Developer Mike Heller will announce Monday that his Ice Blocks project in midtown Sacramento has signed on a signature retail tenant: West Elm, the contemporary home furnishings store owned by Williams-Sonoma, is set to open in mid-2018.
“Not only is West Elm a great fit for Ice Blocks and all the housing projects under construction in this neighborhood,” Heller said, “it’s also a huge win for Sacramento in general. Along with Urban Outfitters coming to (Downtown Commons), this marks the beginning of a new era of shopping on the grid.”
West Elm will be the largest tenant at Heller Pacific’s Ice Shops, occupying 10,992 square feet. The $80 million, mixed-use Ice Blocks project covers three blocks along the R Street corridor between 16th and 18th streets in midtown Sacramento. There is 30,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level with 100,000 square feet of office space above it.
Heller Pacific, of course, is the company behind Sacramento’s MARRS project at the corner of J and 20th streets and the Sutter Brownstones at N Street and 26th Street. Heller is partnering on Ice Blocks with architect Mark Friedman and Sacramento Republic FC principal Kevin Nagle.
Economic development experts Wendy Saunders and Barry Broome told me that the back-to-back announcement of two destination retailers – Urban Outfitters and West Elm – creates momentum for restoring vitality to the capital’s urban core.
“One of my favorite things when I go to a city is to walk around its downtown to see what kind of vibe I pick up from the area,” said Saunders, executive director of Capitol Area Development Authority. “Places I love to go are Chicago, Portland (Ore.), Seattle, and a lot of the experience has to do with the retail offerings. A company that is well-known and has a national reputation has the ability to draw other retailers.”
This magnetic pull will benefit both local brands such as Button Up Boutique at Ice Blocks as well as national brands such as the sought-after “eatertainment” concept Punch Bowl Social coming to Downtown Commons, Broome said, but these two projects will have a much broader impact if they’re successful.
“Once your downtown is thriving, it gives the region a brand, and then the region can work together to grow jobs,” Broome said. “What draws people downtown is live, work and play models. Chicago’s the real founder of the modern downtown, so if you look at Chicago, Lakeshore Boulevard and the waterfront in Chicago is really about giving people an amenity that draws people into the downtown.”
The recipe for success in any urban core goes beyond retail, however. Other crucial ingredients are desirable housing units, safe and clean streets, appealing transit options, plentiful parking and fewer escape routes for workers in those districts.
Escape routes? That would be the wide one-way streets that allow commuters to quickly flee to the suburbs, taking their disposable income with them. Broome urged Sacramento leaders to convert more of those routes to two-way streets, add angled parking and eliminate many of the on-street parking fees.
Broome said that, once these retail developments get off the ground, he hopes the city will study whether it can make more on sales tax income than it currently earns with on-street parking fees. That would eradicate the rancor that diners and shoppers feel, he said, after spending a wad of dough, only to return to their cars and find a $50 ticket.
“A lot of cities have eliminated parking as a cost for people,” Broome said. “What they have found is if it’s free to park downtown, more people come downtown. You lose some short-term income on the collection of parking fees, but your long-term situation gets better economically.”
But just as essential, Broome said, is the idea of adding 10,000 to 15,000 housing units in downtown Sacramento. Once people live downtown and they work downtown, he said, they will spend their money downtown. Their presence, however, has a ripple effect. It puts more eyes on the street, deterring nuisance crimes such as littering or loitering.
“If you look at great downtowns,” Broome said, “they have a balance between jobs, housing and amenities. Being the state capital, Sacramento has always had plenty of jobs to ‘destinate’ a downtown, but people struggle with amenities.”
That is changing as Cushman & Wakefield’s David Scanlon and Stevie Greiner leverage the real-estate giant’s vast network of retailers and restaurateurs to secure the right mix of tenants at both Heller Pacific’s Ice Blocks and at JMA Ventures’ Downtown Commons.
Scanlon, who splits his time between the company’s Sacramento and San Francisco offices, lived in Sacramento for several years and still has two siblings who live and work here. He described his role as that of both a storyteller and a curator, finding brands that will add to Sacramento’s appeal and then acquainting those brands with the rich history of the capital’s neighborhoods. This is a good time to present these stories, he said.
“We’ve all seen trends in the news that traditional brick-and-mortar retail needs to evolve and deliver a customer-centric experience in order to compete with online sales,” said Scanlon, a director at Cushman & Wakefield. “Many lifestyle retailers that are in expansion mode are simply not mall-focused, and urban locations are at the top of these retailers’ lists when it comes to growth.”