We’re about to find out what’s going to replace Sacramento’s most ambitious high-rise proposal ever, on the city’s single most important block of undeveloped land.
Developer John Saca once proposed 53-story towers with condos, a hotel and retail on the 300 block of Capitol Mall. It would have been the tallest residential development on the West Coast, but it fell through in 2007.
At the time, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, an investor in the venture and now the property owner, promised to develop an iconic project that the city would embrace. Later, CIM Group, the Southern California development firm that manages the property, promised it would not lose Saca’s ultimate vision.
For a while, it seemed as if CIM and CalPERS had short memories or assumed we did. That’s because, in 2010, they offered this block as the site for a 12- to 16-story Sacramento County courthouse, a massive government building downtown that empties out at 5 p.m. Worse, it would have attracted bail bonds storefronts to Sacramento’s tourist district.
Zero housing, no hotel, no retail, broken promises. Fortunately, the courthouse site selection committee chose the rail yards.
Now comes word that we soon will learn the plans for this block, and that the project will include condos, retail and office space. CalPERS is saying that it will be the “iconic” project that they initially promised.
I hope so. But it’s hard to get too excited. The nation’s largest pension fund gets fine returns for state workers. But its track record is hardly stellar when it builds offices in its home city.
There’s the state Board of Equalization building at Ninth and N streets, the aggressively bland tower that needs tens of millions in repairs, and whose windows keep falling out. Yeah, CalPERS built that.
State building projects, regardless of size, are exempt from city design review. That means the state can build whatever it wants regardless of the best interests of the city. That said, there is cause for optimism.
Despite building arguably the worst office in Sacramento, and nearly hammering the last nail into the coffin of Capitol Mall’s potentially bright future with the courthouse, CalPERS has drawn praise for its low-rise structures at its downtown headquarters. CalPERS also gets credit for committing $100 million to Saca’s attempt to reinvigorate downtown.
Which CalPERS will show up this time? Let’s hope it’s the 2007-era CalPERS, the one that championed a transformative local project, not the 2010 one that was going to stomp on Capitol Mall’s potential. If it’s the latter, city leaders can’t sit idly by. We need to insist that CalPERS produce the iconic project it promises.
So what qualifies as iconic? A 20- to 30-story tower is not iconic – not in a city with several buildings that size. A mixed-use tower with residential and retail would be nice, but again, not iconic.
How about a single 40-story tower that looks amazing at night. An observation deck would be nice, too.
Only two things will make this project iconic: bold design and skyline-defining height. And CIM and CalPERS have the experience and the financial muscle to make that happen.
They don’t need to build two 53-story towers. But give us at least a single 40-story tower and a design that looks amazing at night. An observation deck would be a nice, public-friendly touch, too. Only one block away from the new arena, it’s likely to be seen frequently during nationally televised Kings games. It needs to represent the city.
CalPERS has invested billions in cities around the country. It should build a signature project in Sacramento and invest in the place where most of its members live, work and play. When it comes to downtown, this building in this key location could and should be our architectural moonshot.
So come on, guys. Make it count.
Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine (www.sactownmag.com).