Bob Shallit

Columnist comeback: Is Sacramento reaching ‘cool city’ status?

Local developer Mike Heller at the old Crystal Ice buildings along R Street in Sacramento on Thursday, October 23, 2014. Developer Mike Heller is ready to submit plans to the city to completely rehabilitate the aging and dilapidated Crystal Ice buildings and adjacent structures on R street between 16th and 18th streets. The long-awaited project is moving forward with Heller planning major retail and restaurants in what has been one of the city’s most neglected but most promising development sites.
Local developer Mike Heller at the old Crystal Ice buildings along R Street in Sacramento on Thursday, October 23, 2014. Developer Mike Heller is ready to submit plans to the city to completely rehabilitate the aging and dilapidated Crystal Ice buildings and adjacent structures on R street between 16th and 18th streets. The long-awaited project is moving forward with Heller planning major retail and restaurants in what has been one of the city’s most neglected but most promising development sites. rbenton@sacbee.com

What a difference three years can make.

In 2012, when I retired from The Sacramento Bee, the region was reeling. Projects were stalled, financing was scarce. One sign of the dark times: The family that owned the Sacramento Kings had just axed plans for a new arena in the downtown railyard, and speculation was rampant that the team was likely moving elsewhere.

Now, as I return to fill in temporarily for my colleague Cathie Anderson while she recuperates from a bike accident, it’s a very different story.

Nearly everywhere you look, from the suburbs to the resurgent downtown core, business is bouncing back. And there’s a palpable sense that Sacramento is on its way to achieving the “cool city” status its boosters have long been seeking.

“It’s unbelievable what is happening,” said Mark Friedman, who has seen his company’s stylish Bridge District housing development take off in West Sacramento after years of waiting and planning. “I think that we’ve finally reached critical mass and are at the beginning of an urban renaissance.”

Friedman is a central figure in the development of the new entertainment and sports center downtown that not only has kept the Kings here but played a huge role in sparking the current wave of commercial and residential development in the central city.

“The world turned on a dime with the Kings deal,” said developer Michael Heller, who is at work on an ambitious mixed-use project on the R Street corridor. “Before that, there was no commercial development. There was nothing.”

Regardless of how pivotal the Kings deal actually was, there’s no disputing what is happening now in the downtown core, starting with the launch of construction of the arena complex and an adjoining 16-story hotel and condo tower, the birth of interesting new restaurants and the imminent start-up of tenant improvement work for the long-delayed Sports Basement retail emporium at 730 I St.

Add to that a wave of creative, new housing complexes in the area: the Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street, the year-old Legado de Ravel apartments on 16th and the completion next month of the upscale 16 Powerhouse complex, which aims to lure suburban types to the central city with spacious digs and high-end amenities.

But one could argue the most dramatic change of all is happening at the west end of K Street, long the epicenter of local urban blight. When I first came to this city for a job interview 32 years ago, I explored the lower end of the block – and almost scurried back to Alaska. I stayed, fortunately. But I suffered along with everyone else as plan after plan to redevelop K Street came to inglorious ends.

Remember the proposal for a 24-hour cable news studio at 10th and K? Or the idea of building a new art house cinema there?

A decade ago, I walked the street with Joe Zeiden, head of the Z Gallerie home furnishings chain, who was promoting a plan to rehab the historic storefronts on the 700 block and bring in a bevy of eclectic retailers. He couldn’t make it work.

Last week I made the same walk with Bay Miry, head of D&S Development, one of two local companies in charge of a K Street renovation project that is remarkably like Zeiden’s but with the added element of bringing in 122 apartment units, above and behind new retail operations. Construction began earlier this month.

Miry is a young guy, just 33. But he has an appreciation for the project’s historic significance. “My sense is that it’s finally K Street’s time,” he said as we strolled past century-old storefronts now undergoing interior remodeling. “Our city has had all these years and decades of struggle to position this area for success and now we’re finally at that moment.”

He and his partners envision a block that offers “around-the-clock experiences” – cool restaurants, bars and coffee shops filled with downtown residents, not just folks stopping by for happy hour before making their way back to the ’burbs.

He also sees the project spurring development on the 800 and 900 blocks of K, filling in the dead zone between the more vibrant east and west ends of the corridor.

Already there’s evidence of that happening with at least one key site – the long-vacant former Montgomery Ward building at 830 K St.

David S. Taylor Interests is considering a partnership with the building’s owner to renovate the building and market it to retailers and potential office users seeking “creative spaces” – open floor plans, concrete floors, original brick walls and exposed wood beams, said broker Ken Turton, who has been hired to line up potential tenants.

The project is just “another piece of the puzzle,” Turton said, in what he sees as the transformation of the downtown area into a “metropolis.”

“Three years from now, downtown is going to have an awful lot of energy,” he said. “It’s going to be a very exciting place to live and work.”

For me, it’s a great time to be back, albeit temporarily, to help chronicle that progress.

Call The Bee’s Bob Shallit, (916) 321-1017.

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