With a downtown arena on the rise and plans afoot for more housing and offices, some downtown Sacramento leaders say the timing is right for makeovers of two underused downtown public spaces, stately but dull Capitol Mall and nearby Crocker Park.
City Councilman Steve Hansen said he will ask the council and the state to turn Capitol Mall into what could be downtown’s largest event and festival space, while maintaining usability for cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm now for fixing some of our past urban misfires,” Hansen said. “We have an opportunity to create a grand public space rather than a bad impersonation of the federal Capitol Mall.”
The mall, which runs from Tower Bridge to the front steps of the state Capitol, has been the subject of hand-wringing for years. Built as the city’s front portal, with impressive views of the Capitol, the street is bland, uninviting and isn’t used by many cars or pedestrians.
“There’s no there there,” says urban designer Michael Rios. “It’s a dead space.”
The wide avenue, though, has been increasingly in demand in recent years as an outdoor event space for Farm to Fork events, the Capitol Beer Fest, the Sacramento Pride festival, a farmers market and sporting events, including the Tour of California bike race.
Rios, an associate professor of urban design and community planning at UC Davis, said the mall could serve that public purpose better if the street were narrowed to a single lane in each direction between Third and Ninth. Rios said the street should be streamlined so that traffic moves more smoothly, but also so that pedestrians and cyclists feel safer.
At Hansen’s request, Rios and colleagues have drawn up some conceptual redesigns. One includes a performance stage on hydraulics where Sixth Street intersects a block from the arena’s L Street entrance. The designs are simple, with the understanding that the street must remain a travel corridor, and that limited funds prohibit a major overhaul of the mall.
Hansen and Rios said the drawings, done in consultation with downtown leaders and property owners, could serve as a starting point for a community discussion. “This is just a first step,” Rios said. “This needs the participation of Sacramento citizens.”
Hansen said he will ask City Manager John Shirey to put the idea on the council agenda for discussion, likely in late March.
Simultaneously, Crocker Museum officials expect to launch their own planning process in March or April for a redesign of Crocker Park in front of the museum, and perhaps adjacent land stretching up to Capitol Mall. The park is owned by the city, but designated for museum use.
Museum Director Lial Jones said the park could feature a sculpture garden, an art-oriented children’s playground and a performance area. She said her group will explore the possibility of building a garage under the park to alleviate the museum’s parking shortage.
Jones envisions changes that will connect the museum to Capitol Mall and the Sacramento riverfront, on both sides of the river, in a park-like green swath that offers the respite, recreation and culture that new downtown residents will want.
“One way to imagine it is as Sacramento’s Central Park,” she said.
Several redesign efforts on Capitol Mall have come and gone in the last decade. City officials first talked of a remake in 2008. In 2011, the city helped finance an international design competition for a major remake. The winning entry, which included an amphitheater, marketplace, children’s water play area and a forest of oaks and pine trees, has sat on the shelf since then.
Hansen said new momentum downtown makes this a good time to try again.
The $507 million arena under construction between K and L and Fifth and Sixth streets promises to bring a million-plus visitors downtown annually, and has generated unparalleled interest in new housing, offices and entertainment venues.
The state Board of Equalization notably is in talks to build a new 2,200-employee headquarters building at Third and Capitol Mall, which would fill in the notorious “hole in the ground” that has marred the mall’s entrance for years.
City officials last year committed to building 10,000 or more housing units in the downtown in the next 10 years, with the goal of turning the central business district into a real live-work-play neighborhood.
West Sacramento has built several new apartment and townhouse projects near Raley Field within walking distance of Capitol Mall, the Crocker, the arena and the waterfront. West Sacramento and Fulcrum Properties are teaming to build that city’s own riverside event space, called The Barn, an indoor-outdoor facility that can serve as a hub for concerts, dining, festivals and other events.
A remake of Capitol Mall could cost in the tens of millions of dollars. No funding has yet been identified. Hansen said the city would have to go through a planning process first to determine what the costs would be and where money could come from.
The project may also have to wait its turn to win city leaders’ attention. A mayor’s race is on, and the winner will not take his or her seat for another 11 months. Meanwhile the city is working on downtown housing and homelessness issues, as well as preparing for the fall arena opening, and drawing up a list of costly street and transit improvements throughout the central city.
The city also is rehabilitating the downtown rail depot as well as assisting developers in launching construction in the long-empty downtown railyard. That includes laying the groundwork for a possible soccer stadium in the railyard.
State officials have expressed initial interest in working with the city on a Capitol Mall upgrade.
“We’d love to be a part of that,” said Wendy Saunders, head of the Capitol Area Development Authority, a joint city-state agency that promotes redevelopment around the Capitol.
Saunders said officials have been afraid in the past of tackling a remake of such an iconic and important street. But, she said, “it’s an idea whose time has come.”
State Department of General Services spokesman Brian Ferguson said the state is “supportive of the concept” but doesn’t have money currently available. “Given that this is a city-owned property, the onus would be on the city to figure out how to pay for such an initiative.”