A Tale of Two Cities

Sacramento and West Sacramento are working together to plan riverfront development.

Back Article Apr 1, 2000 By Jennifer Corkery

The Sacramento River — the waterway which divides Sacramento and West Sacramento — is now bringing the two cities together in a whole new way. With new riverfront construction, and ambitious plans, city leaders see the advantages of cooperation rather than competition. Through a recently-formed agreement (not technically a Joint Powers Agreement or JPA because it does not involve an exclusive board of directors, but almost as formal, according to sources), each has pledged to cooperate on things as diverse as improvement of public facilities, recruitment of businesses to the waterfront and streamlined permitting. Since the early ’90s, informal meetings among council members have resulted in various informal mutual agreements on the direction of development, but in 1999, the two city councils solidified their teamwork intentions by meeting in joint session to discuss the exciting opportunities that await both sides of the river. 

Genesis of Collaboration 

Long known as home to the Port of Sacramento, Yolo County’s West Sacramento is planning growth and making great strides toward urban renewal. Les Bowman, redevelopment program manager, says, “After West Sacramento incorporated in 1986, the city and citizens determined to take advantage of our undeveloped riverfront across from Old Sacramento.” That resolve was implemented in city docu- ments, including the general plan. “With no freeway as an obstacle on our side of the river, West Sacramento has tremendous opportunity for its waterfront.”

On the other side of the river, the city of Sacramento was also developing its own riverfront master plan. That was when then-mayor Joe Serna realized the practicality of coordinating efforts. West Sacramento Mayor Christopher L. Cabaldon says, “Mayor Serna and I were involved from the outset of the joint powers authority in defining the agenda and identifying our direction, but the teamwork evolved over time.”

The city of Sacramento hired Sasaki Associates Inc., an international planning and design firm, to develop a plan for their riverfront, and it was only logical for West Sacramento to hire the company for the same purpose. Cabaldon explains, “We had two planning departments with one planning consultant and put together a visionary, well-grounded plan for both sides of the river.” 

The joint powers authority took a formal tone in 1999, as the two city councils, for the first time in history, met twice in joint session to discuss riverfront projects. Cabaldon says, “Though each side still makes decisions within its own jurisdiction, the joint task force will provide a forum where both jurisdictions may present projects and viewpoints, rather than having to attend each other’s council meetings and public hearings.” He points out, “Visitors crossing our bridges don’t think about where the political boundaries are, so we must treat the waterfront as a single district.” 

Thomas V. Lee, Sacramento deputy city manager, agrees, saying, “At the staff level, we’ve always talked about how we could work together. This advisory group with West Sacramento will allow us to discuss the river as an asset and how both sides can benefit from it.” 

Many commonalities exist between each side’s plans, including increasing public access to the water, and developing riverside promenades or pathways. Other goals are enhancing the historic Tower Bridge and I Street Bridge, and developing other links, such as the River Otter Water Taxi. This alternative to the bridges is another example of cooperation, operated by Waterfront Area Visitor and Entertainment Services (WAVES), a non-profit jointly established by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce. 

East Side, West Side 

Two decades ago, Sacramento City Council adopted a waterfront plan that covered everything from the American River confluence south to Miller Park. Lee calls the river “an untapped resource” and is proud of Sacramento’s elegant new promenade running south from the Tower Bridge, as well as the shiny new docks extending from previ- ouslY existing docks south under the Tower Bridge to O Street. These new docks are intended to welcome more recreational boaters ashore for shopping or dining. Within a year, those boaters and other visitors will be treated to a new 13,000-square-foot waterside restaurant operated by Pyramid Breweries Inc. just south of Rio City Café. Eventually, another Old Sacramento restaurant will be built on piles just to the north. For true on-the-water dining, look to the ferryboat San Diego, currently moored just south of the Tower Bridge and awaiting major restoration to become a stationary, 500-seat restaurant. 

Bob Thomas, Sacramento city manager, says, “Sacramento will offer three river settings — the American River natural parkway; and south of the confluence, Old Sacramento’s historic parkway; and south of that, we have an urban parkway planned with a major public-private partnership that would include restaurants, retail and residential units in and around the Sacramento Marina and Miller Park.” Lee adds, “We’ve gotten unsolicited calls from various developers at both local and national levels interested in the marina.”

Soon to rise at the east end of the Tower Bridge will be an eight-story, 242-room Embassy Suites Hotel, which should be complete by early 2001 and will offer Sacramento visitors an elegant riverside resort in the heart of the city. 

Val Toppenberg, director of redevelopment for the city of West Sacramento, admits that there was an element of competition. “When you’ve got a hotel that is looking for a waterfront site and there’s only one hotel and two sides of the river there is a limit to the hotel market and West Sacramento courted several hotels prior to the start of construction of Embassy Suites, but the first one out of the ground wins.” 

Other than an ongoing debate over where state of California office buildings should be located, Toppenberg cited the Money Store ziggurat, which was completed in 1998, as another development that had both sides of the river making offers. The city of Sacramento was featuring what is infamously known as Lot A on Capitol Mall between 5th and 6th streets. West Sacramento won with a view of the river and a “significant contribution of several million dollars toward infrastructure,” according to Toppenberg. As the first project of Raley’s Landing, 25 acres proposed for mixed-use development by Tom Raley, founder of the grocery chain, the ziggurat may be joined in the future by more office space, apartments, a hotel and retail and commercial ventures. A five-acre parcel just north of The Money Store is considered the next most likely place for development. 

West Sacramento is also treating boaters to the newly renovated Broderick Boat Ramp. With a $430,000 grant from the State Department of Boating and Waterways, improvements to this public boat launching ramp, just north of the I Street Bridge, include rebuilt restrooms, a new snack bar, picnic areas and various landscaping improvements, and a new floating dock. 

Play Ball! 

West Sacramento’s most prominent new development is Raley Field. This 11,000-seat stadium is the new home of the Sacramento River Cats, a Triple A affiliate team of the Oakland As, relocated from Vancouver. Situated just south of the Tower Bridge, one block from the river, the ballpark represents what Bowman calls “quite a feat of regionalism.” River City Baseball Association’s founders Warren Smith and Bob Hemond presented their dream of local baseball to West Sacramento in 1996, and reached critical milestones such as securing the stadium site, and gaining partner Art Savage who purchased the Vancouver team. Impressed by their efforts, West Sacramento City Council established a joint powers authority with Sacramento County and Yolo County financing the venture using public bonds. 

Smith says, “West Sacramento was very progressive and innovative in funding this, and has been a great partner in bringing it to fruition.” Citing that downtown ballparks can draw 20 percent to 25 percent greater attendance than outlying stadiums, he adds, “This stadium has the capacity to draw the crowds needed to make this venture pay off. Baseball will be a wonderful catalyst, and people just haven’t yet grasped the power it will bring to the waterfront.” 

Cabaldon agrees, “The economic and cultural benefits for the waterfront district are clear. This project brings West Sacramento onto the regional scene, from an insular community, focused on our own problems, to one very much engaged, and contributing solutions to regional issues.” 

The two cities have jointly applied for federal transportation funds for widening the Tower Bridge, and with some federal funds already in hand, the design and environmental work are under way. Additional funds will be needed for the actual widening construction, and the entirety of the pedestrian pathway known as River Loop between Old Sacramento, over the Tower Bridge and to West Sacramento’s Promenade is probably three to four years away. Lee says, “Baseball fans will be able to walk from West Sacramento’s ballpark to Sacramento’s restaurants for a drink or a meal. Eventually, West Sacramento will have restaurants close by, but certainly this will be good for both of us.” 

The Future 

The JPA will continue to empower both cities in their quests to improve the riverfront. Cabaldon cites a past example of the need for communication over river issues. “Sacramento had passed an ordi- nance cracking down on long-term anchorage of unsanitary, unsafe vessels, which inadvertently sent those vessels across to the West Sacramento side. With no forum at the time, we weren’t aware, and found we needed to pass our own ordinance to deal with those boats. That’s the sort of thing we should be coordinating on. It’s a single river, and we must share responsibility.” 

And its about time, in the opinion of John Packowski, president, PHA Architects/Planners, who sat on the Sacramento Design Review and Preservation Board for four years. “There’s always been a negative attitude toward the west side of the — they don’t river from the east side necessarily come out and say it, but it’s there,” he says. “This is a serious attitude problem that has led to competitiveness that is very unhealthy when you’re planning a city. City leaders and policymakers need to understand how both sides of a river need to be developed and that it’s not competition, and that you actually need to plan ahead for both sides. 

“This type of discourse should have been happening 15 years ago,” Packowski continues. “Sacramento has a major water amenity that is underutilized, when other cities have been developing their riverfronts for decades. We’re still putting it together in little pieces, rather than form- ing policies and marketing plans to bring users to both sides of the river and have constructive dialogue.”

Talk is cheap, however. “This joint powers authority is an outstanding start to a good foundation, but it needs to be infused with monies for the necessary forward planning,” Packowski warns. 

There is certainly a lot to plan. Restaurants, promenades, baseball, hotels, housing, offices and retail space…are all envisioned as part of the shared waterfront’s future. Anticipating the benefits, both cities stand ready to tackle joint marketing and promotion, and surmount the challenges of planning and funding. 

West Sacramento’s Toppenberg is optimistic. “I think there is still some degree of competition, but I think the competition is much more respectful now Each city understands that what happens to one side of the river affects the development of the other side.” 

Thomas concludes, “There is clearly mutual, genuine interest in this joint powers authority, and frankly, we can’t afford not to collaborate, because each side’s success is dependent upon the other side’s success.”