Here’s Sacramento’s new plan to tackle its city parks problem

Sacramento's problem of unfinished parks and how to fix them

Chris Conlin, city parks director, talks about Sacramento's $3 million plan to upgrade major “regional” parks, including Miller, Granite, Sutters Landing, Del Paso and North Natomas, as well as parkways and bikeways. The new annual money will come
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Chris Conlin, city parks director, talks about Sacramento's $3 million plan to upgrade major “regional” parks, including Miller, Granite, Sutters Landing, Del Paso and North Natomas, as well as parkways and bikeways. The new annual money will come

Sacramento city planners drew up a grand design for the new North Natomas Regional Park back in 2000, envisioning a recreational jewel with an amphitheater, botanical garden, farmers market, lakeside boathouse, cafe, playing fields, and a series of landscaped hills offering panoramic valley views.

Today, the amphitheater and a few other amenities have been built, but most of the vast 200-acre park is undeveloped and weeded over. The city never had the money to realize its big dream. The same goes for other major parks in the city that are supposed to be regional draws.

Miller Regional Park, home to the city’s marina, has little else to offer a new generation of Sacramentans, many of whom barely know of its existence despite its prime perch on the banks of the Sacramento River. Del Paso Regional Park’s ballfields were closed down years ago, and its nature trails remain largely undeveloped.

At the same time, the city is rich in small parks, several hundred of them, with basic amenities such as playgrounds.

The imbalance comes from an odd parks funding scenario, in place for decades: The city requires developers of new homes and commercial buildings to pay fees to buy and build 5 acres worth of neighborhood or community parks for every 1,000 residents in an area.

But the city doesn’t have a similar dedicated revenue source to build amenities at its bigger “regional” parks and other larger recreational facilities, such as community centers, pools or parkways, even though those facilities represent 45 percent of park and recreation acreage in the city.

Saying a funding fix is overdue, city parks officials plan to ask the City Council as early as January to approve a city ordinance change that will kick-start at least some new revenue for the big parks.

The move is modest, though, and notably does not involve new money. Instead, it shifts about a third of the existing park impact fees from small park development to be used at bigger parks instead. That means future new housing developments likely will make do with smaller or fewer neighborhood parks, and with fewer amenities in those parks.

The proposal will free up an estimated $3 million annually to build more amenities at regional parks that are designed to serve people from around the city. That includes North Natomas, Del Paso and Miller parks, as well as Sutter’s Landing Regional Park next to the American River northeast of midtown and Granite Regional Park on the city’s eastern edge.

Plans vs. reality

When first designed in 2000, plans for North Natomas Regional Park included landscaped hills, an amphitheater and a lakeside boathouse. Move the slider to compare an image of the largely unbuilt park from 2015 with an updated park plan from 2009:

Features in 2009 plan

1. Dog park
2. Great meadow
3. Great mall
4. Sports complex
5. Nature area with boardwalk
6. Boathouse cafe
7. Outdoor concert area
8. Cultural center
9. Conservatory
10. Botanic gardens pond
11. Park administration center
12. Garden conference center
13. Festival/farmers market
14. Skateboard park
15. Family center
16. Aquatic center
17. Park operations corporate yard

Some of those funds will go toward building more outdoor aquatic centers, community centers, parkways and bikeways that wind through neighborhoods.

William Land Park, the city’s most popular regional park, notably stands apart as amenity-rich because many of its attractions – the zoo, golf course, Funderland and Fairytale Town – are also moneymakers.

City parks got a financial boost in 2013 when voters passed a post-recession sales tax increase that has helped get pools reopened and capital repairs done at parks, though that tax is scheduled to go away in 2019.

City parks director Chris Conlin says the city is walking a thin line. It is trying to fix a broken business model in its parks system, but to do it without discouraging developers from building new housing. Higher park fees, he said, could stall the housing growth the city needs.

Three million dollars is a modest amount, Conlin acknowledges. But, he said, “it’s way more than we have right now. If we use the money judiciously, that could be stretched pretty far. It is not for maintenance. It is for – no kidding – park improvements.”

“We have a few treasures out there we aren’t using to maximum capability,” he said. “Miller Park is a key toehold on the riverfront. We are, after all, the River City. Right now, there used to be a bait shop and soda shop that are no longer open. Fishing piers are closed down. How can we get it used more?

“Del Paso Park has a beautiful nature area, one of the last large natural areas in the city. We’d love to make that more of a nature area that schoolchildren could go to and study.”

The fee proposal will be packaged with several other fee changes for the City Council to consider in the new year.

City staff will ask the council to establish a new fee on builders to pay for transportation improvements to handle the impacts from their developments. Developer groups, which have worked with the city in fashioning the new fee system, say they accept the addition of a new transportation impact fee in part because the city is not increasing the parks fee and is offering incentives, such as lower fees when they build housing in the central city.

The fees developers must pay for park amenities range from about $3,200 per new house in the central city to $5,100 per 2,000-square-foot house in more suburban areas like East Sacramento and North Natomas.

The city and development community have come to another agreement – to be presented to the City Council in the next few months – that both say should considerably help jump-start development. Currently developers must pay their park impact and other fees when the city gives them the OK to build houses, but long before they can sell those houses and make money. The new plan will defer payment of those fees to the city until the houses are built and ready for sale.

“They recognize that things are very fragile right now (in the housing industry), coming back from the recession,” said Rob Smith, legislative advocate for the North State Building Industry Association.

In the central city, in particular, where land costs are high and where city officials want to encourage more housing construction, the city plans to reduce the fee burden on developers. Parks officials said that means they will now focus less on adding new parks in the central city and more on improving existing core area parks, such as adding a children’s playground that doubles as an art park in Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Those officials say they have fingers crossed that they have fashioned a balanced system that gets more done in showcase parks, and encourages home building to further fund the parks system.

“If we do stimulate more development, I think we are on the right track,” city councilman and former parks commissioner Jeff Harris said. “We may dedicate less parkland” but “we will be able to build out those parks and do a good job of it.”

Parks officials say it is also time for the city to update its vision of what type of park amenities residents want and need. They plan to rewrite the city’s near decade-old plan for what new parks and amenities are needed, once the new fees are in place.

As part of that process, the parks department is asking residents between now and the end of January to offer ideas on the city website of what park improvements they would like to see funded at their local parks and at the city’s regional recreation facilities.

“What are people asking for?” parks director Conlin said. “We want to come up with a good way of where we spend our money for the best bang for the city.”

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents North Natomas, said her community already has done a feasibility study for an aquatic center and community center at North Natomas Regional Park that she will bring to the City Council next year.

“Parks like North Natomas have been promised for a very long time,” she said. She approves of the fee changes, but warns that the upgrade process will be slow.

“It’s a long-term play,” she said. “We still have to find more funding.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak