Seven years ago, the city of Sacramento bought the ultimate fixer-upper, the beautiful but run-down I Street train depot.
Lacking funds to renovate, officials tried yearly to win federal transportation funds to no avail until Tuesday.
After a round of late lobbying, Rep. Doris Matsui called city officials to report that the federal Department of Transportation has agreed to award Sacramento $15 million to transform the historic 86-year-old brick building into a modern multipurpose front door to the downtown railyard.
The federal funds will be coupled with $15 million in state and local money for a $30 million project.
"I'm thrilled," Matsui said.
To make Sacramento's case, she and city officials recently hosted U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on a site visit, showing him the depot and describing their plans for a transit-oriented urban village in the surrounding railyard.
"This grant allows the city to preserve one of our most iconic and historic buildings, results in significant benefits for passengers, and puts us one step closer towards securing Sacramento as a modern transit center for the region," Matsui said.
City officials said the news gives downtown railyard redevelopment plans a booster shot just two months after a plan for an arena on the site was derailed by the Sacramento Kings.
"I think we have the ability to build a premium transportation district unrivaled in the West," said depot renovation manager Greg Taylor.
Taylor said the city will hire an architect this summer to begin design work on the eclectic brick and terra cotta structure, whose architectural style has been described as a mix of Mediterranean and Renaissance Revival, with Classical and Romanesque touches. Officials envision updated train passenger services inside the depot and, later, expanded train passenger facilities at the tracks.
They plan to renovate into office space the depot's second and third floors, where arched windows overlook downtown and the railyard.
Initial plans also call for retail spaces, including spots for car rental agencies, and historic restorations to the building's grand lobby, where passengers await trains on curved wooden benches.
Taylor also has drawn up conceptual plans for a glass-walled cafe, an outdoor patio, an indoor bike storage facility, and a "destination" restaurant with a vaulted ceiling, similar to one that operated there when the building opened in 1926.
The building is listed on the National Historic Register, and has state and local historic designations as well.
The project, likely to start next summer and take about 18 months, will respect the building's history, Taylor said.
"We'll bring back the original paint colors; (repair the original) doors, windows, awnings. We'll restore the mural" that depicts the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
Already, work is under way on two related projects. An $11 million earthquake update paid for by state transportation funds is scheduled for completion next summer. The city also is finishing a more controversial project moving the passenger and freight tracks and passenger platforms several hundred feet away from the depot.
Officials say the track move makes room to extend streets into the north portion of the 240-acre railyard so it can be developed. That area is planned for housing, offices, stores, a museum, a public market and night life.
But the track move has caused concern among some rail passengers. Bill Kerby, an official with the Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada, said his group is urging the city to build a safe and convenient covered walkway between the depot and the boarding platforms.
Kerby said the platforms also should have an air-conditioned waiting room and restrooms.
"Getting (amenities) out there for passengers and disabled passengers is critical," he said. "It shouldn't look like something Third World compared to the airport."
Taylor, the city's project manager, who was among activists a decade ago opposing the track move, said the city is, in fact, building a covered walkway to the tracks and that Amtrak will likely use motorized carts to shuttle disabled passengers to the tracks.
Taylor said the city ultimately plans a building at the tracks with ticketing and restrooms, but the financing for that remains uncertain.
City officials pointed out that the walking distance from the depot to the board platforms is similar to the Los Angeles station and other large rail facilities nationally.
Currently, less than one-third of the 60,000-square-foot space in the building is usable. City officials said the prior owners Southern Pacific and then Union Pacific let the structure fall into disrepair.
The depot is among the busiest Amtrak stations in the country, with 1.5 million annual users, including passengers on the popular Capitol Corridor inter-city trains. Sacramento Regional Transit officials say they hope someday to connect the depot to Sacramento International Airport via light rail. The first short leg of that light-rail line opened last week, connecting the depot and downtown to Richards Boulevard a mile north.
City downtown railyard official Fran Halbakken said the federal funds and matching local money will be used to add air conditioning and modern heating, as well as fix stairs and elevators, renovate bathrooms, and open up currently boarded-off rooms.
The federal funds are from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant program, a part of the federal government's economic and jobs stimulus program.
"We are ecstatic," Halbakken said. "Without help from the federal and state government, the local funding isn't enough to deliver this project."