property is, after all, private, and Brown acknowledges new urbanist visions won’t much matter if the new owners have no interest.
“How much say we’re going to have over the redevelopment of that site, it’s probably limited. But we want to encourage whoever the buyer is to create that connectivity to the community.”
Campbell Soup representative Carla Burigatto wouldn’t comment on what offers Campbell is entertaining from potential new owners, other than to say, “There are no additional details to share, since the negotiations are confidential.”
If Campbell feels any obligation to help make sure the new owner is a good fit for the neighborhood that relied on, and subsidized, the company for so many years, it’s not saying.
Meanwhile, Hernandez and Brown and the people on Franklin will keep plugging away at their plan. Trying to connect, says Hernandez. “Our goal is to turn it back into a place, a place that’s connected to the rest of the world.”