The grand charrette

Mayor Fargo treats the citizenry to Monopoly and snacks

“Remember, blue is good. Red is bad,” Wendy Saunders, the head of the city’s Downtown Development Group, reminded a group of 10 or so sleepy citizens who trailed her through a light rain up K Street.

So began what you might call “Planapalooza,” a five-hour-long community brainstorming session on the future of K Street and its surroundings held Saturday, October 23. The meeting was billed as an opportunity for Sacramento citizens to share their visions for the “downtown you want” and was sponsored by Mayor Heather Fargo; the Downtown Partnership; and Saunders’ Downtown Development Group, a division of the city’s Economic Development Department. Over the course of the day, participants were asked to come up with several specific projects that could help revitalize downtown in the next few years. But what priorities are set today have deep implications for what Sacramento will look like far into the future (an issue that SN&R has been exploring through its ongoing Sacramento 2025 series).

To kick off the meeting, a hundred or so participants were taken on tours of the central city around K Street. Saunders’ group was only one of six or seven taking the same tour, sometimes crossing paths. All had been given little blue and red sticky notes and then were asked to write down things they liked on the blue sheets and to write trouble spots on the red.

During the tour, some in the group wrote “too many vacant storefronts” on their red—bad—stickies. And though empty storefronts are plentiful, they are only the most obvious sign of K Street’s problems.

“There’s a whole convergence of activities that make it not so great,” Saunders said, explaining that the corner of Seventh and K streets gets more police calls than any other spot in the city. There’s the one-two punch of the liquor store adjacent to the old Marshall Hotel, one of the neighborhood’s more notorious single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels. It’s a flophouse, the last ditch for people who otherwise would be on the streets. Saunders explained to the group that she understands the Marshall to be under particularly poor management. Red stickies came out.

She then explained that the building might one day be put to a “higher use.” Another SRO, or similar affordable-housing project, could be built in another part of the city, and the old Marshall converted to condominiums or a high-end hotel. Blue stickies came out.

The group turned up an alley, running between K and L streets. Someone wondered aloud if an interloper might be lurking behind the dumpster. These narrow, grungy, dilapidated alleys also are considered a form of downtown blight by city officials. But one is struck by how many layers of history are revealed on the backs of these buildings, layers often invisible from the front. The dips and rises of the alleyway, the four-story brick walls and wooden window frames, remind you that some of these buildings are a hundred years old.

A rusted old sign, once garish with the rows of light bulbs that flash on and off in patterns to give the illusion of movement, hung over a back door. The few bulbs that remained were faded yellow and jammed crookedly into their sockets. Two or three decades ago, this might have been an entrance off the alleyway into some seedy restaurant, strip club or card room. It wasn’t hard to imagine the lurid yellow light washing over some long-ago doorman smoking on a barstool outside. Perhaps in a month, when city staff presents its report of all the input it gathered from these tours, the record will show that somebody scribbled “neat old busted stuff” on a blue sticky.

Inside the Renaissance Tower, at 801 K Street, the main event, the K Street “charrette” (a French word meaning “cart” that has become a trendy stand-in for the word “workshop”) was about to begin.

The organizers of this event expected maybe 150 people. But when it started raining that morning, hopes for a big turnout flagged. Then, at exactly 9 a.m., 250 people showed up. There were plenty of the usual suspects—prominent developers, architects and neighborhood activists—along with Fargo and other elected officials. But there seemed to be a decent contingent of students and regular citizens, who showed up to sample tasty snacks and help imagine a better Sacramento.

Why so many? “This is urban recreation,” the mayor would explain later. “This is what people in Sacramento do on weekends for fun. Dreaming and scheming and thinking about downtown.”

Perhaps. But it’s also true that the mayor, the city’s Economic Development Department and the Downtown Partnership have endured a frustrating six months of seeing proposals for big projects (multiplex theaters and an arena) meant to revitalize K Street shot down by public opposition. In each case, critics complained that the projects were being fast-tracked by city staff, or crafted by a group of prominent developers, without much support from the public. Now those critics were taking Fargo up on her offer to present some alternatives.

Let there be lofts: Citizens spend a day creating the Sacramento of their dreams.

Courtesy Of Downtown Partnership

“There were some plans from a small group of people that just didn’t fly,” said architect Greg Taylor, who long has called for a more comprehensive, more broadly shared vision for how development downtown should proceed. (See “Extreme makeover” by Cosmo Garvin, SN&R Cover, July 15.) “I think we may be seeing the beginning of that. The city may have come to understand the importance of a high-quality public-input process.”

To solicit that vision, charrette facilitators asked attendees to break into 15 groups, each of about 10 people. Each team was given a giant map showing in detail the areas of J, K and L streets between Seventh and 12th streets. The most distressed, high-priority blocks, such as the block containing the old Woolworth’s building at 10th and K streets, were outlined in red. Historic buildings were plainly shown as light-blue rectangles.

Then each group was asked to plan two “catalyst” projects that would help re-energize the problem areas. In a sort of sophisticated Monopoly game, the participants were given a stack of cards, representing an entire suite of land uses and project ideas. There were cards for entertainment and retail uses, showing pictures of state-of-the-art theater complexes or trendy restaurants. Other cards displayed high-rise apartment buildings, museums and office towers. But the participants were hardly limited to putting buildings on rectangles, as in a game of Monopoly.

The groups were encouraged to experiment with traffic patterns, turning one-way streets into two-way streets, even putting cars on K Street. Smaller pieces representing sidewalk cafes and street vendors soon were sprinkled over the maps. And soon, ideas for which there weren’t cards began to emerge.

Group 9, for example, agreed that SRO hotels should remain where they are but be refurbished and more strongly connected to social-service programs. The group had trouble figuring out how to pay for the policy, however, given the limited number of “$” cards they had received.

Some ideas strained against the limits of the game for different reasons. Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Partnership—the business and neighborhood association for the central city—said he heard proposals for tearing down office buildings and replacing them with parks. “Somebody else suggested diverting part of the Sacramento River down K Street,” creating an urban canal, à la Venice or San Antonio.

Other ideas seemed to develop lives of their own and spread quickly throughout the various groups. A proposal to relocate the operations of the Greyhound bus service, and to use the building it currently occupies at Seventh and L streets as a permanent, indoor farmers’ market, was on the wish list for many groups. The city of Los Angeles has something similar, called the Grand Central Market. Art galleries, artist lofts and live-theater and concert venues were popular strategies. And several of the groups expressed a desire to somehow bring an educational component (and the youthful energy of college students) to downtown, perhaps in conjunction with an existing university like California State University, Sacramento.

But what figured most prominently in this collective vision was housing. Lots and lots of housing, of all different sorts. Condominiums for sale and apartments for rent at every income level—the more the better. Nearly every one of the 15 groups featured high-density housing as a major catalyst project.

“We clearly need a lot of high-density housing, thousands and thousand of units. And K Street is one of the few places you can really do that,” said workshop participant Bob Chase. Chase is an architect with LPA Associates, the firm that designed the Plaza Lofts project now being built at Ninth and J streets. He also serves as chairman of the city’s Design Review Board.

“We keep referring to Portland as a model. But if you look at [Portland’s] Pearl District, they didn’t do it with theaters or big projects,” Chase noted. Instead, that city focused primarily on a major push for downtown housing and let the restaurants, shops and other retail follow more organically.

Chase and others who attended will be paying close attention to how city leaders actually interpret the ideas presented by the public. The city Economic Development Department staff is expected to release its report on the workshop at the beginning of December.

But that afternoon, the mayor didn’t seem overwhelmed by the ideas that came out of the workshop. “Well, you didn’t surprise me. But you didn’t disappoint me, either,” Fargo told the assembled crowd when its work was done. She said that many of the ideas she heard were “things we are already doing” to promote more housing and business development downtown. Still, she said she appreciated everyone’s hard work, and she assured the group that she would pay close attention to the input. “This gives me the momentum I need to go forward,” she added.

Although there is broad support for bringing more housing downtown, the star projects that have emerged lately have been about creating large-scale attractions, aimed at bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors to the central city, not neighborhood-scale homes and shops.

To many participants, this community meeting was a call for a much more significant housing initiative downtown, something of a departure from the direction pursued in the last year by the mayor and city staff.

“I thought it was a clear message that there needs to be a more balanced approach,” said Panama Bartholomy, a workshop participant who works for the state Division of Architecture. But as to whether that message is taken to heart by city staff and the mayor, and whether it becomes city policy, Bartholomy said, “I’m optimistic. But the proof will be in the pudding.”