Reviving Sacramento’s Downtown

Back Commentary Oct 1, 2012 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

I remember a time when Sacramento’s Downtown Plaza was a thriving mall, a leader in the city’s retail sales and tax revenues. And, back in the 1970s, its design was up to date: many malls were self-contained, with no connection to surrounding streets.

Today, that fortress-like design discourages shoppers, as does its rundown condition and its mostly lackluster retailers. Upscale suburban malls have more interesting retailers, more amenities, more buzz — and, of course, far more consumers living nearby. Does that mean the downtown mall is destined to wither away?

I don’t think so and neither does the new owner, JMA Ventures, which purchased Downtown Plaza in August from previous owner Westfield.

JMA is a family-owned developer based in San Francisco, with a variety of upscale projects in Northern California. Its $500 million portfolio makes JMA big enough to have financial resources, yet small enough for Downtown Plaza to represent a substantial portion of its business.

JMA doesn’t specialize in retail. In fact, it does far more in leisure, hospitality and residences: Homewood Mountain, Alpine Valley and Squaw Valley resorts, and luxury homes in Truckee and San Francisco, for example. And that may be its strength, not weakness, as the company tries to create what it calls “an urban destination … a lifestyle retail and entertainment experience” that can’t be found in the suburbs.

So far, the JMA management team is saying all the right things about investing in the future of Sacramento and making the mall property a critical element in revitalizing downtown.

So are those who have met or worked with JMA management: they speak of JMA’s business savvy and their openness to ideas from city officials, downtown leaders and retailers. Among the ideas coming from such discussions is the notion of turning the mall inside out — opening it up to J and L streets — which strikes me as an excellent starting point.

At last, Sacramento appears to have a real partner in reviving the most critical of all downtown properties. How do city and business leaders make absolutely certain that the project succeeds? The most obvious answer is to work actively with JMA to provide ideas, resources and a smooth development process.

But an equally critical component of success is ensuring that the neighboring property owners and developers create a much-needed gateway into the mall — and a major part of a revitalized central business area. Especially important are the adjoining 700 and 800 blocks of K Street, which the city has been trying to move into development for the past two or three years.

Fortunately, the 700 block appears to be progressing, albeit slowly, with the development team of D&S Development Inc. and CFY Development Inc. expected to have financing by the end of this year and begin work early next year on its mixed-use project of apartments, retail and entertainment.

Unfortunately, the 800 block is back at the starting line because contracts couldn’t be negotiated before the end of the state’s fiscal year, when redevelopment funds evaporated.

Now is the time for city and business leaders to focus intently on the chunk of downtown that includes the mall and adjoining properties. One simply cannot succeed without the others. We need more housing to encourage people to live downtown and thus expand the retail and entertainment base. We need an exciting retail and entertainment base to make downtown living attractive.

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