Natomas redux: Can Sacramento build a balanced community?

This abandoned and fenced off commercial project in North Natomas is among many halted amid recession and flood fears.
This abandoned and fenced off commercial project in North Natomas is among many halted amid recession and flood fears. tbizjak@sacbee.com

North Natomas was a work in progress, just two-thirds built, when construction abruptly halted seven years ago after the federal government said the community’s flood risk was unacceptably high.

Now, with levee improvements underway, building is set to resume in June. Local officials vow that – this time – the growth will be more balanced and controlled.

The city finally can fill in the blanks and make neighborhoods whole, adding houses on empty lots, as well as new schools and other amenities. Leaders also say they would like to push for ways to add jobs and to make the community less of a typical car-centric suburb.

It’s a big task, but among Sacramento neighborhoods, Natomas is known as a place where big things happen, good and bad.

The sprawling community was the poster suburb for the region’s go-go growth spurt in the early 2000s. Builders hammered up 10 homes a day during the peak years, filling them just as fast with eager young families. The result was a massive new community halfway between downtown and the airport that swelled to tens of thousands of residents on what had been grazing land and fields months before.

That boom came to a stunning halt at the end of 2008. After Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, the federal government revamped levee-safety standards and determined protections were lacking on both the Sacramento and American rivers. That conclusion established a de facto ban on construction in the Natomas basin, leaving neighborhoods partially built and large sections looking abandoned.

New but unused streets with stops signs, lights and sidewalks now encircle weedy lots just blocks from busy supermarkets. Concrete shells of commercial buildings stand unfinished next to the freeway. The city has managed to get some parks built, but many are lightly used so far because they are flanked by rows of empty lots. A pair of porta-potties stand in the unfinished regional park because even restroom construction was off-limits.

That era ends June 16. Federal emergency-management officials have concluded that a levee-strengthening program has made sufficient progress to warrant an upgrade in Natomas’ flood status. Although it may take another decade of levee shoring before the basin is certified with 200-year protection, builders will be allowed to pull permits for new houses, apartments, stores and offices.

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents North Natomas, is among those who say the moratorium may have had a silver lining. It allowed the community to catch its breath and talk about where it is heading. Unlike in the early 2000s, developers and city officials will be dealing with residents who have invested time in the community, many of them organized and outspoken.

“This is round two, and this time we know more what we want,” Ashby said. “We are ready and excited and well-positioned to stand up for the things we want.”

The wish list is long. It starts with infill housing on empty lots in existing neighborhoods. “A lot of what will be happening is finishing something off,” Ashby said. “The way I describe it is, children have been waiting for neighbors.”

Officials in Natomas Unified School District say they now can address what they see as an upcoming baby boom. The community has proved attractive to young professional families who are interested in living near jobs, with some backyard space, but without having to pay the higher home prices in East Sacramento, Land Park and other close-in neighborhoods.

The school district intends to launch construction of three schools in the next three years to handle an expected influx of 10,000 more students in the next decade. “Where we project the crunch is at elementary school level,” district spokesman Jim Sanders said.

Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui, who will work to guide the levee project’s multiyear funding through Congress, warned last week that federal officials do not want to see another land rush in Natomas. “It is imperative that the city move forward in a reasonable and responsible manner,” Matsui said in an email.

Many Natomas residents agree, saying they want more amenities for families with children, more services for the elderly and more jobs to balance out all the bedrooms. Led by Ashby, community leaders have made it clear they will not tolerate another hole in the ground when the Sacramento Kings vacate Sleep Train Arena next year for a new downtown facility. Some are pushing the city and Kings to work a deal to turn the 188-acre site into a medical facility, a higher-education complex or technology-based jobs center.

Community leaders say they are looking to gain a sense of stability that Natomas never quite achieved when the boom years skidded into the building ban, the recession and a string of home foreclosures that sent residents on some blocks packing only a few years after they had arrived.

“This time around, people are looking for managed, sustainable growth,” said Danielle Marshall of the Natomas Chamber of Commerce. Marshall has lived in Natomas for 11 years, through the boom and the stoppage.

She said she thinks the community matured during the moratorium. “There was so much uncertainty, people had to talk to each other, and that created a unique environment,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody. (Now) we can open up so many more conversations.”

One such conversation is likely to be about whether to continue building Natomas as originally planned. City planners in the 1990s envisioned North Natomas as a pedestrian-, bike- and transit-friendly, urban-suburban neighborhood with higher housing densities and a mix of housing, stores and jobs on the same block.

This vision did not materialize, at least not to the degree planners had hoped, although the area has biking and walking trails and a shuttle bus service. A planned light-rail line through the center of the community has not been built, nor has the urban-style “town center.” Natomas is short of the kind of high-paying jobs that would allow more residents to avoid commuting on the area’s crowded freeways.

Former city planning director Carol Shearly, who oversaw Natomas development, said it is still unclear whether the market exists in Natomas for substantial development not oriented toward cars. It would need a push from community and city leaders, she said.

City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the west side of Natomas, said he will try to get the city and Sacramento Regional Transit, the light-rail operator, to do a better job of coordinating to make transit a bigger presence as the area grows. “We need to support transit-oriented development to give people an honest chance to be out of their cars if they want to,” Hansen said.

Natomas has 40,000 housing units and plans for about 14,000 more. It will take time for many of the empty residential blocks and commercial corners to be filled in. The City Council last week capped new housing units at 1,500 per year, slightly more than half the number of units that were built in Natomas annually during the boom years of the early 2000s.

Builders who own the partially developed and undeveloped parcels in Natomas say they plan to take it slow, unsure how strong the post-recession housing market is going to be in Natomas and what styles of houses will sell.

Jeff Pemstein, division president for Homes by Towne, a Milwaukee-based builder that owns 124 lots in Sky Park, a subdivision near Sleep Train Arena, said he is pleased to get started building and make back some of the money his company spent on utilities and sewer lines. But he said his company will be conservative.

“I would be happy to be building and selling two (houses) a month,” he said. “I think you will see a measured approach.”

Ioannis Kazanis of the North State Building Industry Association agreed. “Our industry is still in a recovery state of mind. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We want to see what the market is going to dictate out there.”

Several Natomas residents have raised the issue of water availability as a limiting factor for growth. City officials, however, say there is adequate water to serve new development in Natomas, even amid California’s prolonged drought. New homes are expected to be more energy- and water-efficient than existing housing stock, and will be built with water meters.

Councilwoman Ashby said she is excited to be able to put out the welcome mat again. “I think it is more clear what the community is, what it stands for,” she said, a place that “meets the needs of families who want good schools, parks, open land, but have the value system of living in a city.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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