Sacramento Commons project receives City Council approval

The City Council has approved a plan for the high-rise Sacramento Commons project to replace Capitol Villas, an established neighborhood downtown.
The City Council has approved a plan for the high-rise Sacramento Commons project to replace Capitol Villas, an established neighborhood downtown. rbenton@sacbee.com

Sacramento Commons, a proposed mixed-use development touted as key to revitalizing Sacramento’s downtown core, was approved late Tuesday by the Sacramento City Council despite protests from preservationists who said the project would sacrifice an important part of the city’s cultural history.

The proposal calls for replacing 1960s low-rise apartments with high-rise and midrise condominiums.

Kennedy Wilson, a Beverly Hills-based real estate investment firm, plans to retain the 15-story Capitol Towers but replace 206 low-rise Capitol Villas units with three high-rise and three midrise buildings containing condominiums, retail space and possibly a hotel.

The approximately 10-acre property is bounded by Fifth, Seventh, N and P streets. Designed by noted architects in the 1950s and ’60s, the pedestrian-oriented community features streets closed to traffic and a lush canopy of trees. The Sacramento Preservation Commission recently nominated the Capitol Towers complex for listing as a historic district in the Sacramento Register of Historic and Cultural Resources and recommended denial of the Sacramento Commons project.

After approving the Sacramento Commons proposal on a 6-1 vote, the council rejected the commission’s request to list the property as a historic district. It instead directed staff members to evaluate the alternative of listing the Capitol Towers high-rise and the sculpture wall created by artist Jacques Overhoff in the city’s Register of Historic and Cultural Resources.

“This project is seminal to revitalizing and repopulating downtown,” Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central city, said prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

The downtown area has half the population it had in the 1950s, Hansen said. Housing was lost throughout much of the second half of the 20th century as the city emphasized retail and commercial development in the downtown area. Capitol Towers and Capitol Villas were built as part of a redevelopment project in the 1950s and ’60s that replaced a mix of homes and businesses. Sacramento Commons, he said, will help restore the balance between residential and commercial uses in the area.

The council’s decision followed a hearing that lasted more than three hours. Supporters included labor unions representing the construction trades, and restaurant and hotel workers. The project was also backed by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which represents area property owners, and by advocates of transit-oriented development, including Mike Wiley, general manager of Sacramento Regional Transit.

Opponents included residents of Capitol Towers and Capitol Villas, as well as those from Bridgeway Towers and Pioneer Towers, high-rise residential complexes that occupy the four-block area but are not part of the Sacramento Commons development. They decried the loss of existing residences as well as 199 trees.

Representatives of SacMod, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving modern art, architecture and design in the Sacramento region, urged the council to consider an alternative that would preserve at least some of the Capitol Villas and the tree canopy.

Project opponents said they generally support increased residential density downtown, but argued that the city’s goal of 10,000 new housing units in the central city in the next 10 years could be met by developing other sites, without removing existing housing.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby was the only council member to vote against the Sacramento Commons project, while Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Larry Carr were absent. Ashby said it was a difficult decision because the project has some “really cool components,” like the hotel. When she was first elected to the council, Ashby noted, this neighborhood was in her district.

“I think at the root the issue isn’t the developer or the project,” she said. “At the root of the issue is the location.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee