Old Sacramento, where the city has fought back floods and fires for 160 years, is facing new challenges from all sides.
At one end, city officials are moving ahead with a plan to tear out the district’s historic-looking riverfront boardwalk. Disability access issues and rising maintenance costs have prompted city officials to spend $5 million to replace the railroad ties that make up the boardwalk with a more modern, durable surface.
While that work is underway, the city expects to start building a new $448 million NBA arena three blocks east of Old Sacramento.
Business owners, restaurateurs and city officials say they’re confident the arena will be a boon to Old Sac, but they also worry about negative impacts. Some say cars streaming in for arena events could clog the access points for Old Sacramento. A city report predicted some businesses could take a financial hit because of “a real or perceived lack of parking.”
City officials say they are making an unprecedented investment in Old Sacramento, where an estimated 3 million visitors eat, shop and stroll each year. More than $20 million has been dedicated in the coming years for infrastructure and transportation projects that officials said would help the district thrive.
“Old Sacramento is our heritage,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown. “We will take special care and attention to make sure it’s just as well nurtured as anything else.”
In addition to the boardwalk work, the city expects to begin construction next year on a $16 million intersection that will create a new vehicle entrance into Old Sacramento off Capitol Mall, at Second Street. Design work is underway to take into account a proposed streetcar line that would run along Capitol Mall, dropping passengers off at a key entry to the historic area.
The city is renovating another Old Sacramento gateway at Hansen’s request. This summer, the city plans to spend $70,000 installing LED lighting in the pedestrian tunnel that runs beneath Interstate 5 and connects Old Sacramento with Downtown Plaza, the site of the planned arena. The plans call for light strips above the colorful murals inside the tunnel and floodlights that can change color.
The tunnel upgrades are pivotal for Old Sacramento to compete with the entertainment district the Kings are planning for the area surrounding the arena, business officials said.
“Everyone is going to be competing for foot traffic,” said Chris McSwain, executive director of the Old Sacramento Business Association. “I don’t think the tunnel is unsafe, but you can’t ignore that perception if it’s there.”
Kings President Chris Granger said the team estimates up to 1,400 new customers will head to Old Sacramento on arena event nights. A team economic analysis concluded that each of those arena attendees would spend at least $20 outside the facility, meaning $1.4 million could be pumped into the historic district by 50 large events, he said.
The arena “will increase foot traffic and sales revenues for small businesses throughout the community,” Granger said in an email.
The Old Sacramento Business Association supports the arena, and signs promoting the project hang in many storefront windows around the district. But the group also filed a six-page letter in response to the city’s Environmental Impact Report on the arena project that raised several concerns.
Among the association’s requests: that the Kings start most games in the new arena at 7:30 p.m., not 7 p.m., to encourage fans to spend more time in downtown restaurants. The Kings said they are considering the later starts to help businesses in the area.
The association also asked the Kings and the city to fund a marketing campaign promoting Old Sac. City spokeswoman Amy Williams said a “community outreach plan” has been developed for the arena’s construction period that will promote downtown and Old Sacramento businesses.
“Most people are very optimistic about what (the arena) can do for them,” said Terry Harvego, whose family owns The Firehouse and Ten22 restaurants in Old Sacramento. “Things are moving quickly and having the lines of communication with the Kings and the city are just critical.”
McSwain said many businesses also support the boardwalk project. City officials said they will try to roll out construction in phases to lessen the blow to riverfront restaurants and avoid conflicts with major events in Old Sacramento.
McSwain said the work is overdue. Merchants say they hear stories of parents removing splinters from the hands of youngsters who tumble on the walkway and of high heels getting stuck between the boards. The city was sued over disabled access to the bumpy river walk.
The city also is exploring improving the surface for part of the paved recreational trail that runs from Old Sacramento to Discovery Park. The boardwalk project will likely include upgrading the barge that connects the river walk with the Delta King, a historic riverboat that serves as a hotel, restaurant and theater.
Rebecca Bitter, interim director of the city’s Convention, Culture and Leisure Department, said the boardwalk has become “a maintenance nightmare.” The railroad ties rot and sink, and the bolts that hold the wood in place regularly wear out. In its place, the city is considering many options, including durable – and costly – Ipe wood, pre-cast concrete planks that look like wood or porcelain tiles.
“We’re trying to find the right surface that’s in the historic character of the area,” Bitter said. “It also has to have a longer lifespan (than the railroad ties), stay level and remain accessible.”
Bitter said the surface material and final cost for the project will likely be determined this summer.
McSwain and others acknowledged that the original riverfront in Old Sacramento did not include a wooden surface; the area where the walkway now stands was a dirt-topped levee during Sacramento’s earliest days, he said. Still, the city wants to create a historic feel along the heavily used boardwalk with views of the Sacramento River, Tower Bridge and the downtown skyline.
“History needs to be accessible to everyone,” McSwain said. “But we can’t whitewash the area so people don’t get a feel for how we lived and traveled. (Old Sacramento) is a living museum, and the intent is to give people a feel for what it meant to walk through Sacramento in the 1850s and 1860s.”