Sacramento railyard projects a tight squeeze

03/04/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:35 AM

If Sacramento moves forward with plans for a new sports and entertainment arena, it faces a mad scramble to get its downtown railyard ready in time to finish the facility by the promised 2015 deadline.

The city would need tens of millions of dollars worth of new roads and sewer lines at the site behind the downtown I Street train depot.

Most crucially, city planners have yet to figure out how to fit the proposed $391 million arena onto a tight triangle of land, and how to integrate the arena with a $300 million transit center also planned there. The city may have to purchase even more property.

The city has some of the needed infrastructure money already in hand, cobbled together for roads and other railyard redevelopment work long before the arena concept came along.

But the sports and entertainment facility would alter dramatically how the city would fill out its roughly four-block-sized plot. Should the City Council give a preliminary thumb's up Tuesday night to the arena financing plan, planners would find themselves in hurry-up mode with fingers crossed that they can land more federal grants and local transportation funds years earlier than expected.

Another option would be to ask developers interested in building in the railyard to pay fees earlier than otherwise would be required.

The city also would have to figure out how to deal with the extra event traffic that would hit Interstate 5 and adjacent downtown streets – particularly if weeknight games overlapped with rush hour.

David Taylor, whose ICON/Taylor team has been tapped by the city to develop the arena, said last week that shovels need to hit the ground by April of next year.

City officials must tackle unknown issues and possibly unanticipated costs as they come. Energized by the recent arena deal, they say they are ready.

"When you embark on big projects like this, it is absolutely necessary to take some reasonable risks moving forward," said Assistant City Manager John Dangberg.

Dangberg noted that railyard prep work and even some construction has been going on for years and would serve as a solid foundation for the arena project.

Already, two bridges are in place that will extend Fifth and Sixth streets into the railyard. Work is nearly done to move the passenger and freight tracks this summer, making room for the transit center, the arena and possibly other projects on city land.

The city plans to pull F, H and Third streets into the yard near the arena.

City Councilman Steve Cohn said there is an upside to the tight deadline.

"A lot of people don't know how much of a challenge this really is," he said, "but the positive is it makes everybody work together."

City architects have been working for some time on where an arena could be sited. They tried pushing it west against Interstate 5, but that didn't leave enough room for the street to the loading docks, where a single concert might require two dozen large trucks of stage settings and other materials.

New conceptual renderings, released Friday, show the arena pushed to the west, directly behind the I Street depot, with a main entrance near the Fifth and H streets intersection.

That location creates issues as well. It would require the city to take control of a 2-acre site next to Fifth Street now owned by Inland American Real Estate Trust, the Illinois company that owns most of the 240-acre railyard.

Inland has plans of its own to turn its railyard land into thousands of housing units, offices and retail outlets. The arena is likely to boost the value of Inland's property, but could also create new costs and infrastructure demands.

Representatives of Inland were in town Thursday meeting with city officials, and came out of those meetings tight-lipped. Spokesman Jared Ficker said his company is pleased by the efforts to build an arena and intends to cooperate with the city, but characterized any land deal discussions as "preliminary."

The bigger question for Sacramento is how the city would integrate its planned transit center with the arena.

The city is applying for federal funds to finish refurbishing the old depot, adding offices and restaurants. But the depot is considered too small to serve as a fully functioning transit center, and the city does not have a federal commitment yet for funds to build new passenger facilities.

That may mean the arena would jump ahead of the new transit center in construction timing, even though the center has been in the planning for years and the new tracks for Amtrak trains are about to open several hundred feet away from the old depot.

Several versions of the site drawings for the proposed arena show it placed right on top of a tunnel now under construction to take train riders from the existing depot to the new tracks and platforms. Longtime Capitol Corridor commuter Chuck Robuck said he worries the arena would turn the underground walkway into "the tunnel to nowhere," wasting money.

City official Dangberg said that's not the plan. He said the tunnel could share space with the arena. The city is working with transit agencies to integrate the train, bus and light- rail systems with the planned facility. Light rail would likely have a station outside one of the arena entrances.

A hotel and premium parking garage also may be tucked onto the site, making it potentially the busiest public crossroads in the Central Valley.

That creates another issue for planners: traffic and crowd control.

State Department of Transportation officials are watching the railyard plans to gauge how they might affect adjacent Interstate 5. The city already is building expanded ramps at Richards Boulevard to spread out the future load of cars traveling in and out of the railyard.

But Caltrans officials say there isn't much they can do to add capacity to the pinched and crowded freeway through downtown.

Early estimates suggest more than 20 percent of arena patrons could arrive and leave on light rail, train, or by walking from nearby offices. But most would come by car. On weeknights, there could be an overlap on the freeway and city streets between departing downtown workers and arriving sports or concert fans.

Caltrans is expected to ask the city to take steps to mitigate additional traffic. It's uncertain whether that would require major expenditures.

"I'm not ready to say it's a concern," said Jody Jones, Caltrans' local chief. "There are ways to manage traffic. It is going to take some thought by the city, and we are willing to work with the city on that."

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