Mayor proposes major $47 million transformation plan for Old Sacramento waterfront

Here’s how mayor would revamp Old Sacramento’s waterfront

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg announces a proposal Thursday, April 25, 2019, to spend up to $47 million – money earmarked for tourism uses – on revitalizing Old Sac's riverfront with new public spaces that would highlight the river.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg announces a proposal Thursday, April 25, 2019, to spend up to $47 million – money earmarked for tourism uses – on revitalizing Old Sac's riverfront with new public spaces that would highlight the river.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg on Thursday announced a proposal to use up to $47 million in hotel tax revenue to transform the Old Sacramento waterfront – adding a long lawn and concert stage, two rooftop bars and maybe even a docked barge with a swimming pool.

The city hopes to improve access to the riverfront, create a series of new venues for weekly events, and entice more residents and visitors to spend time in Old Sacramento. City officials hope the project will inspire state parks officials to expedite planned riverfront improvements. The city also wants private developers to build additional entertainment venues and hotels.

“Great cities use their rivers, they take advantage of their natural assets to grow tourism and jobs, nature spots and nightspots, and create buzz inside and outside their cities. Let us acknowledge that we have never really done that,” Steinberg said Thursday evening during a press conference at the waterfront. “Our river has been walled off and tamed, but never fully embraced. Sacramentans long to be close to the water, but we have made it next to impossible for them to get there.”

Steinberg has been setting the stage for this proposal during his first two years as mayor. Last year, he rebranded Old Sacramento to the Old Sacramento Waterfront, and the city installed a new embarcadero, where yoga and salsa dancing now take place. He also helped broker a financing plan for renovations of the Sacramento Convention Center, Community Center Theater and Memorial Auditorium that freed up the $47 million.

Under city code, hotel tax money can only be used for improvements where the public can visit and gather, not on expenses like housing and homelessness, Steinberg said.

The City Council on Tuesday will have the option to either approve the full $47 million for the project – Steinberg’s preference – or just the first $5 million, said Mary Lynne Vellinga, Steinberg’s spokeswoman.

To come up with the proposal, city officials pulled their favorite elements from the Waterfront Idea Makers contest, where residents and companies submitted drawings to revitalize the waterfront. Nearly 10,000 people voted in that contest.

A key feature of the proposal, which could change in the future, would be a long grassy park from J Street to the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, where people can stroll and concerts can be held. Front Street would still be open to vehicles, said Richard Rich, the city’s riverfront project manager.

A mostly vacant public market at the corner of Front and K streets would be demolished to make way for a two-story building that’s open at the bottom to provide views of the river and embarcadero, Rich said. The bottom level could host art shows and live music, while the top level could have a wine bar and beer garden, Rich said.

A second rooftop deck would be installed on top of the Sacramento History Museum. In the future, the schoolhouse could be relocated and the second public market building could be demolished, Rich said.

The proposal aims to revive the waterfront as a gathering space, which it was 150 years ago, when hotels lined Front Street and the port was bustling with ships unloading goods and people, Steinberg said.

The California State Railroad Museum attracts 500,000 to 700,000 visitors a year, about half of them kids, Rich said, but many don’t hang around after they’re done.

The shops in Old Sacramento produce less than half the sales per square foot as those in midtown, and the retail vacancy rate is nearly double the market average, Steinberg said.

“Here’s the idea: Instead of having people just come to the Railroad Museum, grab an ice cream and leave, we’re going to create a string of new attractions that will pull them deep into Old Sacramento as they work their way from one fun activity to the next,” Steinberg said.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents Old Sacramento, said a riverfront revitalization is long overdue.

“For a generation, people have talked about needing to revitalize the waterfront and this is one of our first major and serious commitments to investing into Old Sacramento, the riverfront and really take advantage of one of our great natural assets,” Hansen said.

Hansen also wants the city to consider using part of the $47 million for other waterfront projects, such as $500,000 toward a Hanami Line of cherry trees at Matsui Park. He also has his eyes on other opportunities just west of the Crocker Art Museum.

“The space between the Tower Bridge and the Railroad Museum should get investments, yes, but ... a portion of the ($47 million) should be set aside for projects outside of what staff is discussing,” Hansen said.

Hansen also said he wants the city to prioritize projects that would help people walk or bike to Old Sacramento.

The city is planning to add lighting to the K Street tunnel and the entrance into Old Sacramento on I Street.

“It doesn’t give you this transition from reality into something special,” Rich said of the current entrance.

Those projects, which are part of the city’s capital improvement plan, would not be part of the $47 million.

To address Old Sacramento’s lack of parking, the city wants to run trolleys in a loop from a remote parking lot to the waterfront, also stopping at the Capitol and Golden 1 Center.

“This can be a place Sacramentans visit every week, not just once or twice a year,” Steinberg said. “A place people can come and enjoy for free. A place we can brag about.”

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.