Planning beyond Portland

Dave O’Toole is a Sacramento neighborhood advocate and father of a young son.

The residential future of downtown Sacramento—like the view from the top of the emerging 53-story “Towers on Capitol Mall”—is likely to astound the beholder. With 20,000 housing units planned or under construction, glamorous residences like the Towers are only the beginning. City Manager Ray Kerridge recently predicted that 60 residential and commercial high rises could be developed downtown over the next 10 to 15 years.

However, unless a truly compelling and inclusive housing vision is adopted, Sacramento may be headed for the downtown destiny of cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland: a largely childless, family-unfriendly urban core.

One of our most cited urban examples is Portland, a city whose jewel of redevelopment, the Pearl District, has been tarnished by a major oversight in design and affordability: the near absence of children. In that neighborhood there are, according to news reports, only a few dozen school-aged children among 6,400 units of housing.

This matters because families are an essential thread in a stable and long-term community fabric. Families with children tend to be active in preserving the safety, appearance and amenities of their community. Sadly, many prospective parents downtown feel forced to move out to suburbs to raise a family. They shouldn’t have to relocate.

Vancouver, British Columbia, presents an innovative alternative. In Vancouver, a “Living First” housing policy led to an unprecedented urban residential transformation that, among other things, required that at least 20 percent of new housing units be affordable, and that 25 percent be designed for families. Additionally, Vancouver created fiscal incentives for developers to build whole neighborhoods where families would be accommodated with schools, child-care facilities, recreation and other amenities.

Vancouver has transformed popular notions about density, urban-housing design and the role of families in populating a city. It now boasts a broad demographic cross-section of more than 20 percent of its population living in the downtown core (Sacramento’s share is less than 4 percent) and recently has been named the most livable city in the world.

Portland and other attractive urban models also signal a warning for Sacramento’s downtown residential future. For a more compelling and inclusive model, our city should look north to Vancouver and pursue “Living First” principles as a key component to shaping our downtown destiny.