This dates me, but when I was The Sacramento Bee’s urban affairs writer in the early 1990s, the newspaper sent me to Indianapolis, Boston, Portland, St. Louis and Toronto to report on how those cities transformed once-busy downtown railyards into new attractions, housing, jobs and broader tax bases.
With a team of successful local developers in escrow to buy a piece of Downtown Sacramento’s Southern Pacific railyards, there was excitement about finally seeing something grand built here.
The public was wowed with plans for a compact, European-style addition to our sprawling city.
We would have a large Sacramento Commons and apartments overlooking the riverfront. Residents could walk to jobs in new office towers on extra-wide sidewalks next to pedestrian-scale streets. It would be, one developer promised, “The urban piece that defines us for the next century.”
Then nothing happened.
The partnership pulled out of the $50 million deal after haggling over SP’s plans to clean toxic groundwater and soil from years of rail operations. Sacramento’s big urban dream became a civic nightmare.
Twenty-five years later, things are different. Buoyed by the Downtown arena and other amenities, we see an ambitious plan for the 240-acre railyards site that’s poised to take off.
Driven by what the new development team calls “the insatiable appetite” of Bay Area tech firms, the market for Class A office space at the railyards seems to have finally caught up to Sacramento’s ambitions.
About $300 million in private and public funds have been invested in streets, sewers, sidewalks and other infrastructure needed for a new community. With Kaiser Permanente buying a chunk of land for an innovative new medical center, the project finally has an anchor tenant to make the numbers work and attract ancillary uses.
If Sacramento lands a Major League Soccer team, thousands of fans will cheer on cleaned-up land once used to move freight traffic and build locomotives. Two housing projects are on the drawing board. There are plans for new offices and restored legacy buildings tied to the renovated, busy historic train depot. A 17-story courthouse is scheduled to open in late 2022.
Denton Kelley, a partner in the company developing the railyards, tells me, “This really is the future of Sacramento. We can double the footprint of Downtown and, in addition to the historic reuse (of old railroad shops) build something all new. That is key to the future of the city. If all we do is rely on existing markets and sectors, at some point that runs out of steam.”
Anchored by what Kelley said will be the most innovative medical center in Kaiser’s history, the Sacramento railyards will have a “health and wellness” theme that gives Downtown something unique. It will also have some of the larger building footprints that corporate tenants seek in Downtown.
Kelley and his father Larry seem to have the vision, access to capital and track record—the family developed Stanford Ranch in Rocklin and McClellan Park, among other projects—to bring badly needed multi-family housing, urban character and innovation to Downtown.
As with any large development, the railyards bring challenges. New office space will compete with current real estate, and the railyards have to complement and connect to what we’ve already invested in.
West Sacramento once seemed remote, but today it feels like part of the central city, so we know connectivity is doable. The homeless population must be addressed. And if the recession many economists see coming does hit hard, everything can quickly change.
But there’s momentum this time that wasn’t present before. The city is on board with significant investments. Keeping the Sacramento Kings and getting a new arena Downtown boosted our confidence. There is a different sense of what Sacramento can become.
Now we need to watch closely, make sure promises are kept and local preferences respected. If the vision takes hold over the next 20 years largely as planned, we may become one of those cities people visit to understand how to turn ugly and toxic old railyards into an attractive and energetic Downtown.