Edited by Angela Tillotson
A shorter version was originally posted in part at Sacramento Press.
Artisanal coffee, handlebar mustaches, basket-equipped bikes and a plethora of farm-to-dining choices. Did I just step into Portland? Nope. This is the scene in Midtown Sacramento.
Long derided by many Bay Area residents as a stop along the way to Tahoe. Sacramento has come of age. With decades’ long investment into refurbishing and developing its urban core, reversing previous missteps of over-suburbanization, Sacramento is reinventing itself from a once staid government town to the next great city where the young and old alike can live a vibrant and intelligent urban.
By reinvesting into its historical central city, focusing on infill projects and the new Golden 1 arena taking center stage downtown, Sacramento’s coolness factor is now something to be reckoned with.
Sacramento’s reinvention should start with the assertion of a unique and alternative Northern Californian spirit.
Sacramento has long lived under the shadow of its more glamorous San Francisco sister. From the years I’ve spent in Sacramento, it’s underrated reputation is just as much a fault of its locals as it is of outsiders who don’t know much about the city. Being an enthusiastic student of the city’s history, nothing was more grating than hearing native Sacramentans meekly tout their city for its convenient location equidistant between the Bay Area and Tahoe, as if the only thing of value in Sacramento was the ease of getting out.
A cursory look at Sacramento’s history makes it clear that this is a city that can hold its own. From its emergence during the Gold Rush, Sacramento was never a village or a town. Its life started as a cosmopolitan city, with its streets full of East Coast migrants, Mexicans, native Miwoks, Chinese and European immigrants. It was a city where fortune seekers from all walks of life came to chase their dreams.
As the early years passed, and the city proved its resilience by building higher to survive countless floods, Sacramento saw itself become the new state capitol and played a crucial role in America’s westward expansion as the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. Sacramento was a city where many of California’s most eminent industrialists were made, including the Central Pacific Railroad “Big Four”: Mark Hopkins Jr, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford. Their legacy includes several distinctive and artistic mansions that dot the grid. The city’s Victorian housing stock, trailing only San Francisco as the second largest in California, indicates Sacramento’s prominence enjoyed in its early days.
THE DEPOPULATION OF SACRAMENTO’S URBAN CORE
The post-war era witnessed a series of policy choices governing the redevelopment of downtown Sacramento with catastrophic results to the vibrancy of the city’s urban core. Big changes were underway as city government focused on suburban expansion as the crux of future development. Government policies such as redlining steered homeowners away from downtown areas considered dilapidated and run down, even if many of these neighborhoods were still vibrant with working-class. City planners aspired to a car-centric urban model dominated by massive suburban development linked by an expansive freeway network.
Entire historic neighborhoods in the downtown area were torn down to make way for large government buildings that hosted a daytime population that fled the central city after sundown to return to their cozy suburban homes. On the evenings and the weekends, Sacramento’s central city was a virtual ghost town with little commercial vibrancy. From 1950 to 1970, Sacramento’s downtown population dropped from 58,000 people to roughly 27,000. In contrast, Sacramento city’s population exploded to 257,000 with the county’s population ballooning to 631,000, thus effectively marginalizing the population of Sacramento’s urban core. Around the historic center, a new Sacramento made of tract homes, strip malls and freeways came to dominate the city.
REVIVAL OF THE URBAN CORE
Spurred by the demolition of the historic Alhambra Theater in the 70s, a local movement advocating historical preservation began to make ground. People began taking dilapidated homes in the Midtown and Downtown areas, renovating and inhabiting them, reviving life in the central core.
Government involvement also started to benefit urban vibrancy. The establishment of CADA slowed the demolition of historic buildings and focused on reintroducing vitality into key corridors and arresting redlining practices that contributed to the targeted deterioration of key neighborhoods.
The last decade has seen urban vibrancy come to critical mass in neighborhoods such as Midtown. The atmosphere is characterized by beautifully restored 19th century Victorian and Craftsman homes, diverse and innovative food establishments leading the trend in farm-to-fork fare, and a healthy plethora of thrift shops, high-end boutiques and bars jostling side-by-side with galleries, community centers and newly converted live/work lofts. This scene has reinvigorated Sacramento’s urban care with a distinct culture that can be defined with a certain unforced quirkiness and unpretentious sophistication.
RE-ESTABLISHING SACRAMENTO’S URBAN IDENTITY
With the planned construction of the downtown arena, a revival of the long-stalled railyards project and increased development of the West Sacramento riverfront, Sacramento is finally coming into its own. Under Mayor Kevin Johnson’s leadership, the City of Sacramento has focused on revitalizing its central city.
During the past decade, more than $1 billion has been invested into Sacramento’s downtown. Mayor Johnson has set a goal for 10,000 new housing units in the central city over the next 10 years. Sacramento is on track to reach that goal with 781 units built or with construction initiated just this year, and an additional 13,000 in the planning stages.
Everywhere you look, projects are emerging that will shape the future of Sacramento’s central city. From developing mixed-use housing on K Street, to the planned construction of a Kaiser hospital in the long-abandoned Railyards to the revitalization of R Street as a major artistic and entertainment corridor to the Bridge District transforming West Sacramento’s riverfront, Sacramento’s urban revival is well on its way.
Sacramento’s central city is packed with historic sites, architecture, a walkable layout, and a density of classic theaters, performance venues, restaurants and bars. The city’s urban core is fast becoming the second entertainment destination of Northern California behind San Francisco. By establishing an attractive urban atmosphere, Sacramento will increasingly become a favored destination for cutting-edge and creative businesses and the deep talent pool they will bring with them, many of who see the advantage of operating in an up-and-coming Northern Californian city with a lower cost base.
Sacramento’s metropolitan region of nearly 2.5 million and growing ranks as one of the nation’s top 25 largest metro areas. With a strong housing market that clocked in a solid 10 percent appreciation last year and an expected 6 percent for 2016, Sacramento’s housing market has recovered since the darkness of the housing crash roughly seven years ago. The local economy, however, still depends on government and construction. A revitalized and distinct central city can help the region diversify its economy and fuel growth in other industries such as technology and tourism.
Long lying in the shadow of California’s more glamorous cities, Sacramento has a chance to redevelop its urban core while redefining itself with a confident and uniquely civic identity based on its rich past, increasingly vibrant present and clear vision of the future.
Sacramento needs not compare itself with San Francisco. Both cities will always be different and have their own spheres. Sacramento’s reinvention should start with the assertion of a unique and alternative Northern Californian spirit. A place where a grounded sensibility and creativity can co-exist, a place where history is deep rooted but possessing a culture embracing a smart and sustainable urbanism, a pioneer city with a vibrant urban core and the wild outdoors as its backyard.
As the gilded Victorians that line the leafy streets of the “City of Trees” can attest, greatness once thrived in the Sacramento, and an array of urban redevelopment projects are building the stage where past glories are now returning to California’s capital city.
Frederick Kuo is a San Francisco-based Broker whose projects cover the Bay Area to the Sacramento region. A graduate of UCLA, his writing focuses on urban development, real estate, current events and history. You can find out more information on his website frederickkuo.com.