Teaching Old Sacramento new tricks

Perennial debate about reviving—and now renaming—historic district misses the point

William Burg is a historian, past president of Preservation Sacramento, and a resident of the Winn Park historic district.

Sacramento’s debate about Old Sacramento is stuck in a time warp.

The same issues are always raised. Sacramentans stay away unless coerced by out-of-town visitors. There are too many T-shirt and candy shops and not enough parking. Meanwhile, tourists love Old Sacramento. The California State Railroad Museum is an internationally recognized tourist destination. The Sacramento History Museum’s Underground Sidewalks Tour is an enormous success. Tourists even like the T-shirt and candy shops—but they seldom cross Interstate 5 and visit the rest of Sacramento.

So, why does Old Sacramento fail to engage locals or introduce tourists to the rest of the city? Perhaps Sacramento’s best-known historic district can learn from the success of the city’s other historic districts.

“Old Sacramento” was the rebranded name for the Labor Market, the westernmost portion of the West End. Once Sacramento’s most diverse and densely populated neighborhood, the West End was also a nightlife and entertainment district. Only six blocks survived redevelopment and highway construction, due to Herculean efforts by early preservationists. In the 1950s and 1960s, “historic preservation” was intended mostly for house museums and tourist attractions. Old Sacramento became a National Historic Landmark, but that provided almost no protection or regulation. Lacking a local preservation ordinance, Sacramento created its own rules to regulate architecture, signage and programming, administered by the city’s historian as a living museum. These rules focused on restoration to a particular period, centering on a Gold Rush theme for tourist appeal.

In the 1970s, a generation of young people moved to Sacramento’s central city and fell in love with its Victorian architecture. They lobbied City Hall to establish a new type of historic district, focused on rehabilitation, using historic buildings as homes and businesses, not museums. Today, Sacramento has 33 local historic districts and hundreds of landmarks. Exterior appearance is regulated by the city’s preservation director and commission, but uses are not. Historic facades contain innovative functions, from infill housing to co-working spaces, breweries and biotech laboratories. Today’s historic districts include R Street, the city’s arts corridor; Fremont Park, a major dining and festival destination; Cathedral Square, downtown’s urban living room; and Southside Park, rich in cultural and architectural diversity. Oak Park’s historic district along Broadway is a hub of revitalization and reinvestment. Almost all are residential neighborhoods.

Historic districts also stimulate new growth; two-thirds of all new housing built in Sacramento since 2010 is located in and around these districts.

In contrast, Old Sacramento is still administered by the city historian as a museum-and-tourist area, with regulations often stricter than those used in city historic districts. But there is ample room for housing in the upper stories of those historic buildings, and an enormous unmet demand for downtown living. The district has fewer than a hundred residences, mostly in three buildings: the Clarendon, iLofts, and the Orleans. Doubling or tripling that population can transform the neighborhood while leaving its historic fabric intact.

Instead of quick fixes like rebranding and public art, a repopulated Old Sacramento can pierce the highway’s barrier the same way that Midtown residents do, by inviting friends to visit and enjoy their neighborhood. Residents can also strengthen connections to downtown, and across the river to West Sacramento, as they are both within walking distance.

Old Sacramento merchants also benefit from more residents. People spend the most money in their own neighborhoods, so each resident has the buying power of many visitors.

By emulating our other historic districts and increasing its population, Sacramento’s 21st century embarcadero can more closely resemble the lost West End, diverse and densely populated, with energetic nightlife and tourist appeal. Parking will still be terrible, and there will probably be plenty of candy and T-shirts, but that’s a small price to pay to teach Old Sacramento new tricks.