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  • By Randy Pench /

    While the future of a downtown arena is unsettled, Sacramento's railyard is going ahead with plans for an intermodal hub and infrastructure to support development. The demise of the arena plan frees the area to develop attractive interim uses such as a public market.

  • Steve Cohn

Viewpoints: Bright future for railyard

Published: Sunday, May. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E

After the Kings' and the Maloofs' rejection of the downtown arena deal, the question is what's next for the railyard? The answer is that the city is moving forward with an expanded intermodal transit hub as the centerpiece of downtown railyard development, with or without an arena.

Anchored by the Capitol Corridor, the fastest-growing intercity rail service in the nation, Sacramento Valley Station is the second-busiest Amtrak station in California and the seventh-busiest in the nation, behind only New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Each year, 1.2 million passengers board or alight at our station, only 20 percent less than Los Angeles' huge Union Station. The Sacramento station also serves trains to Bakersfield, bus connections to Southern California, long-distance Amtrak trains to Chicago and Seattle, regional buses, plus thousands of light-rail trips to Folsom, south Sacramento and northeast Sacramento.

In the future, there will be express trains to San Francisco, light rail to the airport and Elk Grove, a streetcar line, commuter trains to Davis and Roseville, expanded service to Truckee and Reno, faster San Joaquin trains connecting directly to L.A., and high-speed rail.

To accommodate this explosive growth, the city has long been planning to build an expanded intermodal hub. The city is nearing completion on the $70 million first phase, which includes relocating the tracks several hundred feet north next to the historic Central Shops and constructing new platforms and a small plaza. Phase 1 also includes three bridges – Fifth, Sixth and F streets – three tunnels connecting to the new platforms, and new water, sewer and storm drain mains. Related work to build ramps connecting both sides of the bridges and a seismic retrofit of the depot will be completed next year.

By 2014, Inland American Holdings, the private owner of the railyard land surrounding the city's intermodal district, will complete the backbone roads and utility infrastructure for its land. Inland took over this property after the developer, Thomas Enterprises, went into default during the recession. Inland is now marketing the entire site to potential developers. Despite the lingering recession, there should be interest, given the railyard's strategic location next to the intermodal hub and the $225 million already committed to infrastructure.

Phase 2 of the intermodal project will restore both the interior and exterior of the depot, constructing restaurants and cafes with indoor and outdoor patio seating; bike storage/rental; enlarged ticketing, baggage and lobby space on the ground floor; and office space on the second floor. In March, the city applied for a $15 million federal grant to match $15 million in local funds to complete Phase 2.

The city's original plan for Phase 3 was to build a large structure connecting the historic depot and the new platforms. A futuristic Phase 4 envisioned a multistory superstructure on top of the station to serve high-speed rail. But after working with a nationally recognized expert panel from the Urban Land Institute Rose Center, the city instead plans to build an intermodal transit "district" adjacent to the depot, including a civic plaza with retail and mixed uses, and well-marked, well-lighted and convenient pedestrian and bicycle connections to Old Sacramento, the waterfront and downtown. An intermodal district would generate more activity through transfers from one travel mode to another, which in turn can generate commercial land value and cost less to build than a single large facility.

The Urban Land Institute report made several other recommendations to attract development to the railyard, despite past false starts by Thomas Enterprises and the lingering recession. These include building a network of connected open spaces and great streets to provide a compelling public realm; building complete neighborhoods from the "outside in" with the Central Shops/intermodal district hub, and/or "inside out" from the edge of downtown, rather than building piecemeal; considering catalyst projects such as the new state courthouse, arena, stadium or other projects to create something special, complementing and connecting with downtown, midtown and the River District; and creating low-cost, engaging interim uses that draw people on site and create interest in the historic site.

I agree with the Urban Land Institute recommendations. In particular, the arena deal's demise affords the city the opportunity to activate the space reserved for a future arena with a more immediate, interim use that would give rail and bus passengers, as well as city residents and visitors, an intriguing new public space.

One possibility is an outdoor public market, with local produce and specialty foods, similar to Pike Place Market in Seattle or the Boquería in Barcelona. The market could even make use of the existing platform canopies. An even simpler option would be to allow mobile food vendors on site. We could also hold concerts, movies and special events on site. After construction starts on an arena or alternative development, we could move the public market to one of the Central Shops. In the meantime, we'll generate a lot of buzz, especially among young Sacramentans, who yearn for the railyard to be something real and current, not a future plan on the shelf.

The railyard's future is bright, with or without an arena … and it's happening now.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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