Editorial: Take action on long-vacant downtown properties

02/02/2014 12:00 AM

01/31/2014 10:15 PM

Peer through the green fence at Third and Capitol Mall, the gateway to downtown Sacramento from the Tower Bridge, and you see what looks like an unmaintained graveyard, with hundreds of concrete pilings sticking out of the ground.

With all the attention, and new hopes, pinned on the proposed downtown arena and development around it, the city should not lose sight of other downtown properties that sit vacant year after year after year.

They stand as eyesores. The time is right, as the economy recovers, for city leaders to pressure owners to develop the property, or encourage temporary public uses.

The Third and Capitol Mall property is a symbol of the extremes of ambition and its opposite, indifference and inertia. This property went from a dream of building the tallest residential project on the West Coast to, well, a hole in the ground.

Rather than have a vacant property sit idle year after year after year, why not make the land temporarily available for public benefit, such as a community garden, small park or some other use?

After John Saca, a shopping center developer with no previous high-rise experience, failed to build twin 53-story towers at Third and Capitol Mall, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System took over the property in 2007. CalPERS hired CIM Group, a big Los Angeles real estate investment firm, as lead developer. There it sits.

Six-and-a-half years later, a hole in the ground remains at one of the most important sites in the city, with nary a peep from political leaders and the larger civic community.

CalPERS words are so much blah, blah, blah. “We continue to evaluate the site,” a spokesman told the editorial board, “and are confident that we can achieve our goals for this project as both a citizen of the community as well as a fiduciary to the members of CalPERS.” CIM Group said that if the economy continues to improve, it intends to have “actionable plans more fully defined in 12 months.” They consider “interim options” to be “impractical.” No sense of urgency.

CalPERS, the nation’s largest public pension fund headquartered in Sacramento, should do much more as a “citizen of the community.”

Third and Capitol Mall is not the only languishing downtown site. The state is not much help.

The 700 block of K Street, a long-blighted area in downtown Sacramento, was ready for development after nearly a decade of fits and starts. The city had come up with a $3.6 million loan and property transfer to young, promising developers. Then Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance said the city’s deal was not an “enforceable obligation” under the state’s new redevelopment law and pulled the plug. Now, instead of a middle-ground negotiated solution that would allow the project to move forward, this is in litigation with a court hearing not until May. Delay is death, with the prospect of a start-over and more years of a dead block.

Public agencies are not the only actors. When Saca’s Towers project collapsed in 2007, Saca’s comeback project was supposed to be a 39-story high-rise, the so-called Metropolitan in the half block on J Street between 10th and 11th across from Cesar Chavez Plaza and the Citizen Hotel. He bought the buildings in 2005.

Today, the old Biltmore Hotel and surrounding buildings remain boarded and vacant, with no plans for development. They are the site of constant break-ins and have been stripped of all power. Again, nary a peep from political leaders or larger civic community.

The proposed arena and revitalization of the Downtown Plaza site are a game-changer. But City Council members, Mayor Kevin Johnson and civic leaders should put time and resources into action on prime vacant properties that are a drag on an otherwise vital, prosperous capital city.

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