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Sacramento seeks to demolish, rebuild public housing projects

A man walks at the Alder Grove housing project, where some residents have mixed feelings about a mixed-use neighborhood plan for the site.
A man walks at the Alder Grove housing project, where some residents have mixed feelings about a mixed-use neighborhood plan for the site.

For generations since World War II, thousands of Sacramento’s poor have lived in semi-seclusion in the shadows of the city cemetery, largely cut off from the city around it.

The Alder Grove housing project, which borders on Broadway, and nearby Marina Vista, tucked at the base of Interstate 5, were built at a time when government housing programs clustered the poor in one spot. It was convenient, but not conducive to the tough task of integrating people into the workforce and out of poverty.

Housing officials say it’s time for the rows of antiquated barracks-like brick buildings to come down, to be replaced by a mixed-use neighborhood, where the poor would mingle with more affluent families in an urban, energetic community.

The plan, years in the making, follows a trend in other cities, backed by federal money. The razing and rebuilding of the two neighborhoods could take a decade or more to complete. It would be the biggest change in Sacramento public housing since the initial construction of the two projects, formerly known as New Helvetia and Seavey Circle.

It also would be disruptive. The 1,900 residents in the two projects would be moved in successive groups over several years into temporary housing elsewhere. Their apartment buildings would be demolished and replaced in phases by denser mixed housing, with some retail and commercial potentially included.

Many of those poor residents would return to the new neighborhood. But some might be permanently relocated elsewhere. That would allow more space at the sites for market-rate housing, available to people with sufficient incomes to rent and even buy some units, including town homes and market-rate single family homes. Officials with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, or SHRA, said they are unsure at this point what percentage of the current residents they expect to return.

Several Marina Vista and Alder Grove residents testified at a recent City Council meeting that they want the changes. “We’re excited about the possibility of transforming our community,” Cristal Bogard said.

Other residents this week at Alder Grove expressed mixed feelings about the plan. Some said they would welcome an upgrade. Others said they would prefer to move permanently elsewhere, preferably to an apartment or house that would take a Section 8 housing voucher, rather than a low-income complex.

City officials say the project is a high priority.

“We still have a (racially and economically) segregated neighborhood next to one of the most prosperous communities in our (city),” Councilman Steve Hansen said. Some children in the neighborhood live lives so disconnected that they have not even visited the city zoo a mile and a half away, he said. “We can’t tolerate that. We cannot leave in place the fundamentals that have created this pocket of poverty.”

The question this summer is: Will the ambitious project happen?

Local housing officials will need federal financial help. Their hope is that the federal department of Housing and Urban Development will give Sacramento up to $30 million through its Choice Communities Initiative grant program. This month, the local housing agency plans to submit a draft concept of its transformation plan to the federal government. In November, the locals will send a final plan for federal review.

The federal grant, however, will not nearly cover the cost of remaking the two neighborhoods. SHRA has teamed with a group of private development companies to come up with additional financing, mainly by leveraging revenue from market rate housing on site and by tapping other federal and state funds.

Those entities include Related Companies of California, Mercy Housing California, Regis Homes and Riverview Capital Investments.

The unresolved financing gap remains large, perhaps more than $70 million, and that has some at City Hall concerned about the project’s viability. SHRA is looking at replacing the 751 current units with either 1,200 units or 1,500 units. The larger, more dense 1,500-unit concept would be considerably more costly.

At a recent City Council meeting, Councilman Jay Schenirer asked housing officials to focus on what is realistic. “How do we get to the right plan as quickly as possible?” he said.

Tyrone Roderick Williams, SHRA director of development, said his agency is still nailing down project details, including possible densities, housing unit numbers, and financing. “The total size and cost of the project has not been finalized,” he said. HUD likely will offer input.

SHRA, a government agency, handles public housing programs for the city and county of Sacramento. It owns and manages the Alder Grove and Marina Vista housing projects. Final project approvals, though, will run through the City Council.

William Witte, chief executive of Related Companies of California, which has built similar projects in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, acknowledged that the financing puzzle is not easy. But Witte, whose company would be majority partner, said, “We wouldn’t be spending time on it if we didn’t think it was feasible.”

The new community, as currently envisioned, would place higher-density, five-story buildings near Broadway, with detached single-family residences at the south end of the neighborhood to help blend with the existing Land Park neighborhood. Medium density apartments and town homes would sit between.

Local housing officials would set up joint programs with two local schools. A street grid would be built to connect the new development to the larger community. Several community leaders are pushing to include a history and interpretive center that would honor, among others, the late Nathaniel Colley Sr., an influential African American attorney in Sacramento who fought against housing discrimination.

Project supporters include Darryl Rutherford, executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, an advocacy group for housing programs for the poor. “We think this is the right way to redevelop a community,” he said. “You want a mix of income, you need retail, parks, schools, groceries and there is that potential with this project.”

He said he is pressing for SHRA to bring back as many of the existing residents as want to return.

But the project makes others uneasy. Some nearby Land Park residents worry the design will pack more people and cars in dense housing next to their suburban-style single-family neighborhood.

“Population density will overwhelm this stable middle-class neighborhood,” Land Park resident Joyce Johnson told the City Council. “Please don’t build this economic sinkhole.”

A recent SHRA report indicates some Land Park area neighbors would like to see as many as half of the current residents moved permanently to housing elsewhere. An SHRA analysis said likely other locations for residents includes portions of East Sacramento, Land Park and South Natomas.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby says she likes the project, but is sympathetic to neighborhood concerns. “I have a soft spot for people who complain about real high-density apartment complexes,” she said. “I know what it did to Natomas, and it wasn’t good.

“Sometimes with the best of intentions, it doesn’t quite land the way we think it will, even if the drawings are really nice on the front end.”

Others in the area, including the Greater Broadway Partnership, see the project as a key part of a larger overhaul of the Broadway area. A few blocks away, a 32-acre former lumber mill is being transformed into a residential area, called The Mill at Broadway, where more than 800 housing units are expected to be built and marketed to young couples and empty-nesters.

And chef Randall Selland plans to move his noted restaurant, The Kitchen, almost directly across Broadway from the north side of Alder Grove.

Councilman Hansen said he thinks the prognosis is good for the Broadway area in general, but warned it will take time. “We are in this for a very long haul,” he said. “This is a generational change. We have to get it right.”

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