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Capitol Mall Plan: Lively visions of Paris emerge

Originally published 12/27/08

Capitol Mall could use a makeover, city officials are saying. They're thinking ... Paris.

"We can make it our own Champs-Elysees!" said an enthusiastic Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn.

Cohn, who's pushed the idea for years, is part of a city-sponsored group looking at enlivening what many say is a beautiful, yet oddly bland boulevard.

"It has beautiful vistas, but there's hardly anybody on it," said Cohn.

He envisions cafes and restaurants on extra-wide, tree-shaded sidewalks, clanging trolley cars and a big fountain at the west end to mirror the one in front of the state Capitol.

It would mean getting rid of those do-nothing grass medians in the middle of the street, he said.

Others are talking about a museum, new art and performance spaces, and even some stores.

In 2009, the public will be invited to offer ideas. Officials then hope to launch an international design competition, inviting architects to create visions of what Capitol Mall could become.

"We have one crack at this," said John Packowski, a downtown architect championing the idea. He calls it a grand public arts project. "People's jaws should drop when they drive onto it for the first time."

For now, however, the scheme is really more of a dream -- and may draw smirks from downtown denizens accustomed to hearing big talk but seeing little action.

Indeed, neither the city nor state have money to spare, and may not for some time. And property owners along Capitol Mall will think twice before committing private money to what could be a $10 million-plus face-lift.

Meanwhile, the city has other front-burner issues.

Nearby K Street Mall maintains its status as downtown's fix-it priority. It's due for its own $4 million face-lift, starting this spring, but needs plenty more work to bring stores and housing back to several nearly barren blocks.

And the city continues its seemingly slow-motion chug to build a new train station, add streets and pave the way for development in the downtown railyard.

"We are making certain not to lose our focus there," Assistant City Manager John Dangberg said.

But Dangberg and others believe the time is good to think about what Capitol Mall could become.

New Mayor Kevin Johnson may throw his weight behind the effort.

Johnson aides said the mayor is interested in making the mall a "destination point," and a model of a style of street where pedestrians, bicycles and public transit get equal time with cars.

The boulevard has long been an underachiever.

Once, known as Capitol Avenue, it was a seedy but busy neighborhood. Former Sacramento Mayor Jimmie Yee, whose father ran a grocery store at Fourth and Capitol, fondly remembers the pre-redevelopment days of the 1960s.

"It was what I call a skid row," he said, "but it was a whole community. Redevelopment came in and took whole blocks at a time."

Today, it's stately. It allows for the undisturbed views of the Capitol that state officials demanded. But, said Yee, it's boring.

On weekdays, its street life is minimal. At night and on weekends, it's even quieter. Several parcels remain empty, and the minimalist architecture of some state buildings is uninspiring.

Yet Capitol Mall shares some notable qualities with Paris' famous boulevard.

It is broad, possibly the widest street in Sacramento. It's the elite address for big downtown lobbyists and law firms. Capitol Mall holds an estimated 20,000 offices.

Both are iconic: The Tour de France ends annually on the Champs-Elysees; this year's Tour of California starts on Capitol Mall.

And both are bookended by elegance.

To Capitol Mall's west stands the stout but stylish Tower Bridge, the historic front portal to Sacramento. Nearby, Crocker Museum is undergoing expansion.

To the east, the state Capitol shows its best side, fronted by a fountain somewhat more modest than the one in the Place de la Concorde at the base of the Champs-Elysees.

Councilman Cohn, architect Packowski and others say they don't exactly want to mimic the big Paris boulevard. After all, it has a McDonald's fast-food restaurant plunked down in the middle.

"It's the people, the romance, the street life we want," Packowski said.

There's a whiff of it already on the mall, he said, at the elegant Il Fornaio restaurant and the new Morton's restaurant with outdoor seating.

City officials are talking privately with a developer for a project near Crocker Park -- think "families and children," Dangberg said -- that could help spotlight the mall's possibilities.

State officials support redevelopment of Capitol Mall, but with a caveat:

"As long as the view of the Capitol is not obstructed in any way," state spokeswoman Liz Gransee said.

Jane Thomson, president of Sacramento's Alliance Francaise culture and language center, offered her own hurrah this week.

"Vive les espaces publiques!" she said.

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.