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Face-lift on Capitol Mall menu

Originally published 2/5/06

Downtown's new 55 Degrees restaurant is essentially a glass box, an ideal venue for dressed-up diners to see and be seen.

Problem is, there isn't much to see outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. In the evening, Capitol Mall is dark and deserted, except for the Il Fornaio restaurant a block away.

Daytime is arguably worse. That's when the vacant, graffiti-marred former Wells Fargo bank building across the street from 55 Degrees is in all-too-plain view.

"Thank God for the sun that goes down at night," joked Ali Mackani, a partner in the restaurant.

When they opened their high-end eatery last year in a new ground floor addition to the Plaza 555 office complex, Mackani and his partners were taking a flier on the mall. Despite its status as downtown's premier business address, it still falls short of the grand entryway that city leaders envision for Sacramento.

Someday, Mackani hopes, the bland grassy strip in the middle of the mall will be enlivened with plantings and paths, the empty building across the street will be replaced with something better, and the planned high-rise housing developments down the block will materialize.

He and his partners moved to the street not for what it is, but for what they are betting it will become.

"The question was, can we survive for a couple of years and then benefit from what's going to happen?" Mackani said. "It's a huge risk."

Like much of downtown Sacramento, Capitol Mall is a street in flux. At its western end, excavators and a giant crane are readying a block of land for two 53- story condominium and hotel towers planned by developer John Saca. Yet members of the real estate community still are placing bets on whether Saca will be able to secure the financing necessary to complete the towers, which would be the tallest residential structures on the West Coast.

Three blocks east of Saca's project, developer Craig Nassi is advertising the imminent arrival of his condominium tower, Aura. But that project, too, has yet to collect nonrefundable deposits from buyers and begin construction.

One big project for which delivery appears assured is developer David Taylor's 25-story office tower at 621 Capitol Mall. Construction has begun on part of a former parking lot; the other half may someday be occupied by Aura.

Just a block from Taylor's project, the past intrudes in the form of the old Wells Fargo building, sold after the bank moved into a posh new skyscraper a block away. The five-story building sits dark, its windows sheathed in plastic and its flagpoles bare. It is owned by the family of longtime developer George Tsakopoulos.

Angelo G. Tsakopoulos, George's son, last year proposed demolishing the old bank and erecting a 29-story office tower with a replica of the Parthenon on top.

The proposed design drew criticism and a series of pointed questions from staff members at the city's Design Review and Preservation Board. The developer pulled the project, saying changes to the floor plan were needed.

Tsakopoulos said in an e-mail Thursday that an application would be resubmitted in about two weeks.

A couple of doors down from the former bank, a 1960s-era federal building, sheathed in alternating glass and mustard-colored panels, rises eight stories at 650 Capitol Mall.

Mackani was surprised to learn that the building, formerly a federal courthouse, is still 80 percent leased to federal tenants and has 900 people working in it.

"That's still occupied?" he said incredulously. "It just looks silly."

Mary Filippini, a spokeswoman for the U.S. General Services Administration, said an aesthetic fix is on the way for the building, which houses the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a number of other agencies.

Filippini said her agency has selected Centerre Construction of Denver to give the building a $6.3 million face-lift. "It will look different - we think much, much better," Filippini said.

Developer David Taylor was glad to hear it. "It can't be any worse than what's there," he said. "I'm glad the feds are keeping it occupied."

Besides the worn, vacant or just plain boring buildings on Capitol Mall, there's the issue of the mall itself: a long, treeless strip of grass bordered by two lanes of traffic in each direction.

City leaders have said something should be done to spruce up the concourse. But until January, the state Department of Transportation controlled it as a state highway.

Control now has passed to the city, and city staff members say Sacramento should do something to make the mall more inviting for pedestrians and visitors.

"I think it's something everybody is thinking about," said Wendy Saunders, the city's economic development director. "In the summer, it's blazing hot, and there's not much landscape interest. It could be a lot prettier."

Seven years ago, the Sierra Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects presented a pro bono plan for Capitol Mall that included fountains, a plaza and an artificial stream.

Architect Bruce Starkweather, president of the Lionakis Beaumont Design Group in midtown, said a committee of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce recently began looking at the mall and what could be done.

"If we're the capital of the fifth-largest economy in the world, shouldn't we have a mall equivalent to the Mall of the East in Washington, D.C.?" he said.

Taylor agreed the mall could look better. But he said any changes must be sensitive to preserving the postcard vista from the Tower Bridge to the Capitol, a view that commands premium rents among his tenants.

"It's an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, you don't want a lot of clutter visually as you look down the mall toward the Capitol," Taylor said. "But there probably are some things that can be done with it that would make it a little more appealing, maybe some plantings or some benches."

As all these ideas swirl, Mackani sits above his restaurant in a fifth-floor office at Plaza 555, waiting for the influx of diners expected if the planned housing and office developments materialize. As he peers at the shuttered bank building across the street, he tries to take the long view.

"I think Capitol Mall is going to be a fantastic location," he said. "I don't think there's going to be any more beautiful street in California."

The Bee's Mary Lynne Vellinga can be reached at (916) 321-1094 or mlvellinga@sacbee.com.

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