Skyline envy

It takes a dedicated citizen planner to show up at City Hall during a nasty storm two weeks before Christmas and spend the whole evening arguing about what to do with downtown Sacramento. But dozens did it.

On Monday night, over nearly three hours, residents, activists, property owners and planning commissioners spread their hands across large city maps and, with markers and notes, gave their input to help guide the updating of the Downtown Urban Design Plan.

Like the city’s General Plan, the 20-year-old urban-design plan recalls an entirely different era. Almost any development would have been welcomed. Now, city staff says that 15 projects in the pipeline could add 3,000 residential units to downtown within a few years. Imagine the central business district with more than 5,100 homes and almost three million more square feet of commercial space. Suddenly, the challenge isn’t bringing development downtown; it’s how to control it.

So citizens gathered around a dozen tables and hammered out their best ideas. Not even the slumping housing market deterred them.

With blown-up pictures in the background of Vancouver’s narrow towers angled to let the sunlight in and San Francisco’s varied skyscrapers lording over diminutive Chinatown, Sacramentans tried to imagine a new city skyline. Should buildings stay modest around the Capitol? Should they go as high as they want on J Street? Where should housing go? Maybe rooftop gardens can keep the heat down. And how can we preserve the city’s tree canopy if skyscrapers shoulder everything else aside? Should buildings be able to sell off “air space"—the space between building height and height limit—to other developments? Huge city-defining questions competed for attention, and city staff scribbled down ideas as group leaders stood up and shared their best.

“I want to turn Downtown Plaza entirely inside-out,” said one participant, imagining a mall open to the streets around it.

Another drew a gap-toothed smiley face, showing how J Street looks to him now.

Group members nodded and raised their hands in support when city staff asked whether K Street should be opened to cars again.

While people argued about priorities, slashed up their maps with new height limits and dreamed up the next generation’s skyline, one thing was obviously missing: the ghost of Sacramento past. If anyone prefers the “air space” that currently surrounds historic neighborhoods or likes to shop without crowds at Downtown Plaza or loves the dusty charm of J Street’s elderly buildings, they must have stayed home.