Speaking of Sotiris
SN&R chats with hot-shot developer Kolokotronis about the future of Sacramento’s central city
In February of 2001, Sotiris Kolokotronis was selected by SN&R as part of the “Sacramento 100,” the “area’s most intriguing, accomplished, forward-thinking people” in the region. He’s been referred to as the “darling of the smart-growthers”—his efforts have included the innovative Fremont Building and Capitol Park Homes. Meanwhile, though, Kolokotronis has been criticized for using public funds devoted to affordable housing in an inadequate manner.
So who is Kolokotronis? Depends who you ask. But there’s no question that the man has figured mightily in the growth and sophistication of the city’s downtown area. Currently, he is involved in the planning and development of a whopping 4,300 acres in the Sacramento region, including numerous projects in the central city.
Here’s an edited transcript of an interview with the developer.
Sacramento is changing fast. What new challenges do infill developers face in the central city?
I don’t agree that the city is changing very fast. In relation to the region and the growth that has occurred over the last 20 years, our core has not grown to accommodate the growth of the rest of the place. Let’s talk about the office market. Twenty-five years ago, the downtown office market was the biggest in the region and all the growth was taking place downtown. That’s no longer true. And in the last 15 years, the region added 200,000 housing units, while the downtown core added 1,500 and in the first seven, eight or nine of those years, everything was affordable-housing units. There have been only two projects downtown you could describe as major projects with more than 40 units. In the context of the region, growth downtown is only a small piece. Frankly, disappointingly so.
As far as challenges are concerned, it’s true that not only in Sacramento, but all over the United States the urban core faces many challenges, and they are much more difficult than those of the broader area, more expensive, time consuming and tougher to solve.
What do you think of the city’s inclusionary housing rule?
A very interesting question. Inclusionary housing is an issue associated with affordability and I feel we must be aware that affordability is a matter of supply and demand for a particular market. It is very important that as we grow, we must be sure that our communities are well-integrated communities. We cannot expect people to live here and work somewhere else. So we must create communities that are well balanced. But since it’s a matter of supply, we must make sure that when it comes to supply, we provide enough to satisfy the demands of the situation and that it’s for everybody.
I don’t have the answers. But my basic question is: Why do we expect the [housing] industry to provide affordable housing when we don’t have the same standards for cars and department stores and supermarkets? And why does affordable housing have to be provided as new units which are more expensive than existing ones? Existing inventory can function to provide affordable housing. … We have an obligation to ourselves and to society to do a better job. But when you have growth, you have the ability to attack problems. The pie is getting bigger and will allow us to solve those problems.
You embrace infill development in the central city. Why?
We have substantial holdings in this region but we made a decision to allocate a substantial portion of our resources to infill, mixed-use developments. It’s something we feel has potential. It was a market-driven decision. However, I feel we underestimated the challenges associated with it. I thought that by now we would have delivered a lot more units than what we’ve delivered. And I say that knowing that if you look over the last seven to eight years we’ve developed more than 50 percent of the units in the central district. It is very, very difficult, but we feel it’s something we want to do for the region, a need that must be accommodated.
Some of your properties are high-rise residences. How can the resulting density problems of traffic flow and parking be resolved?
Let me tell you what I think about those problems. Traffic is really a secondary thing. We have to accommodate the growth. In the last 25 years, this region has doubled in population. Over the next 25, the number may double again. These are significant numbers and we have to find ways to accommodate that growth. If we don’t accommodate growth through high density projects, how do we do it?
Traffic and parking problems are good problems. All of the great cities of the world have those problems. Mass transit and more intelligent traffic patterns are the answer to the traffic problem. Good management is the answer to parking. It’s true that we have a long way to go in solving the parking problem.
Your philosophy seems to embrace mixed-use residential properties. Why?
Bringing people together makes great things happen that don’t happen when they’re not together. It’s happening all over the world. Mixed-use places are places we define as places with energy, creativity happenings. Mixed-use offers us the ability to bring people together so they can interact together. It’s not for everybody and not necessarily for people all their lives but it’s for a particular point in time when people want to work and live in a different context than what we’ve experienced these last 30 or 40 years. At different stages of our lives, we need different environments. Mixed-use does not mean that we’ll necessarily spend our lives in the same neighborhood or be there from the day we’re born until we die.
What are the “hottest” development areas in downtown Sacramento?
I assume you mean the central district, the core. There are happenings in the business district and Midtown, but the hottest area is the one from 15th Street to 21st and I streets to Capitol [Avenue]. Maybe down as far as 28th [Street], where some things are happening. There are some new housing and business developments, some we’ve been part of. A lot of new restaurants, galleries, boutiques—a lot of good stuff happening, a lot of energy. That’s the part of the city with the most energy, in my assessment, at this point.
One last question: Are we past the “cow town” stage here and, if so, how do you envision Sacramento’s future growth?
Well, I moved here 22 years ago. My wife came here from Chicago the following year and Sacramento was a different place than what it is today. Now, when you travel around the world, you feel that there are a lot of things missing here—the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. That’s the one side. But at the end of the day, I mean, this place has been the place for me and my family. Our friends are here and in other places, too. When we talk to them in other places, we learn that to them the grass is greener here! So, we have a lot more things to accomplish, but we have the businesses, the restaurants, the theaters, the arts, the growth in population. No, we’re not a cow town anymore!