Riding a new rail

Regional Transit’s new South Line was supposed to help make Sacramento a more transit-friendly city, like Portland. Instead, because of a lack of planning, it’s just another part of the sprawl problem.

On a sunny weekend last September, Regional Transit (RT) opened its new light-rail line by inviting the public to ride for free. It was standing-room only inside the shiny new blue-and-yellow light-rail cars, and crowds packed the platforms to squeeze onto the next train. City and county elected officials, who also sit on RT’s board of directors, showed up to cut the ribbon and make speeches lauding the line.

The new six-mile, $222 million South Line had been more than a decade in the making. It was the first major extension of the light-rail network since the original system opened in 1987. The new portion splits from the original light-rail line at 16th and R streets and then heads south, on an alignment shared by freight trains, to Meadowview Road in South Sacramento.

At the end of the line, there wasn’t much for day-trippers to see. Just off the platform was a vast expanse of asphalt with parking for nearly 700 cars. Beyond that, the only thing around the station was grass growing on empty parcels.

In a literal sense, the new light-rail line went nowhere—just like most of the rest of the light-rail system. Outside of downtown Sacramento, many light-rail stations are in sterile, barren areas no one would want to visit. Though other cities have clustered people-oriented development around transit, Sacramento hasn’t. Even on the “grid” in Sacramento’s city center, many stations are flanked by vacant lots and parking lots—exactly what shouldn’t be there.

Around the country, many other cities with light rail have focused high-density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use developments around stations, usually within a quarter-mile. Planners call it transit-oriented development, and it’s more than just buildings next to tracks. In general, it’s higher-density development made up of housing, offices and shops designed around pedestrians, not cars. This type of development could help turn Sacramento into a very walkable place by 2025.

Transit-oriented growth creates a symbiotic relationship: Development brings new riders to transit, and transit brings development to existing neighborhoods instead of to the exurban fringes. Ideally, more riders means more frequent service, which makes transit that much more attractive to users. More riders translates into fewer cars and less pollution in the coming decades.

Planners regard transit-oriented development as a proven way of solving intertwined problems like sprawl, traffic and smog, while creating livable neighborhoods that are better investments economically. Getting such development built is not easy, but speed bumps can be flattened with the help of elected leaders who are willing to expend political capital on getting a project done. However, Sacramento’s local elected officials haven’t taken the lead in bringing different players together to get a workable project completed that showcases the principles of growth around transit. Sometimes, that’s because politicians just don’t understand the concept.

Bonnie Pannell, who sits on RT’s board of directors, used to be one of those politicians. The Sacramento councilwoman represents the South Sacramento district that includes Meadowview Station.

Three years ago, when discussions began about what to do with the land around the proposed station, Pannell heard the words “high density” and thought of a crime-plagued housing project in her district: Franklin Villa.

“I was real skeptical in the beginning because I was looking at the quality of development that had happened in my district, and I wasn’t happy,” Pannell recalled. “So, we went on a couple tours.”

Pannell and other city officials visited high-quality high-density developments in the East Bay and Southern California. They also went to Washington, D.C., where big developments have arisen around rail stations.

“She saw development that was classy, attractive, comfortable,” said Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, who traveled with Pannell. “Her concern was that it was going to be a bad place to live, and it was the opposite. She saw an alternative that was positive.”

Today, Pannell is a convert who urges others to accept high-density development near transit.

The rest of Sacramento’s leaders are starting to push for growth near transit, albeit slowly. The seeds were planted years ago, and the first developments are finally about to sprout. It will take years for these new efforts to pay off fully, but the result could transform Sacramento into something that’s more livable, less sprawling and maybe even cool by 2025.

The root cause of Sacramento’s lousy record of developing around transit goes back to how the original system was built in the mid-1980s. Instead of winding through established neighborhoods and past big draws like Arden Fair mall and California State University, Sacramento, the lines were built through uninviting areas. Because the light rail followed existing railroad tracks and freeways, many of the surrounding areas were industrial. It hasn’t changed much.

Sacramento’s efforts to lay the groundwork for growth around transit are way overdue, said Maureen Pasco. She coordinated RT’s effort to bring better development to station areas during a decade-long stint at RT, which she left last year for West Sacramento’s redevelopment agency. Starting in 2000, Pasco managed RT’s Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) program.

Most other cities with light rail do the station-area land-use planning before they even lay any rail, Pasco said, but Sacramento didn’t start until 15 years after the light rail began running—and even then RT was reluctant to get started.

“The transit agency was never a leader on the issue because in Sacramento there’s still ambivalence about the role that transit has to play in shaping land use,” Pasco said. “What’s really unfortunate is that we’re pouring hundreds of millions into a transit system that won’t work unless you have those land uses around it.” Without more intensive land uses around stations, she added, investment in building the system doesn’t pay off.

RT spokesman Mike Wiley disagrees. The agency is bringing development to station areas, he said, and it took the lead in creating the TLC program three years ago. Since Pasco left, RT has added several new staffers to handle her responsibilities, but it still can do only so much. “We’re not a land-use planning agency, so we don’t have any say over any of those decisions,” Wiley said. (RT also has been prodded in recent years by federal funding requirements for new rail projects that demand planning for more intense land use at stations.)

As Regional Transit’s new real-estate manager, Fred Arnold has the job of kick-starting development around light-rail stations.

Photo By Larry Dalton

To be fair, Sacramento does face the same kinds of barriers that make smart development difficult everywhere, especially in California. Infill projects, which transit-friendly developments often are, can be hard to get past not-in-my-backyard neighbors and skeptical lending institutions. In addition, Sacramento-area developers only have incentives to do what’s easiest and cheapest: keep building tens of thousands of new tract homes per year in undeveloped areas like North Natomas, Elk Grove and both Placer and El Dorado counties.

“[Developers] tell us that it’s a lot easier to go out into the fields where there’s nobody around,” said Marty Tuttle, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG). “Neighbors fear infill.”

Although growth around transit could help counteract the sprawl trend by strengthening the transit system and rebuilding established neighborhoods, Sacramento lacks the one asset that has helped other cities do that: political backbone.

“I don’t think people realize the significance of transit-oriented development,” said developer Sotiris Kolokotronis, who specializes in building downtown infill projects. He’s watched politicians in other cities—Portland, Ore.; Denver; and San Diego—commit to what he calls progressive development. “In those cities, I believe, the common denominator is strong political leadership,” he said. Kolokotronis said Sacramento needs someone who can bring all the players together. “We need to create teams that make projects happen—teams of developers, architects, planners, building officials, financiers, just to make things happen fast.”

Sacramento transit advocate Rich Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation and a transportation planner for Caltrans, also dings local leaders for saying much and doing little for transit-oriented development. “There’s not really any politician who gets out there and advocates it,” Tolmach said. “Nobody’s actually trying to get a project done.” (There are, however, three RT board members who support transit-friendly growth, even if they’re not tireless advocates for it: Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson and Sacramento City Councilmen Dave Jones and Steve Cohn.)

Architects, developers and transit advocates say it’s important to have a showcase development, because it can help change perceptions. To many people, “high-density” and “affordable housing” conjure crime-ridden high-rises, while “public transportation” sounds like an expensive conveyance for the homeless. The right kind of showcase near a station, maybe a few stories of residential or office space above shops and restaurants along an inviting streetscape, would be a powerful illustration for skeptics.

Getting that showcase project done also could teach local developers and lenders the same thing that Pannell learned on her field trips to dense infill developments: that it’s possible to build mixed-use projects around transit and that doing so is a good investment. Getting that first project built requires the kind of top-down edict that Kolokotronis cites, and it takes a strong leader to bring together many different sides that often can have competing interests. But that first showcase speaks volumes.

“We’re 20 years behind the curve,” said architect and builder Ron Vrilakas, who has teamed up with Kolokotronis on infill projects. “We have a development community that doesn’t really know that product. The table has to be set. It has to be made easy for developers.”

Even Fargo, the region’s most visible politician on the local level, will concede with some prodding that there’s never been a crusader for transit-oriented development among local leaders. “We don’t have that one person yet,” she said.

Although Sacramento’s leaders haven’t taken dramatic action to cluster growth around transit, they did have a clear reaction when they started getting applications for developments that smart-growth planners caution against.

Sacramento’s light-rail stations, like this one near Folsom Boulevard and 65th Street, weren’t built with the concept of “transit-oriented development” in mind.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Jim McDonald, a senior planner for the city of Sacramento who is one of the key behind-the-scenes players working to roll out the welcome mat for development around light rail, said the city changed course only after a couple of brushes with proposals for poor uses of land around stations.

“There wasn’t anything driving us to do the land-use planning until we started getting applications for mini-storage and big-box retail along the lines, and that was kind of a wake-up call,” McDonald said. The city refused the applications and then started updating its policies.

“We just recently got religion about transit-oriented development,” noted Bob Waste, a professor of public policy at CSUS and a former city of Sacramento planning commissioner.

In December, the RT board formally decided that the planned Downtown-Natomas-Airport line would follow Truxel Road. The route had been on the books for years, but a small yet vocal group of residents besieged board members with protests, arguing that light rail would bring crime, noise and traffic to their neighborhood and that it should go up the middle of Interstate 5 instead. Board members held their ground, though they really had no choice. The poor placement of an I-5 line would have made it impossible to get federal funds.

“It does seem like we’re turning a corner,” SACOG’s Tuttle said of the region’s efforts. But, when asked which political leaders are actively pushing for transit-oriented development, Tuttle thought for a second and then responded politely by saying that developers are poised to make the biggest difference. “The private sector,” he said, “will have to drive this.”

Pasco also acknowledges progress made—sort of: “We have an extra big hill to climb, and we’ve only just started climbing it.”

If Sacramento, with respect to transit-oriented development, is Goofus, then Portland is indisputably Gallant—so much so, in fact, that planners, architects, politicians, bureaucrats, and developers have flocked to Portland from all over the country and even Europe. “I can’t tell you how many cities have come to visit us,” said Vicky Diede, a project manager in the city of Portland’s transportation department.

Last fall, the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce went on a study mission to Portland, accompanied by Fargo. Portland makes a compelling vision of what’s possible here, especially in the sprawling former rail yards just north of Sacramento’s downtown.

On a recent drizzly afternoon, Diede walked through the Pearl District, a booming new neighborhood on the edge of downtown Portland. Until a few years ago, it was a rail yard. Now, it’s home to thousands of new residents. There are trendy stores, parks instead of parking lots, and people everywhere—though some nearby industrial uses remain active and it’s still possible to find unpaved streets and stray boxcars in the area. As she talked about how the city made it happen, Diede pointed out beautiful old brick buildings restored for residential use and new buildings that blended seamlessly with the old.

To encourage developers to build all this, the city did something that most American cities stopped doing a century ago: It built a new streetcar line. Portland Streetcar opened in 2001 along a 2.4-mile line connecting Portland State University, downtown, the Pearl District and Northwest Portland. The city paid most of the $57 million capital cost, but nearby property owners pitched in by paying an assessment, and businesses paid to slap their names on streetcar platform shelters.

The Round, a textbook transit-oriented development in the Portland suburb of Beaverton, surrounds the light-rail platform with lofts, offices and restaurants.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

The colorful streetcars, shorter and narrower than light-rail vehicles, mix easily with auto traffic on surface streets. Riding it, while watching shops and pedestrians pass just a few feet away, passengers may feel as though they’re riding on the sidewalk.

In addition to funding the streetcar, Portland officials sweetened the deal for developers by paying for other improvements around the Pearl District, such as building streets, creating parks and removing an old elevated road that loomed over several blocks. When the city committed to those projects, developers agreed to build at much higher densities—putting up 12-story apartment buildings, for example, instead of three-story buildings—which, in turn, brings increased property-tax revenue to the city and creates a more vibrant neighborhood.

Today, the new streetcar is doing the same thing as its predecessors did all over the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: planting the seeds of new development wherever the tracks go. Since 1997, more than $1 billion worth of new development has been completed or scheduled in the streetcar’s assessment district, which extends a few blocks on either side of the line. Streetcars now traverse the Pearl District in the shadows of several tall, white construction cranes at work on more buildings.

“We have actually had development-oriented transportation,” cracked Earl Blumenauer, Portland’s bike-riding, bowtie-wearing Democratic congressman and a 30-year advocate for better planning.

Portland’s suburbs are developing aggressively around light rail, also.

A 40-minute light-rail ride west of downtown, one mixed-use development in the city of Hillsboro is the new standard for transit-oriented development. Orenco Station, the winner of several national planning awards, is a mix of several hundred homes, lofts and condos clustered around a pedestrian-friendly kind of Main Street lined with shops and restaurants.

Down the line at a station in central Beaverton, new units are selling at The Round, a mixed-use development of lofts, offices and ground-floor commercial spaces. The Round’s different buildings form a large circle around the light-rail platform, and trains pass within a few feet of the lofts. From some of the second-story units facing the tracks, it seems possible to reach out a window and grab the high-voltage overhead wire that powers the trains. Previously, the 8.5-acre site was home to a city sewage-treatment facility.

Building the complex wasn’t easy. Financing problems forced the developer to declare bankruptcy, leaving the half-completed skeleton of The Round’s structures to rust in the Northwest’s rains for three years.

Now open, the development could become the most intensely developed station on the west-side line. When the development reaches full build-out, there will be 260 residential units, 470,000 square feet of commercial space and 860 parking spots.

These are just two examples of the transit-oriented developments popping up all along Portland’s light-rail lines, each transforming how the region grows.

In Portland’s Pearl District, a new streetcar line lured mixed-use development to what used to be an old rail yard and industrial area.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

“We’re trying to start from beachheads around these light-rail stations and spread outward,” said Bob Stacey, who worked as one of Portland’s top planning officials and now heads 1000 Friends of Oregon, an influential advocacy group for smart growth and conservation.

Opportunities for transit-oriented development even influenced the route that light rail followed when it

was built westward to Hillsboro. When planners looked at different alignments, they decided to build through areas that hadn’t been developed at all.

“It was very consciously planned as a way to seed development and influence its pattern,” said Jillian Detweiler, who oversees transit- oriented development for Portland’s transportation agency, TriMet.

None of this happened overnight. In the 1970s, Portland formed a regional government to oversee planning in its three-county area. That agency later drew an urban-growth boundary around the city that it has strictly enforced. Unlike California, Oregon has tight growth controls and no sales tax to reward cities for building strip malls. And in Portland, unlike in greater Sacramento, politicians constantly push hard for better development policies.

There’s no denying that between Portland and Sacramento—both of which inaugurated light rail at about the same time—one city didn’t capitalize on its investment.

Of course, Portland is often called the country’s best-planned city. But even in California, where poor development is the law of the land, many other cities, such as San Diego and San Jose, are light-years ahead in their efforts to cluster development around light rail.

Led by its mayor and city council, San Diego embarked on an ambitious transit-oriented development program more than a decade ago. Now, the city boasts numerous examples, including a 970-unit mixed-use development designed around a light-rail station. And San Jose has worked to cluster thousands of residential units around its light-rail lines.

The Bay Area is full of large-scale transit-oriented developments. In San Mateo, an old horseracing track became a large mixed-use project near a Caltrain commuter rail station. Near a station in Los Altos, an abandoned mall is now a mixed-use development of shops plus 400 homes and apartments. Mountain View converted an old General Electric plant into dense yet walkable housing development built around a light-rail station. Along the BART lines, stations in Oakland and Richmond now host hundreds of new town homes in mixed-use developments. Even car-clogged Los Angeles boasts Del Mar Station in Pasadena, which surrounds a new light-rail station with an award-winning “urban village” set for completion this year.

Sacramento has exactly zero developments like these—a glaring lack at a time when transportation and land-use planning have undergone such a fundamental change.

Mark Friedman hopes his plan to build lofts in the dreary area around the 65th Street light-rail station will improve the neighborhood’s development forecast.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“It’s not just a whole bunch of geeks trying to do social engineering,” said G.B. Arrington, one of the country’s best-known experts on transit-oriented development. “People are looking at light rail not just as a way to move people, but also as a community-building strategy.”

Arrington, who spent several years coordinating transportation and land use for Portland’s TriMet, now works as a staff consultant for Parsons Brinckerhoff, an international transportation- engineering firm.

One of the projects Arrington is now working on is helping RT to develop around Sacramento’s light-rail systems.

Even though it’s many years behind, Sacramento is finally on the verge of seeing the first transit-friendly developments sprout along its light-rail lines.

For the last couple of years, the city, the county, RT, Caltrans, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) and other agencies have been working together on the TLC program. The goal is to encourage transit-oriented development by rewriting development rules and studying which areas present the best opportunities near transit. The city’s plan includes an ordinance designed to discourage big-box retail, car dealers, gas stations and other non-supportive uses in neighborhoods around light-rail stations. Planners have done detailed studies of development possibilities around 21 light-rail stations already.

City planner McDonald said he and officials from the county, RT and other agencies have been meeting regularly to coordinate their TLC efforts. The main outside consultant working on the TLC project was a big name in transit planning. Mike McKeever, also a transplanted Portlander working for Parsons Brinckerhoff, guided the TLC effort, which included detailed studies of demographic trends and real-estate markets. Then, last year, SACOG hired McKeever to oversee an even bigger project: Blueprint, a two-year regional planning effort that involves the public in finding a better way for the community to grow in the coming decades.

Though RT has never been accused of being the most dynamic and resourceful of transportation agencies, it now has several projects in the works. Fred Arnold, who became RT’s new real-estate manager after leaving a similar post at BART, has been trying to kick-start transit-oriented development by doing all the bureaucratic dirty work necessary to get developers building on RT-owned land near stations. Arnold’s position—real-estate manager—is a new one.

“There’s a lot more going on than people realize,” Arnold said. “We’re talking large-scale development around stations.” He rattles off a few: student housing and retail at Power Inn, residential and retail at Meadowview, and a retail-and-entertainment complex at Florin.

To make this happen, RT is preparing to sell land it owns around stations to developers. And not only have developers been interested, Arnold said, but lenders have, too. “We’ve had a number of different capital-investment folks who have approached us to infuse venture capital,” he said. At press time, the RT board was set to take the first step, at its March 27 meeting, toward selling the land.

And although the TLC plan isn’t fully in place yet, it’s already working. One of the best examples is all that empty land around Meadowview Station. About the same time the station opened last fall, city planners asked developer Buzz Oates to buzz off when he tried to build a low-density-housing subdivision on 40 acres.

Sacramento Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell is now a fan of dense development around Meadowview Station.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“We told him that we would not support that, so they’ve asked us to put the application on hold while they rethink,” said Tom Pace, the city’s senior planner for South Sacramento. “We’d like to see a mix of apartments and town homes.”

Nearby, another big chunk of empty land in the south area could become Sacramento’s biggest transit-oriented development. But that’s not how it started out four years ago.

In 2000, developer Doug Sutherland came to city officials with plans to build a Wal-Mart and a Sam’s Club on vacant land between Cosumnes River College and Highway 99. The trouble was that RT planned to extend the South Line through that area. Pace and other city officials worked with Sutherland to develop a better plan that would take advantage of its proximity to transit. The result, approved in January by Sacramento’s City Council, isn’t the finest example of transit-oriented development, but it’s better than a Wal-Mart. Plans call for 724 residential units, including senior housing, mixed with 270,000 square feet of retail and office space, all on 63 acres.

Rancho Cordova, which just incorporated as a city last year, is proposing to remake the city around a soon-to-open light-rail extension. A major development should break ground within a year at the Mather Field/Mills station, where the line ends. Right now, it’s a barren, sterile place. The station is next to Folsom Boulevard, and four lanes of speeding traffic make crossing the street an unpleasant experience. Directly across from the platform, run-down strip malls sit behind large, windswept parking lots.

Soon, a developer will begin transforming the area into Cordova City Center, a mix of shops, offices and apartments. The whole thing will be built around a plaza and will include underground parking and wide sidewalks big enough for outdoor cafe seating. In other words, it’s textbook transit-oriented development. Rancho Cordova city officials also are thinking about building a new city hall at the site. The plans were drawn by architects at Mogavero Notestine Associates, who have created some of Sacramento’s most exciting infill projects.

The guy who’s probably most excited to see all this happen is Seann Rooney, who runs the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of Light Rail and Transit. In the past, he didn’t get much of a reception when he talked about developing around transit.

“Now, it’s really caught on,” Rooney said. “It’s been pretty amazing to watch the transformation of Sacramentans on that topic. Oh, man, we’ve come so far.”

Developer Mark Friedman gestured at what could be the city’s most significant vacant lot. On the southwest corner of 65th Street and Folsom Boulevard on a drizzly afternoon, he looked out at the wet weeds beyond the rusty fence and saw a whole new neighborhood near a light-rail station.

It’s a compelling, futuristic vision compared with what’s there now: a gas station; strip malls; windowless, warehouse-style buildings; and speeding traffic that makes the half-mile walk to CSUS an uninviting stroll.

Working with architect Vrilakas, Friedman finished one of Sacramento’s most lauded new developments last year: the East End Lofts at 16th and J streets, an adaptive reuse project that turned a historic building into restaurants, offices and 18 residential units.

Now, Friedman and his partners in a venture called LoftWorks are starting work on a development that would be the first of its kind in Sacramento—real transit-oriented development.

In January, the city gave Friedman approval to built lofts over ground-floor retail at 65th and Folsom. This summer, SHRA plans to create a redevelopment zone around the 65th Street station that will provide finance tools to help build infrastructure—like a bigger sewer—that the area needs before it can accommodate more development. SHRA also could help fund new housing, rehab old buildings and redevelop underused land.

But what’s more exciting is that it’s the first step toward building what city planners hope will be a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood full of restaurants and shops serving commuters and students. The whole thing could take several years—five, maybe 10—and it could transform the whole character of the university, which is essentially a commuter school today. By the time a kid born this year graduates from CSUS in 2025, the area could resemble Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue or Seattle’s University District.

There are other signs of life around 65th Street already. On the other side of the light-rail station, south of Highway 50, new student housing is under construction. Wal-Mart tried to build there, but city planners turned it away.

“What I’m hopeful will happen is the area between the light-rail station and campus will become a university-oriented Main Street that it currently lacks,” Friedman said. “There’ll be ground-level retail that runs along both sides of 65th Street, and it’ll run from the light-rail station all the way to campus. And then on top of that would be residential units, so it would really be like downtown Davis or any other small university town.”

Friedman wants something welcoming, a place just to be comfortable in 2025. “There’ll be two buildings that come together to frame a central plaza that will have a restaurant on one side and cafes on the other side, with people sitting out front, creating a streetscape.”

With just eight lofts and 35,000 square feet of retail, a project ordinarily wouldn’t deserve attention. But because it may be the key to redeveloping a tired corner of the city around transit, it could, in some ways, be the biggest development in town.