The new, old uptown

Will the latest efforts at revitalization turn Del Paso Boulevard into Sacramento’s next hip, trendy urban experience?

The city has pumped $5.8 million into a street-scaping and beautification program for Del Paso Boulevard.

The city has pumped $5.8 million into a street-scaping and beautification program for Del Paso Boulevard.

Photo By Larry Dalton

What a shame Virgil Chapman can’t see the extreme makeover his beloved Del Paso Boulevard is getting. The former North Sacramento realtor died in 1996, and the unblinking eyes of his bronze likeness, perched at the northeast corner of Arden Way and Del Paso, face away from the biggest urban-renewal project to hit the uptown district since 1948, when the real-life Chapman brought the boulevard its first electric street lights.

It’s called the Del Paso Boulevard Streetscape Improvement and Beautification Master Plan, a $5.8 million face-lift by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency meant to make uptown’s main drag a pedestrian-friendly economic and cultural hub. New landscaped medians run its length between Arden Way and El Camino Avenue. Work crews currently are replacing sidewalks and reducing the number of traffic lanes to accommodate angle parking. Eventually there will be new crosswalks, interpretive displays about the neighborhood’s history, a 28-foot clock tower at the Arden and Del Paso junction (diagonally across from Chapman), and an outdoor gallery of public art works on the sidewalks and medians, all created by local artists.

Last September, uptown’s City Council representative, Sandy Sheedy, followed in Chapman’s footsteps by presiding over the lighting of new streetlights and pedestrian-level sidewalk lights. Eighty-year-old Dick Taber, who had attended the 1948 ceremony, had the honor of declaring, “Turn on the lights!”

“It was fantastic,” said Sheedy of the ceremony that she estimates was attended by over 200 people. “It was great to show everybody that something is really, really happening on the boulevard. And it’s happening.”

If Sheedy is right, then what’s happening is the revitalization of the neighborhood after decades of struggle and stagnation. Uptown’s business community envisions the boulevard becoming the city’s next trendy destination. The offices, restaurants, art galleries and high-end retail stores needed for this transformation slowly have been setting up shop. The hope is that the streetscaping will speed the process up.

Sheedy believes the commitment the city has made to the boulevard’s appearance will encourage businesses to locate here, especially given the area’s lower land values and proximity to downtown. “They’re calling me constantly, asking ‘What do you think of this type of business for the area?’ ”

Marty Tuttle is with the Del Paso Boulevard Partnership, an association of business and property owners who invest in neighborhood promotion, security and cleanup through an assessment on the boulevard’s commercial properties. He agreed that the streetscaping “shows people that efforts are being made to make this place more walkable,” which should help it attract new businesses. On a walking tour of the street, he showed off new establishments like “article” (that’s with a small a), a high-end hair salon and boutique where, he claimed, “people come in from all over [Sacramento] just for a haircut;” and the Artisan Gallery, a cafe with Internet access, a small stage theater and high interior walls displaying art exhibits.

Meanwhile, he views some of the boulevard’s older businesses, such as its liquor stores, as possible acquisitions. Uptown’s business profile is definitely a mix of the tired with the trendy—pawn shops, art galleries, windowless taverns, airy cafes, appliance-repair stores, fancy restaurants—and there’s no mistaking which ones represent where the boulevard came from and which ones show the direction it’s trying to go. According to Tuttle, people tell him the opportunity for “the hip, trendy urban experience is what draws them into the area.”

Uptown is still a long way from its 1950s heyday, when Del Paso Boulevard buzzed with enough commercial traffic to inspire serious talk of installing parking meters. Its varied economy of auto dealers, grocery stores, motels, dime stores and retail shops enabled the area to be its own city, called North Sacramento. Then came the freeways, and all those cars got whisked away to the modern shopping malls. After the little town merged with Sacramento in 1964, the neighborhood fell into a long period of decline.

Decline, but not despair. SHRA has devoted millions of dollars to redevelopment projects for the uptown district. Over the last five years, nearly $9 million of SHRA-administered money has funded construction of affordable-housing units, acquisition and conversion of buildings for new commercial and office space, and creation of new parks and recreation facilities, according to data provided by Chris Pahule, SHRA’s assistant director of community development. All this in addition to the $5.8 million streetscaping. Prominent among these projects are the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency building (a former warehouse), Victory Townhomes and Surreal Estates, a community of live-work spaces for artists. SHRA also has acquired land around the Globe light-rail station on Del Paso Boulevard for future mixed-use development. (SN&R may be a future tenant.)

The business community has responded to the area’s hard times with every self-help measure it could think of. Chapman advocated for construction of the Arden-Garden connector (which wasn’t built until 1998), in the hope of bringing automobile traffic back into the district. In the 1990s, the North Sacramento chamber of commerce initiated Phantom Galleries—uptown’s version of Second Saturday—using empty buildings for art-exhibit space in the hope of bringing the buildings to the attention of investors. The Del Paso Boulevard Partnership formed just a year ago. It organizes groups to pick up trash and hires a private security firm to provide an extra squad car four days per week. But the boulevard still has empty lots and shuttered storefronts, and many of its active businesses lock up at night behind iron gates.

The gates are a reminder of the neighborhood’s long struggle with crime. It has been portrayed as having one of the city’s highest crime rates, with the problem only getting worse, but Sacramento Police Lieutenant Gina Haynes doesn’t characterize it that way. “The area has a high crime rate, but not out of the ordinary,” she told SN&R. In her 20 years on the police force, she says she has seen the neighborhood change from being like a small town with a high crime rate, to a neighborhood plagued by gang activity, to a place where residents today are more willing to frequent parks and other public places, and even be out at night.

While some would object to the obvious signs of gentrification on the march, Taber does not. His family’s business, Taber Furniture, has been on the boulevard since 1935, and he told SN&R, “I’m just glad to see the buildings get some people in them. Just to fill them up, it will help a lot.”

Taber worries more about how angle parking might affect the flow of traffic. With only one lane for travel in each direction, some of the lines of cars waiting at red lights already are getting long. And it gives one pause to imagine cars backing out into traffic from parking spaces. Taber’s advice: “Come with your SUV. You’ll be safer.”

Steve Lemmon, an attorney with the law firm of Tobey McClure & Lemmon, also wonders about this, but thinks the extra spaces angle parking provides will make buildings more enticing to rent. “Years ago we had diagonal parking,” he recalled. “When that was taken away, the merchants who left [the boulevard] cited a lack of parking. If it brings retail back, it’s a plus,” he said, but cautioned there might be a problem if it increases traffic congestion.

Now if Chapman could just spin around on his pedestal to witness Del Paso’s changing view. Lemmon, who knew the old realtor well, is certain Chapman would like what’s happening. “Virgil always got excited when new business came to the boulevard,” he said.

Lemmon is also upbeat about the boulevard’s transformation. “Something must be successful. They’re building a Starbucks.”