Viewpoints: Problems with McKinley Village proposal begin with geography

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 - 7:56 pm

You can't talk about the proposed McKinley Village development without first talking about the site it will occupy: A 48-acre, eye-shaped piece of land bounded on one side by very active elevated railroad tracks and on the other by the most congested stretch of the Capital City Freeway.

At 15 feet above sea level, the site has the dubious distinction of being the lowest point in the area, leading to persistent flooding during rainy periods. It is also plagued by such a large amount of underground methane gas that pipes have been installed to vent the combustion, a process that will continue for years.

Most critically, the site has no legitimate access other than an undeveloped service road at 28th and A streets. If it wasn't for this last point, it might have been developed decades ago. Instead, isolated and without a neighborhood to call home, the site has been used to grow things.

Early city records show it was a nursery, then a farm and most recently, prior to being cut down, a thriving peach orchard. Many think with the city's emphasis on farm to fork, agriculture is still a good use of the land.

So the site suffers unfortunate geography and other ills, but isn't it still a candidate for urban infill? Perhaps. But urban infill usually refers to housing located on mass transit lines, built around bicycle and pedestrian activities close to restaurants and other amenities. Unfortunately, McKinley Village, a 328-home development proposed by former state Treasurer Phil Angelides, will be auto oriented with no convenient access to any form of mass transportation.

Instead, Angelides' Riverview Capital Investments proposes to build houses with two- and three-car garages more closely relating the development to suburban tract housing than to urban infill. The project calls for creating a bicycle path to the site at Alhambra, but even that small nod to environmental friendliness is flawed, since it won't be built until the final phase of the project and well after residents' driving habits have been established.

Then there is the issue of how to provide access to the development. Urban infill projects rarely jeopardize the health and safety of thousands of Sacramentans, but this one does. To access the site, the developer is proposing tunneling under the raised railroad tracks and secondary levee that protects residents of east Sacramento and midtown in case of a main levee break.

To offset the very real flood risk, the developer proposes installing a flood gate at the tunnel site. This sounds good until you think about it. About 1,000 people will be living in the development. The tunnel is their only viable means of escape. Who is going to close the flood gates on that many people? How long will it take that many people to escape rising waters? By that time, how many of them will make it and how much water will have already rushed into the surrounding neighborhoods?

By the city's own calculations, a levee break along the American River would make east Sacramento a rescue site, not an evacuation site, in a matter of hours. To further diminish that evacuation time by breaching a secondary levee is an issue of real concern and of moral consequence. Those who promote this project try to downplay the flood risks, but the fact remains that Sacramento has less flood protection than New Orleans had prior to Katrina.

Sadly, New Orleanians must have heard endless political happy talk about the safety of their 200-year flood protection. We know how that ended.

Without doubt urban infill is a laudable goal. Residents of east Sacramento are embracing the housing infill project being proposed for the Sutter Memorial Hospital site. Those in charge of that project have done so much that is right. They have met with neighbors and seriously listened to and incorporated their ideas into the project. Unlike McKinley Village, that development will match the density of the surrounding neighborhood and will be directly serviced by mass transit.

Unfortunately, McKinley Village purports to be infill but in reality it is just a suburban development crammed into an ill-conceived site that puts thousands of people at risk.

What's wrong with McKinley Village? Just about everything.

Ellen Cochrane is a middle school teacher, lifelong resident of east Sacramento and president of East Sacramento Preservation. Susie Williams, a 30-year resident of east Sacramento, serves as communications chair of East Sacramento Preservation.

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