Think big, Sacramento!

Development and urban revitalization

Back Web Only Jun 9, 2014 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

From March 2007: 

Two years ago, local developer John Saca announced an ambitious plan to build the Towers, two 53-story condominium high-rises at the foot of Capitol Mall. A month or so later, Denver-based Craig Nassi unveiled his own plan to build the 39-story Aura building on Capitol Mall.

Today, both projects have stumbled, hit by rising construction costs and a slowing real estate market. Both have come back to the city in recent months to ask for additional support, which the city has coughed up. Early critics of the two projects (too pricey, too showy, too big for the market) are smugly reciting “told you so” while trading comments about the developers’ lack of experience and the city’s lack of savvy.

To me, this is an all-too-frequent refrain heard in our region whenever we approach a big idea. It’s almost as if you have a collective inferiority complex, pooh-poohing any suggestion that we in the Central Valley could develop anything close to best of class, whether it be in our political leadership, our public institutions or our buildings.

To that I say, nonsense. Our biggest flaw is not thinking big enough, not encouraging the visionaries who want to move us from where we are to where we could undoubtedly be.

For more than 20 years, we have discussed how to revitalize downtown Sacramento. Now, we have two major projects that could rapidly escalate the city’s development by enticing large number of people downtown.

Across the country, virtually every major metropolitan area is following a similar path. City planners are moving away from models of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when they assumed suburbs were for living, cities for business, shopping and entertainment. Instead, they’re citing evidence from the early ‘90s showing that successful downtowns have large and lively residential districts with walkable streets and nearby shopping and leisure activities.

After years of doubt and debate, Sacramento has shifted into high gear following the successful examples of cities like Portland and Seattle. The Saca and Nassi landmark high-rise projects are the most ambitious to date and have the potential to rapidly reshape Sacramento’s downtown while adding significantly to the city’s tax base.

City officials have been enthusiastic but prudent in their support of these projects: They’ve promised only monies from the redevelopment fund (not using any general operating dollars), and they’ve negotiated terms under which the city’s dollars flow to the projects only after construction is complete.

If the Towers and Aura had been built two years ago, I firmly believe they would be fully occupied by now. Already over 50 percent of the Towers and 70 percent of the Aura condominiums are under contract. Unfortunately, their developers have been hit by a double whammy: a slump in the real estate market and a rise in construction costs. But those are simply temporary bumps in the road.

Give our region’s growing population, stable economic growth and pent-up demand for downtown housing, these projects are bound to be successful in the long term. Now is definitely not the time to pull support from two landmark projects sure to help Sacramento.