Walk into the new downtown of the future (as we see it), where cars and commuting will give way to pedestrians and green space
Seen from the air, Sacramento’s north end looks something like a mushroom cap, growing up asym- metrically out of downtown’s orderly grid. The city’s disciplined rows of tree-lined streets and office buildings shift abruptly to a jumble of warehouses and vacant lots. The whole north end seems glommed on and not a part of the city proper.
From the ground, this area—and a stretch of the lower American River that bends around it—is mostly invisible to Sacramentans as they go about their daily lives. Separated by railroad tracks and earthen berms, and a vague sense that there is just no reason to go there, it has been a blind spot on the city map most of us carry in our heads.
Officially, it’s called the Richards Boulevard Redevelopment Area, and it includes the heavily contaminated Union Pacific Railyards along with another 1,000 acres of industrial and commercial buildings. Bound by the American River to the north, Interstate 5 to the west and Interstate 80 to the east, the north end (as we will call it for brevity’s sake) covers a swath of land as large as downtown.
Now, Sacramento finally seems poised to reclaim and reconnect to its north end. One developer is close to buying the old rail yards and has envisioned a whole new neighborhood where none exists now. On the same property, the city struggles with the question of whether to build a lavish “sports and entertainment district” anchored by a new arena.
In the surrounding Richards Boulevard area, hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in new housing and office space. And, most recently, a competing vision has emerged, proposed by a group of influential lawyers, developers and business people that would turn a huge stretch of this industrial land into something resembling New York City’s Central Park.
It’s certainly not the first time plans been have batted around for the north end. It’s been designated as a redevelopment area for 13 years, and proposals have come and gone. But this level of activity and planning is something new. The reinvention of the north end finally seems to have begun.
It will add whole new neighborhoods to the city and will transform existing neighborhoods nearby. So, it’s a perfect time for a broader vision to emerge, for some community consensus on what Sacramento’s new north end ought to look like. Because the results of such a massive redevelopment project could turn out to be superficial and a step backward—amounting to a hodgepodge of real-estate projects that, though attractive (and lucrative for some), actually would do little to improve the lives of average Sacramentans. Because the history of urban redevelopment in America, after all, is full of examples of this.
But it could be—and, may we suggest, ought to be—a model of how 21st-century downtowns are put together. We talked with many of the people who will help shape the future of Sacramento’s north end, and we found some interesting and, one could say, visionary ideas. We even came up with some suggestions of our own.
Certainly there is an extraordinary opportunity here to develop in an environmentally and socially sustainable way that has yet to be seen in an American city. It would take an equally extraordinary amount of public participation and innovation. But it is possible.
One of the folks we asked to help imagine Sacramento’s new north end was Ray Tretheway, the Sacramento City Council member who represents the area. During a tour of the area, Tretheway whipped his truck past the “no entry” sign onto the brand new Seventh Street extension. Just a few weeks ago, this area was completely cut off. A 20-foot wall of dirt obscured the view from North B Street into the old rail yards and toward the downtown skyline. Now it’s possible, if not completely legal, to drive onto the new blacktop and look around.
In a few weeks more, at the end of January, thousands of cars will travel the new Seventh Street every day, connecting the orderly grid to a whole new north end, a new downtown that will be built here during the next two decades.
“Think about it,” Tretheway said, taking a long gaze down Seventh Street. “In 20, 25 years from now, there will be 10,000 people living right here.”
For Tretheway, these 1,200 acres present a rare opportunity for Sacramento to develop in a way very different from the disorderly sprawl that characterized its growth up until now. It’s a chance to move people into a lively urban center, to abandon their long commutes, even their cars, for life in a modern urban “transit village.”
It all starts with the brand new intermodal station, to be built around the existing historic rail depot at the south edge of the rail yard. Here, commuters from all over the Sacramento region will connect to light rail, buses, Amtrak and even high-speed rail, assuming the state ever builds such a system. As such, it will become the transportation center not just for the city of Sacramento but also for the Sacramento Valley. And what gets built around such a hub is critically important.
Tretheway sees a dense, walkable neighborhood, with small shops and a mixture of housing types. “It truly invites Sacramentans to leave their cars,” he said.
About 10 blocks south of there, Richard Rich gazed down onto the rail yards from the lofty vantage point of the 26th floor of the Wells Fargo building on Capitol Mall.
Rich is development manager for Millennia Associates, the developer that is close to signing a deal with Union Pacific Railroad to purchase the heavily contaminated rail-yard property and try to transform it into something of a model community.
“This takes a little imagination, but try to picture this,” Rich said, holding his open hand toward the window and the shop buildings on the horizon, “turned into this.” Then he pointed to a large poster board with a detailed rendering of the shop buildings transported to a different time.
In this future scenario, the area around the shop buildings has become a new civic center for the city. The largest building has become the California Railroad Technology Museum. Another structure has become the California Market, a full-time farmers’ market. The water tower is now, well, a water tower, presumably with a new paint job. Around this scene, dozens of impressionist human figures looked delighted to be there.
The Millennia Associates plan calls for 4,500 units of housing, much of it in “mixed use” buildings with street-level offices and shops and two or three stories of residential space above.
Rich moved on to the scale model on the conference-room desk. There, a new street grid had been imagined, connecting to the existing downtown. New buildings, abstractions in white foam board, lined the streets. From the intermodal station, Fifth Street climbed, with a gradual, graceful slope, from the current city grid up over the existing railroad tracks. Then it curved around to the west until it finally wound down into an open area near the shop buildings.
“Curves always impart mystery,” Rich explained. “The idea is to encourage a sense of discovery and delight.”
Every hundred feet or so along this curve of mystery, discovery and delight, the architects are planning to sprinkle several “nodes”: a piece of public art, or a piazza or very small park.
Other small neighborhoods also were blocked out on the model. Gateway East, as the neighborhood is being called temporarily, would be mostly residential and built around two parks, roughly equal in size to Cesar Chavez Plaza downtown. Gateway West would have more loft-style housing and would be “edgier, more like Soho,” Rich explained. And throughout are relatively narrow streets, broad sidewalks and nodes aplenty.
“We are really creating outdoor rooms, with the buildings themselves serving as the walls,” Rich explained. This is what the folks at Millennia call “place making.”
“The goal is to create an attractive place that will draw people in, and ‘Oh, by the way, you can have some Starbucks while you are here,’” Rich explained.
All of this place making will roll out in the next five to 10 years, depending on how quickly the soil around the area, contaminated by decades of industrial use, could be cleaned up. It also will depend on the market—how quickly people want to move in. The pitch is a little mesmerizing, designed to push all the right buttons—with walkable, tree-lined streets; modest-scale grocery stores; lots of public space; and transportation. It sounds like everything the “new urbanism” promises: the antidote to suburban sprawl and urban decay. The watchword here is “vibrancy,” a bustling neighborhood where people can live, work and shop.
But merely plopping a few trendy designs in the middle of an empty lot doesn’t ensure vibrancy. And if we look at the north end as nothing more than a giant real-estate project (it’s often described as the largest “urban infill” project in the United States), then we overlook the dramatic opportunity Sacramento has to do something very different in the history of urban redevelopment.
We asked architect and environmentalist David Mogavero for his assessment of the current plans for Sacramento’s north end. He summed up what many observers seem to be thinking: “It’s not that dramatic. But I think it’s going in the right direction.” It might be just as easy to say it’s “not bad for Sacramento.”
Mogavero recalled the words of architect Daniel Burnham, the man who reinvented Chicago after the great fire: “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
If we really wanted to do something big and bold, Mogavero suggested, we’d build an “arcology.”
For those who aren’t familiar, the term marries the words “architecture” and “ecology” and appeared in the late 1960s as architect Paolo Soleri’s dream of a vertical city: densely populated, car-less and more or less self-contained. And because the city goes up, not out, it conserves much of the ever-diminishing green space. It is the diametric opposite of suburban sprawl, the development model that has been predominant in the United States for the past 50 or 60 years.
Mogavero was kidding about actually building an arcology here, sort of. “It’s kind of a Don Quixote idea. The economics really aren’t there. But we’re going to have to start building these someday. Why not get started now?” he asked with a laugh.
Arcologies may be the stuff of science fiction today, but it does make for a helpful thought experiment in imagining a new Sacramento. Think of an arcology as the far end of a whole range of possibilities.
Until recently, the city’s plan for the rail yards was to dump about 9 million square feet of office space there. Since then, the closest thing we have come to a “big idea” for the north end is Mayor Heather Fargo’s proposal for a sports arena for the Sacramento Kings. But the arena proposal ran into trouble when the city’s financing plan was unveiled and showed city taxpayers footing the bill for most of the construction costs.
For now, the arena plan is on the back burner, although the mayor believes that the financing plan can be tweaked. And it may be that the arena stalled more because of a public-relations breakdown than anything else.
But as a cornerstone development for Sacramento’s new downtown, the arena has other problems. First, nobody believes, as they did two or three years ago, that an arena is needed to “jump-start” development in the rail yards.
Second, an arena would knock out about 20 percent of the housing Millennia has planned. The mayor counters that Millennia isn’t “thinking vertically” enough. Housing density is a critical concern (and one that we’ll come back to).
What is talked about less is the fact that arenas—partly because of the fickle nature of NBA economics—are very short-lived. At 16 years old, Arco is the second-oldest arena in the NBA—a fossil by league standards. But its downtown successor could be just as obsolete by the time the neighborhood fills in around it.
Still, Fargo must be credited for provoking an important discussion, for getting Sacramento citizens to think about and debate what ought to be done with that land.
But Sacramento needs a debate that is broader than “arena or no arena.” There’s plenty of room for more innovation and more ambitious ideas, in the rail yards and in the whole north end.
For example, why stop at a transit village? Why not create a completely car-free neighborhood, served entirely by public transit, bike trails and broad pedestrian malls? This will seem impractical on its face to most people. And folks like Tretheway will tell you, sincerely, that the current plans are to “ease us away” from the automobile. But in 25 years, given the bleak news about global warming and the health effects of dirty air in the valley, we may well wish we hadn’t been so casual about the transition. Older cities are already experimenting with car-free zones. It certainly would be easier to build such zones in the beginning rather than try to shoehorn them in later.
Another idea is to build a place, just one place in this region, that is free of the chain stores that monopolize our neighborhoods. Millennia’s Rich said he was sympathetic but that banks investing in this kind of project insist on a certain number of “credit tenants,” usually chain stores that can take a loss for a couple of years and still pay the rent. “Ten years ago, they would have demanded 90 percent credit tenants. We think we can push that back to perhaps 70-30,” Rich said.
We could set aside more space for local independent businesses if we looked at creating some kind of “mom and pop trust” from the stream of tax-increment money being generated by the giant redevelopment area.
While we’re writing a wish list, why not make the new north end energy independent? Equip the roofs with solar panels to generate their own electricity; use “cool” building materials for other roofs, streets and sidewalks to cut down on the urban-heat-island effect; and leave room for lots of big trees. Rich insists that the new neighborhood will be a “model of environmentally sustainable design.” That sounds like an invitation for Sacramento’s environmental community, never at a loss for opinions, to weigh in, as well.
City Councilman Dave Jones, whose main concern is that regular, working people actually be able to afford to live in these new neighborhoods, also said he’d like to see, somewhere in the north end, more things for kids to do. Jones, who has two small kids of his own, is hoping for a first-class science museum, similar to the Discovery Museum in Old Sacramento but bigger and more comprehensive.
Terry Kastanis, a former city-council member, said he’s always dreamed of a marina on the American River, possibly with floating hotels. “Right now, we just don’t bring the river into the central city at all,” he said.
But, Kastanis said, “No one likes my idea.” And it would probably drive the environmentalists nuts.
Then there’s this idea from Mike Heacox, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Davis: “Dynamite everything. Leave the ruins. This could let people feel what it’s like to be in Iraq right now.” Heacox had about a dozen ideas, some questionable, such as the suggestion that the city make the rail yard into a gated community with 30,000-square-foot luxury homes; and others more delightful (but sadly unmarketable), like turning the contaminated north end back into pristine wetland. “Create marshes and wildlife islands; keep the people out except for some strategic wildlife-viewing platforms. This gets us out of fighting over which developer gets the prize,” Heacox said.
Eventually, even Heacox came around to something resembling conventional wisdom, though with a much greener edge. “A major urban, public open space surrounded by mixed-use development, linked to mass transit. Include community gardens, make everything as sustainably designed [green] as possible and throw in some fun stuff like art studios, foundries, etc. It’s nothing really new. This would probably be the most practical thing to do.”
A colleague of Heacox’s had another interesting, and perhaps very useful, idea for imagining a new kind of downtown. Rob Thayer is a professor emeritus of landscape architecture at UC Davis.
In his version of urban development, a person moves through a neighborhood along a sort of “spine” from urban space to wild space. At end of the spine are all of the dense urban uses: shopping, housing and transportation, all closely packed together. This end is connected by some transportation corridor—foot and bike paths especially—to developed parkland, with lots of amenities, to public parks and then on to progressively wilder parkland. “It’s a walkable, bike-rideable corridor from very dense urban uses to wild lands.” It’s not an arcology, but it embodies many of the same principles—using developed land very efficiently and leaving lots of needed green space nearby. (Thayer, it turns out, was Fargo’s landscape-architecture professor. The mayor earned a degree in environmental planning and management from UC Davis and went on to work at the state’s parks department.)
Today, Sacramento has little park space for a city its size. And we haven’t built high-rise residential buildings in more than 20 years.
To apply Thayer’s notion of an urban-wild-land spine to downtown’s North End, much more housing would have to be built on the rail yards than anyone is currently contemplating. Just as a starting point, we’d have to consider doubling, or tripling, the 4,500 units Millennia has planned now.
Millennia’s Rich has said that number is flexible if the market is there, and he’s not sure it is. But that may be changing. Fargo noted that there are some tentative proposals for new high-rise residential buildings in other parts of downtown within the next couple of years. She believes that at least some “higher-end” condominium high-rises could be built as part of the Millennia project. This, of course, raises the question of who gets to live in this new, vibrant, eco-friendly neighborhood. More on that later.
And as for the wild-land portion of the urban-wild-land neighborhood?
It just so happens that a group of lawyers and business people are developing a proposal that would convert much of the existing Richards Boulevard Redevelopment Area into a public space the magnitude of Central Park.
Gold Rush Park, as backers are calling it, would require radically rethinking the redevelopment plan for the Richards Boulevard area and acquiring land now held by hundreds of property owners, many of whom already have their own plans for that land.
Joe Genshlea, a lawyer and former mayoral candidate whose grandfather “made springs for 40 years” in the rail-yard shops, has become the de facto public face of the plan. He said the Richards Boulevard area, at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, is a natural choice for a world-class park on the scale of Balboa Park, Golden Gate Park or Central Park. “Infill development is great, but this is a very unique spot. It isn’t just any goddamn piece of property,” he said.
As envisioned now, the 800-acre Gold Rush Park would run from the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, taking in all of the land to the east, including the Richards Boulevard area and the existing Sutter’s Landing Park, all the way to an open patch of land just east of I-80. It would be largely open space, with a few public attractions built in. “The main thing is that it would all be public space,” Genshlea explained.
The other advantage of such a park is that it could reconnect the city to the American River, which is largely blocked by the commercial property that is there now.
“It would give the city its front yard back,” said Robert Waste, a public-policy professor at California State University, Sacramento. “The Sacramento and American rivers are the reason Sacramento is here. We need to re-establish our link to the water.”
Aside from green space, the 800-acre park could host a number of other public uses, such as a science museum similar to San Francisco’s Exploratorium.
The Sacramento Zoo also is interested in the plan. Kastanis, who heads the zoo’s long-range planning committee, thinks about 100 acres on the eastern edge of Gold Rush Park could be an ideal spot for a new world-class zoo—a much more spacious and modern zoo than at the Land Park location. “We really need to think long-term and put some land aside while there’s some land left,” Kastanis explained.
Genshlea said there’s also interest among state officials who run Cal Expo in moving the state fair and other events to the new park. That could allow something else to be built on the old Cal Expo property, possibly a whole new neighborhood.
The Gold Rush Park group is having a feasibility study done by Leon Younger, a well-known park consultant, but rough estimates suggest that the new park could be developed for about $500 million. Much of that money, said Genshlea, could be raised by selling development rights along the park edges and in certain carefully planned pockets inside the park itself.
The plan barely has gotten any attention in the local press but already is controversial and could become bitterly so as it moves forward.
Connie Miottel is director of the Capitol Station District, an association of property owners and the few permanent residents of the Richards Boulevard Redevelopment Area, and she told SN&R she was already distressed by the idea.
“It’s like mom and apple pie; everybody loves big parks,” she told SN&R. “But it would be very easy to get a lot of emotional investment in this idea and then find out that it’s just not feasible.”
Miottel is particularly frustrated because, after decades of planning and waiting, redevelopment of the area is just beginning to ramp up. The Richards Boulevard area is the second-largest generator of sales-tax revenue in the city (after downtown, with its major shopping mall). There are already more than 1,300 businesses operating there. And Miottel said there’s a misperception of the Richards Boulevard area as nothing more than derelict, blighted land. “This is not some area that is vacant or abandoned or in decay,” she said.
“This community here has been working for decades. It seems somewhat highhanded for them to just come in and start making land-use decisions for us.”
Genshlea knows it won’t be easy wresting control from the property owners in the area. “But if we do this, then in 100 years, we will realize that we really did something monumental.”
Others, like Tretheway, admire Genshlea’s vision. “This is the kind of conceptual vision Sacramento needs. It’s just 20 years too late,” he said.
For her part, Fargo is withholding judgment on Gold Rush until she sees a study of the costs and feasibility of such an ambitious project. Meanwhile, the support list for the park is growing into a Who’s Who of Sacramento business and politics, including downtown developer David Taylor, and James McClatchy, corporate publisher of The Sacramento Bee and other McClatchy papers nationwide.
And they aren’t relying on mom-and-apple-pie feelings about big parks to sell their idea. “That property is going to be very valuable property,” Genshlea said. “I think they can make a lot more money if they agree to use it in a way that’s consistent with a park.”
Jose Montoya was drinking a beer in Luna’s Café, wearing his “stingy brim,” the distinctive narrow-brimmed fedora that Sacramento’s poet laureate never seems to be without.
“I think it’s going to be the same thing as always,” Montoya said when asked to imagine a future north end downtown. “It’s going to be the dynamic duo: money and politics.”
And it’s true; most of those vying to shape the new downtown have the dynamic duo, capital and political power, in abundance. Those without it, those who will sling mochas and sweep floors in the new downtown, may have little say in how it’s put together.
At Montoya’s backyard studio on D Street, he has a small collection of paintings and drawings that he did in and around Alkali Flats, the neighborhood directly adjacent to the redevelopment area. One is a pastel of the rail-yard shop buildings as seen from the west end of E Street, looking across the newly constructed Seventh Street extension. Montoya has been debating whether to call the portrait “The end of E Street” or “The End of the Barrio.”
The fortunes of Alkali Flats turned when the work at the shops and other industries in the area went away. Now Montoya worries that the working-class neighborhood itself faces extinction as the new city grows around it. For him, “The end of E Street” means both the physical edge of the neighborhood he loves and that “it’s also the end of an era, the end of a certain spirit,” he explained.
Catherine Camacho, president of the Alkali Flat Neighborhood Group, likewise is worried about the impacts that likely will radiate out from Sacramento’s attractive new north end downtown. The group already has fought in the courts over the Seventh Street extension, which Camacho predicts will dump rush-hour traffic into the mostly quiet streets of her historic neighborhood. Just as troubling is the gentrification, the loss of affordable housing that has been going on in Sacramento for several years and that almost certainly will accelerate once development of the north end takes off.
“We are the poorest of the poor in Sacramento. Ninety-five percent of us rent. I’m afraid we’re going to push out the very same families that built the railroads,” said Camacho. “There are families here, and we need to protect their habitat.”
There are, of course, affordable-housing requirements that apply to any development downtown. But in this case, hundreds of millions of dollars in public money is going to be spent to build the physical infrastructure for these new neighborhoods, and there ought to be a broad public benefit in return for all of that investment. One way to do that would be to set some of that money aside for social infrastructure: “downtown trusts” that could help pay rents, buy homes, start small businesses or even pay tuitions for low-income children who live in the area.
As Judith Bell, director of Policy Link, an Oakland-based organization that pushes for more equitable development, put it, “When you’ve got big developers coming in, this is a great time to think about the needs of the whole community, not just to be a hip enclave for people who like walkable communities.”
While the folks in the suburbs baked in 110-degree temperatures, bumped up to 120 by the sea of asphalt that surrounded them, the north end provided a cooler, greener sanctuary.
On a summer evening in August 2025, a visitor arriving on the bullet train from Los Angeles had seen the treetops glide by at 200 miles an hour and, upon arrival, saw a group of elegant, brightly colored apartment towers rising from the forest of trees.
Disembarking at Capitol Station, the visitor was struck by how many people were milling about the bustling transportation hub, coming and going mostly on foot or by bike. Hundreds of travelers spilled into the street from the high-speed-train platforms. Hundreds more hopped on and off, a constant stream of red and yellow city trains. A handful of cars and taxicabs edged along slowly, their drivers waiting for an opportune break in the crowd that seemed oblivious to their creeping passage.
Just across the street from the station was a long avenue, banked on either side by 10- and 20-story apartment buildings whose roofs were topped, in some cases, by small trees and, at other times, by rows of solar panels angled toward the descending sun. At street level, the buildings featured an endless array of shops and cafes, all full of people.
As daylight dimmed and the streetlights came on, the visitor was drawn to the sounds of some new and unfamiliar music coming from a nightclub a few doors down. But then the visitor stopped to reconsider, when another band started up across the street.
The locals were in no hurry, lounging at sidewalk tables, watching the itinerant musicians and street preachers who stopped here and there to ply their crafts for a buck.
Unlike some other cities the visitor had seen, which had remade their neighborhoods to look like anyplace, everyplace U.S.A., there were surprisingly few of the chain coffee stores and sandwich shops. Instead, unique mom and pop cafes, bookstores and small restaurants dominated street level. Here there was an old-fashioned shoe-repair store. There a bike shop that sold, fixed and even rented bicycles. An open-air grocery was doing brisk business in long noodles and bok choy while folks ducked in and out of a bakery next door to buy bread for that evening’s supper. This part of Sacramento seemed to be teeming with every sort of person, engaged in every sort of enterprise.
But the sun was going down, so, grabbing a bike from the bike shop, the visitor headed out to the park for one look at the river before the sun went down.
Gradually, the high-rise apartment towers gave way to lower-scale buildings, small neighborhoods with houses whose porches looked out onto a commons. People of all ages and races sat on the porches, watching their children play.
At the edge of one neighborhood, the visitor picked up a wide bike path that ran along a streetcar line and then turned north toward the river. In a couple of minutes, the bike crossed the green line and into the park proper. Here, athletic fields and flower gardens gave way to denser forest, penetrated here and there by a network of trails.
This trail led ultimately to a low bridge over the American River. The visitor stopped in the middle of the bridge for a moment to watch the river and then glanced toward the river’s north bank. There the visitor saw the tail end of a deer as it slipped off into the brush, and a slight breeze came up from the Delta.