It’s all come down to a tunnel.
After months of tense neighborhood meetings and amid a closely watched City Council campaign, the future of the McKinley Village housing development in east Sacramento could hinge on the developer’s willingness to construct a railroad undercrossing into the project at Alhambra Boulevard.
The area’s veteran councilman, Steve Cohn, who began his career in politics fighting an earlier development proposed for the land, said he likely won’t vote to approve the proposal later this month unless the undercrossing is added – and he hopes his City Council colleagues will follow his lead. Neighborhood activists are taking the same stance, as are most of the seven candidates running for Cohn’s seat in the June primary election.
“I’m trying to keep an open mind, but the point is there could be a legitimate dispute over whether that third point of access (into the project) is just a nice extra bonus or whether it really should be required,” Cohn said. “As it stands right now, I believe it’s a necessity.”
Developer and former state Treasurer Phil Angelides and his partners have proposed two vehicle exits from the property that’s surrounded by an elevated railway line on one side and the Capital City Freeway on the other. Both of those access points – a tunnel at 40th Street and an exit at 28th Street into midtown via an existing bridge over the freeway at A Street – would empty vehicles into residential areas.
Angelides said opponents of the project are using the demand for an Alhambra Boulevard tunnel as a red herring to defeat the development.
“There are some people in this community who want the facts,” Angelides said. “There are others who want to kill the project.”
Angelides’ plans call for building 336 homes on 48 acres of vacant land. The difficult location and community opposition derailed other projects in the past, including a high-rise complex called Centrage in the early 1990s and big-box retail later that decade.
Nearly 800 city residents have written letters in support of McKinley Village, mostly from the areas surrounding the project site, but opponents have been much more vocal and present at meetings, Angelides said.
“When people are angry and upset they turn out,” he said. “People who are content and happy, they don’t say to themselves, ‘Let me go down and yell about it.’ ”
The opposition this time around has been vocal. Yellow signs urging the city to “Stop McVillage” dot front lawns throughout midtown and east Sacramento and some community forums on the topic have been heated.
“Phil Angelides has successfully united midtown and east Sacramento residents on one singular idea: Vehicle access at Alhambra Boulevard is needed to connect McKinley Village to the rest of the community and help preserve the livability of the adjacent midtown and east Sacramento neighborhoods,” Julie Murphy, co-chair of the Marshall School-New Era Park Neighborhood Association in midtown, told the planning commissioners on March 27.
Other neighborhood groups said an Alhambra entrance would resolve many of their traffic concerns. They cited a recent report by a traffic engineering firm that estimated a one-lane vehicle tunnel at Alhambra could be built for $7.8 million. Angelides has consistently said a workable two-lane undercrossing would cost more than $28 million.
Some critics called for Angelides to, at a minimum, build a bike and pedestrian tunnel at Alhambra that he earlier proposed as part of the project. Angelides said the bike tunnel may be unworkable, too, in which case he plans to give up to $1.9 million to the city for bike and pedestrian transportation programs to serve McKinley Village.
As for the car tunnel at Alhambra, Angelides said all of the options presented would add so much to the cost of the project that it would effectively kill it. The $7.8 million option would be unworkable if it lowered the railroad grade more than 1/4 inch, which Union Pacific regulations forbid. The larger estimate includes building a temporary railroad track over the Capital City Freeway, which would be the more likely option to satisfy Union Pacific’s requirements, he said.
The railroad forbids any of the tracks to be out of service for any amount of time because they comprise the region’s main line serving both freight and Amtrak passenger trains.
Despite the neighborhood angst, Sacramento planning commissioners unanimously approved McKinley Village last week after a four-hour hearing, praising the design and the efforts of the development group to work through concerns. Besides Angelides, the development group includes major regional landowner Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, who oversees the partnership that owns the land.
Kiyomi Burchill, chairwoman of the city’s Planning and Design Commission, said at the meeting that the project represented a rare opportunity to build infill housing near the central city. Like other commissioners, she said the additional traffic on surrounding streets would be reasonable, with about 3,500 car trips a day.
“First and foremost it’s critical in terms of infill,” Burchill said. “This is a scarce and valuable and challenging site toward those goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled.”
It’s rare that the City Council reverses a unanimous vote by the planning commission, but Cohn said he’s “not going to rubber stamp the decision.” He said the commission didn’t adequately consider neighborhood concerns about traffic, and he wants more concrete information on the amount of fees the developers will pay to build parks elsewhere in the city.
While some expect the City Council to approve the project later this month, Cohn said he’d caution against predicting the outcome of that vote.
“I feel I know this site pretty well, and I would hope the other council members would give me deference on it,” he said.
Cohn is stepping down after 20 years at City Hall to run for Assembly. His departure has led to a jammed race of seven candidates running for what is regarded as an attractive seat representing east Sacramento and South Natomas.
McKinley Village has emerged as a defining issue in the campaign. Nearly all of the candidates have expressed strong opinions on the project, and one candidate said the development is the primary reason she joined the race.
As he knocked on doors in east Sacramento on a recent weekend, candidate Cyril Shah stopped asking residents what they wanted to talk about and cut right to the topic on everyone’s mind.
“I just started asking, ‘What do you want to discuss about McKinley Village?’ ” said Shah, an American River Flood Control District trustee.
Shah said he would support the project if one lane of vehicle traffic, plus bike and pedestrian access, was constructed through an Alhambra Boulevard undercrossing. Another candidate, general contractor Jeff Harris, said he would also back the proposal if a tunnel were part of the plans, but doesn’t know if he’d outright oppose the idea if the undercrossing doesn’t make the final cut.
Business owner Deane Dana said he’s made up his mind: He’s against the project, mostly because there’s no guaranteed Alhambra tunnel. “I think it’s a mess,” he said.
For schoolteacher Ellen Cochrane, the McKinley Village debate was the reason she entered the race. She’s a member of the East Sacramento Preservation Association and said if the project is approved, it will be despite the neighborhood’s wishes.
“It might sail through, but the frustration is that the neighborhood will not be represented,” she said.
Housing analyst Adam Sartain does not support the plan; he thinks the property is better suited for an agricultural center with a restaurant in the middle. Real estate broker Efren M. Guttierrez did not return a phone message seeking comment.
One candidate in the race has given her full support to the project, children’s services director Rosalyn Van Buren. She said the benefits are clear: Money generated by the development will support schools and city services.
“I know speaking out in favor of it may not get me some votes,” she said. “Growth can be scary. We don’t want crime to increase and of course we don’t want traffic to increase. But I think this project will end up being a jewel of Sacramento.”