Capitol Mall was California’s first post-war redevelopment project, leading the way in the state during a period of nationwide emphasis on beautification projects. But the mall has been left largely untouched since it was dedicated in 1968, when planners were hoping the space would be the “Pennsylvania Avenue of California.”
Now – over 50 years later – city planners and state lawmakers want to take another swing at turning the mall into a welcoming and usable gathering place for Sacramento’s residents and visitors to the Capitol.
Not only will a planned makeover transform the configuration of the mall, the strip between 10th Street and the Sacramento River, but a state Senate resolution seeks to rename the circle and plaza at the head of the mall after legendary California politician Willie Brown Jr.
Although the plans are separate efforts, they represent a renewed interest on the part of community leaders to breathe new life into the underutilized space that is the doorstep of the city. Developments such as the CalPERS tower at Third Street and the proposed housing development at 601 Capitol Mall are also a part of this vision.
Megan Johnson, an associate civil engineer with Sacramento’s Public Works Department working on the Capitol Mall project, said the multiple revitalization projects are a testament to the strip’s landmark status.
“Capitol Mall should be a special place,” Johnson said, addressing the mall’s position as the gateway to the Capitol.
Reimagining its purpose
Early designs for the mall essentially invert what was created by the former Sacramento Redevelopment Agency, the once mighty land-use department that demolished the city’s West End nearly 60 years ago.
In fashion with the nation’s postwar beautification boom, the city had torn away the 15-square-block area that was its original business district in a plan praised by urban renewal experts at the time.
Writing in Metropole, the blog of the Urban History Society, Sacramento filmmaker Chris Lango described the West End as “Sacramento’s most populated, diverse, integrated, and historic neighborhood” that had become blighted. As described in his 2016 documentary, “Replacing the Past,” city planners were eager to turn around what was described as one of the worst slums of the western U.S. but was home to 4,000 people from various socioeconomic classes, including the city’s Japantown neighborhood, and 300 businesses, Lango wrote.
The result: an antiseptic and largely static boulevard, lauded by urban renewal experts at the time, framed by early modernist buildings and the newer skyscrapers that have risen up in spurts since the late ’80s.
The current configuration has largely failed to serve its purpose, Johnson said. Instead of four lanes of traffic divided in two by inaccessible green space, today’s planners want to put vehicle traffic through the middle of the mall and cut the number of lanes in half.
Johnson said the roadway is much wider than it needs to be for the relatively low amount of traffic it sees. Putting the roadway in the middle of the mall actually makes managing traffic easier because both lanes could be switched to go the same direction for something like a big event at Golden 1 Center, Johnson said.
Increasing the pedestrian space the mall offered is one of the most important aspects of the plan. Pedestrian space would be expanded from a current total of 16 feet to up to 50 feet on each side of the roadway, Johnson said.
“Transforming the Capitol Mall has been a discussion in Sacramento for over a generation because most people realize it doesn’t work well for cars, pedestrians or bikes,” said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown.
The mall as a destination
The preliminary renderings also show concepts for innovative outdoor seating that would double as barriers between pedestrians and vehicle traffic, cable and sail structures that provide overhead shade, and sculptures that would feature local artists and direct pedestrians to the Crocker Art Museum.
Planners are scheduled to begin working with outside stakeholders, including the public, on the project in the fall.
“Our goal is to both honor the historic nature at the front porch of the state Capitol and our city, but also to provide for the pedestrians and bike users safety to make it a better corridor to do events,” Hansen said.
City planners are just $150,000 away from meeting the $850,000 threshold required to complete the construction drawings and move to the next stage of the process. Hansen said he is requesting the $150,000 through the city budget, which is tentatively set for adoption in June.
Other contributors to the planning budget include the Capitol Area Development Authority, which committed $100,000 last week. The city provided $250,000, and the Sacramento Council of Governments granted $500,000 to the planning project in 2018.
Events like Sacramento Pride and the Farm to Fork Festival would benefit from the changes to the mall, according to Hansen. He envisions a mall that would be more conducive to large music events “that can really galvanize Sacramento and be part of moving some of our cultural goals forward.”
Construction of the project is estimated to cost up to $16 million, but city planners won’t be able to apply for and receive funds until 2022, Hansen said. Designs for the project will also be finalized by 2022, Johnson said. Should the project remain on schedule, construction will begin in 2023.
Renaming plaza, circle for Brown
The circle and plaza designated in the state Senate resolution sits between the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building and the California State Treasurer’s Office just between Ninth and 10th streets. The resolution was introduced by state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, who said in a fact sheet about the resolution that Brown “epitomizes the ‘California Dream’ and should be honored.”
Brown, 85, was the first black speaker of the state Assembly and its longest-serving leader. He served in the Assembly beginning in 1964 and was speaker from 1980 to 1995. He went on to serve two terms as the 41st mayor of San Francisco from 1996 to 2004.
“Mr. Brown’s career spans the American presidency from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama,” the resolution reads, “and he has ... left his imprimatur on every aspect of public policy impacting the Golden State and the nation.”
The official name of the space would be the “Willie L. Brown Jr. Circle and Plaza,” and the resolution requests the Department of General Services to determine and partially cover the costs for installing commemorative signage.
Bradford introduced the resolution March 20, and it passed the Senate Governmental Organization in an unanimous 16-0 vote April 23. The bill is now headed on to the appropriations committee.