A New Urban Vision

It's time to take another look at Sacramento's central city

Back Commentary Feb 1, 2010 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

I’m not one to study a problem to death. I’m usually in favor of action rather than talk, pragmatic solutions rather than unending analysis.

But I think it’s time to step back and take another look at what’s happening in downtown Sacramento, the urban center for the entire region. What is our vision for what it could and should become during the next decade?

Yes, the city has done study after study over the years. Yes, it has spent millions of dollars in an effort to spur downtown development.

Yes, Mayor Kevin Johnson has taken an appropriately aggressive stance with the owners of the aging Westfield Downtown Plaza, insisting Westfield either upgrade the property or get out so someone else can.

The latest study, sponsored by the city and the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, says there is huge potential for retail growth — an additional $300 million in revenue. Data shows that more than 70 percent of the metro population is inclined to shop downtown, if they can enjoy the right combination of shops and restaurants that can’t be found in suburban malls. One solution, according to the study, is to hire a retail recruiter to pull in these “hip” stores.

That sounds great, at least at first. So does overhauling Westfield’s Downtown Plaza. So does rethinking the slumbering K Street Mall. On further thought, though, I have plenty of questions about the specifics of those and other proposals.

First, is the best means of upgrading Downtown Plaza to convert it to street-front retail as some propose? How could it then connect with Old Sacramento, and encourage tourists and shoppers to meander from the riverfront into downtown and beyond, at least as far as the K Street Mall and perhaps into midtown?

Could a new performance venue — an arena — be part of this overall plan, whether it’s located somewhere in our current downtown or in the developing railyard complex? How do we tie in the railyard development to downtown to create synergy rather than competition?

Those are just the questions about the “hardware,” but there are another series of queries about the “software” of downtown. What programming would attract people from the entire region? Second Saturday art walks have been hugely successful; the summer downtown concert series is growing nicely. We had a very successful New Year’s ball drop in 2008, which attracted some 25,000 people. But instead of seeing the potential of drawing those kinds of crowds to downtown, we worried about logistics and opted not to do anything in 2009.

Cities from Austin to Tulsa are developing and communicating comprehensive visions for their urban centers. In doing so, they begin to build the excitement and visitor traffic to ensure those visions become reality.

In Sacramento, no one seems to be putting together all the possible pieces of our urban puzzle. In fact, some major players seem more interested in promoting only their immediate neighborhoods than in developing the city as a whole.

Now is the time to focus on the whole, not just a great plan for this street or for that district. We need a clear, coherent vision and master plan for the city that will bring people downtown to live, work, shop, play and learn. That is the challenge for the city, its development agency, property owners, merchants and civic institutions — indeed, for all of us who care about the region.

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