Want to help shape the Sacramento of 2030? Get in on the General Plan.
Suited city staffers sat facing the General Plan Advisory Committee, urging the 23 community leaders to keep open minds through six hours of Saturday-afternoon fortune telling. Every detailed city scenario further sharpened the murky, almost visible shape of Sacramento’s future. Magical place names floated around like talismans that might transform green fields or polluted rail yards into world-class neighborhoods: Portland’s Pearl District; Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown.
Essentially, all General Plan discussions come down to one thing: development. Which areas will grow? How quickly? How high? The city estimates as many as 100,000 new dwellings before 2030. And we’re already developing out to the squeaky taught edges of the city’s boundaries.
The General Plan updating process is a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign Sacramento’s underdeveloped areas, and the advisory group, made up of policy analysts, parks experts and others, wants to tell the city what to do with its trickiest pieces of land. One wanted to highlight Sacramento’s ethnic communities. Another feared that developing Arden could kill the Downtown Plaza. City staff explained that too much infill development could overwhelm sewers and drain pipes.
But the General Plan does more than guide growth. It sets citywide priorities in key areas: land use, housing, conservation, open space, noise, safety, community design, economic development, preservation and transportation.
One committee member mentioned that he’d done a little Googling. A list of the 100 most walkable cities didn’t even include Sacramento. (SN&R Googled, too; Prevention Magazine put us at 92 on their list of 100—but, still, point taken.)
The next General Plan is supposed to transform Sacramento into the “most livable city in the world,” but just like “grow up rather than out,” a great bumper-sticker message doesn’t help the city approve, deny and fund projects. Pre-planning for excessive growth can. Next February or March, the Advisory Committee will share their collective recommendations with the city’s planning department, which will incorporate them into their recommendations to City Council later in the spring. The updated General Plan, due mid-2008, will tell developers what they can do, where they can do it and, hopefully, what Sacramento won’t allow them to do.
Updaters are considering three general development scenarios. The first holds to the boundaries provided by the amended 1988 General Plan—which would not accommodate projected growth. The second relies on compact urban infill and some growth into the open lands bordering North Natomas. The third develops all of the remaining undeveloped lands bordering North Natomas; it basically takes development to the outer limits.
If we look to the 1988 General Plan for guidance, we see a whole lot of assumptions that since have been overthrown—which is why the plan goes through regular updating.
In ’88, the city planned for more employment centers and fewer homes. Their predictions have been regularly revised. With each new proposal for zoning changes, said Tom Pace, the Planning Department’s interim long-range-planning manager, the city had to ask itself: “How valid was our assumption or prediction for the future and should we stick with it if we think it’s valid? Or do we think it’s not valid and we should allow a change? And, very frequently, we’ve said we think we should allow a change.”
Jim McDonald, a senior planner with the city of Sacramento, said that light rail was also new in ’88. “We didn’t know how to address building around light-rail stations,” he said. Now, high-density “transit oriented developments” are planned by stations to encourage light-rail use and to discourage driving.
“High density looks different than what we’ve seen in the past,” McDonald added. “We’re embracing taller buildings now downtown.” In the past, “fear of the unknown” had discouraged skyscrapers. Even the downtown Hyatt Regency was called “too big” when it was built, said McDonald. “People expected it to generate more traffic than it does.”
Now, the city is welcoming towers full of high-end and mid-market condos—unheard of around the time of the ’88 General Plan.
“The land-use approach in the General Plan tended to follow the conventional wisdom of the late 1980s, the pattern people were comfortable with at the time in Sacramento, which was a suburban model,” Pace said. “They tended to separate out subdivisions and apartment complexes and shopping centers and office parks and industrial areas into separate enclaves that were segregated from each other, were walled off from each other.”
Current wisdom emphasizes compact development and mixed-use buildings. The city no longer believes that everyone wants a single-family home with big yards on a quiet cul-de-sac—especially once they’ve retired. “Yet they might actually be buying it because there aren’t many alternatives,” Pace said.
If we want to control growth and keep it in the central city, said Pace, we have to envision boundaries. Unlike San Francisco, we don’t have water on all sides. We have lots of lush empty farm land. The city supports infill development, but questions persist about how to make it as profitable and easy as building on green fields.
“It’s almost an artificial thing we have to do. We have to do it by political will,” Pace said. “We’re all talking about it and worrying about it but it’s so hard to tell ourselves no.”
The Advisory Committee could help the city tell itself no by recommending one growth scenario over another, and the general public will get another opportunity to weigh in as well. In December, as part of its broad outreach program, the city is conducting a citywide phone survey to make sure they’re hearing from all corners of the city.
In the meantime, planners are starting to mull over the next obvious question. Don’t we need to update the General Plan more often?