Old Sacramento is the capital city’s birthplace, the launch point for the Gold Rush, and mile zero for the transcontinental railroad. Tourists have flocked there for decades. Sacramento and Northern California residents haven’t.
Old town business leaders are making a new push to turn the area into a bigger draw year-round, the kind of place locals will frequent even when the in-laws aren’t in town. And they’ve picked up an energetic new friend down the block at City Hall.
“We need to brand this place as a vibrant part of the city experience,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said last week, launching his own pitch to reinvigorate the city’s historic waterfront district. “I want to explore possibilities.”
In April, a new city riverfront project manager who once worked on Disney’s creative team is expected to present the City Council with a laundry list of ideas for how to enliven the Sacramento riverfront from Tiscornia Park in the north to Miller Park in the south – but with the main focus on Old Sacramento.
Steinberg and the council also seem set for a debate over how much money, likely from hotel taxes, to invest in improvements to old town, part of which is privately owned, and part of which is a state park.
City leaders have over the decades made periodic pushes to make Old Sacramento more relevant, with limited success. The idea of a waterfront aquarium fizzled. A public market didn’t turn out to be the hub the city had hoped for. But there have been modest improvements, such as a promenade along the water leading south from Old Sacramento and the widening of walkways over O Street and the Tower Bridge.
With Golden 1 Center bringing tens of thousands of people downtown, Old Sacramento’s management group says the timing is right to generate interest and some money in ways to make the area more accessible, to balance out the touristy T-shirt and taffy shops with more substantial business, and to find better ways to tell the historical story of Sacramento.
Showing Steinberg around on a tour of the district last week, Old Sacramento district director Brooksie Hughes pitched the idea of commissioning an art piece commemorating the upcoming 150th birthday of the transcontinental railroad.
But much of the focus, city project manager Richard Rich says, should be on getting residents literally back in touch with Sacramento’s wellspring: the river. Rich wants to transform a portion of the district’s flood wall into a terrace that would drop like a staircase down to the river, where people can sit with toes in the water.
Platforms or barges on the river could allow groups to do art shows, concerts and wine tastings. Hughes wants to resurrect water taxis and add dinner cruises. Standing on the dock by the Delta King last Thursday, she told Steinberg about a grander idea: How about, she said, a sheet of water cascading from the Tower Bridge onto the river below with sensors that would turn it on and off to allow boats to pass under?
“It could be lit. It would be a piece of public art, an attraction,” she said. “You’d be using the river.”
Steinberg himself has talked about riverfront improvement since last year as a key part of a larger economic and lifestyle initiative that he calls “Destination Sacramento.” As Bay Area real estate costs become untenable, Sacramento economic development leaders say they want to position the region as an attractive alternative – a better place to relocate than, say, Texas.
To that end, the city has been promoting the downtown railyard redevelopment area as an “innovation site” for startup tech companies and other creative enterprises, and the council last year agreed to invest in an $83 million modernization of the Community Center Theater.
Now, city leaders are debating how much to spend to expand the Convention Center. Steinberg says he wants to see some of the city’s hotel tax borrowing power used on the riverfront. That may include further city investment in the planned powerhouse science center on the the river just north of Old Sacramento.
Steinberg said he does not know how much the city might have to invest in the riverfront and other cultural and art amenities, but estimated last week it could be in the “tens of millions of dollars,” with the possibility that money can be leveraged to entice private investment.
With funds likely limited, city riverfront manager Rich said his focus, when he presents ideas to the council in April, may include major capital projects, but “in many cases, it is more a question of polishing the assets we already have.”
That includes making it easier for people to get to Old Sacramento. Right now, Interstate 5 makes the I Street car entrance and the K Street pedestrian tunnel dark, unappealing and even foreboding. “You can parachute in here easier,” Hughes lamented.
The city recently invested $13 million to build a connecting street from Capitol Mall, on the south end of Old Sacramento. City Councilman Steve Hansen insists the city needs to build a street on the north side as well, coming down from Jibboom and the railyard area.
To do that will require knocking down the ramps that lead to the upper deck of the I Street Bridge, and persuading Union Pacific to let the city build a street crossing on a very busy rail line that carries freight and passenger trains past the downtown depot. City officials have talked about knocking the ramps down after a planned new bridge is built slightly north of the I Street bridge.
The city and old town leaders may get an indication soon whether the district has become a better magnet for business since the arena opened. One of the district’s larger buildings, The Heywood’s Building on Second Street, is being remodeled and will offer 21,000 square feet of space for lease in six months.
Its owner, Dave Scurfield, would like to land one of those creative new tech companies the mayor has talked about. “It’s incumbent on us to raise our level,” he said. “I have cool, open, creative design space that is much cheaper than the other side of the freeway. We need to start to bring the quality up from the historical and commercial aspect.”
Old Sacramento businesses also are talking about funding a marketing campaign to rebrand the old district as younger and hipper than its name sounds. That may include trying out a new name, Rich said.
“There is nothing marketable about either ‘Old’ or ‘Sac,’ ” he said. “It doesn’t become more marketable when you put the two words together.”
Hughes says she suggested “Historic Sacramento Riverfront” at a recent get-together with interested parties, but that didn’t get traction. She said some people in the district like “The Front,” referencing old town’s Front Street, the nearby riverfront, and the district’s status as the place where Sacramento got started.
New name or not, Hughes said district needs to create some energy and sense of freshness. The city’s interest is key.
“It’s great to have the mayor on board,” she said. “I believe he is going to be able to bring parties together to do something great down here.”