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West Sacramento mayor puts his mortgage where his mouth is

Christopher Cabaldon, West Sac’s mayor, made good on his promise to developers three years ago: If they built housing in the city’s new Bridge District, he would be among the first to buy. He’ll be moving into the new and stylish Park Moderns later this month.
Christopher Cabaldon, West Sac’s mayor, made good on his promise to developers three years ago: If they built housing in the city’s new Bridge District, he would be among the first to buy. He’ll be moving into the new and stylish Park Moderns later this month. aseng@sacbee.com

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon made a promise a few years to a group of developers: If they’d help the city finance and launch redevelopment of the riverfront area, Cabaldon would be among the first to buy a home there.

Next month, Cabaldon will make good on his vow. He’ll move into a new, three-story brick row house in The Park Moderns, an enclave of stylish, tightly packed residences under construction a few blocks south of Raley Field. That puts him among the first urban pioneers in his city’s Bridge District, a former industrial area that, if successful, will house nearly 10,000 residents amid office buildings and riverside restaurants, bisected by a streetcar line to downtown Sacramento via the Tower Bridge.

Cabaldon, 49, said he bought the property because he likes the feel of The Park Moderns, which is inspired by modern Amsterdam architecture, and believes in the potential for the broader riverfront district. But he’s also making a political statement.

“I think it is important for more policymakers to put their mortgage where their mouth is,” he said in an interview earlier this month.

Cabaldon, arguably the region’s leading urban infill advocate, contends that the region’s cities and aging suburbs can be rejuvenated with densely packed housing mixed with retail and offices at their cores, similar to what his city is doing. He laments that few Sacramento decision makers live in the region’s urban centers.

If more did, he argues, they would better understand the issues urban builders face – including higher land costs, resistant neighbors, parking and traffic – and could help shepherd those projects through councils and planning commissions.

“There needs to be more diversity of perspective in city halls around the region,” he said.

Cabaldon’s move comes as the Sacramento area’s major regional planning body predicts a growing desire among homebuyers for urban-style housing. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, comprised of elected officials from throughout the region, decides how to divvy up federal transportation dollars. It has increasingly sought to invest in walkable communities with access to public transit.

Not all local politicians in the region share Cabaldon’s ardor for infill, however. Several SACOG board members and other regional leaders say they agree that denser, transit-oriented development should play a part of the picture as the region grows. But none of those contacted by The Bee said they feel the need to move to one.

The pickings are still slim for local buyers of that type of housing, even in Sacramento’s urban core. Beyond that, many locals remain interested in buying the traditional Sacramento style of housing – a home with a backyard and plenty of parking, local builders say.

Across the river from West Sacramento, Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen is an exception. He owns a home in the Alkali Flat neighborhood, making him the only Sacramento City Council member in the last 33 years to live downtown. Hansen shares Cabaldon’s goal of encouraging more infill housing downtown to reinvigorate the central core and to allow more people the chance to live near work and gathering spots. Living in downtown gives him an insider’s view, Hansen said, but it’s not necessary.

“There is no litmus test for where you live and whether you understand the challenges of these things,” Hansen said.

In the city of Sacramento, the jurisdiction with the most opportunity for infill housing, planning commissioners can live anywhere in the city, and several live in midtown and downtown. Sacramento City Council members represent districts that are spread throughout the city, though, and must live in those districts.

Hansen said his goal is to double the number of people living downtown, matching the roughly 60,000 who lived there in the 1950s. He said he believes his City Hall colleagues have a good sense of how to make that happen. He cited the proposed streetcar line through downtown and part of West Sacramento as an example, a $150 million project that would not be on the table if city leaders didn’t understand its potential to increase downtown livability and spur economic development.

Rancho Cordova Councilman David Sander, who lives in a suburban house on a large lot, said he understands where Cabaldon is coming from. “Diversity on a council is a good thing,” he said.

Rancho Cordova has begun a push for denser and more walkable housing areas near jobs, and won plaudits for its Capital Village neighborhood, a suburban version of mixed-use infill development. Sander said he expects people who live in those types of communities eventually will migrate onto Rancho Cordova’s council and city commissions.

Lincoln City Councilman Paul Joiner, who has sparred in the past with Cabaldon on growth issues, said West Sacramento and downtown Sacramento may benefit from the experience of infill residents on boards, but his city is going in a different direction – new communities in undeveloped areas.

“We are going to be looking at ‘greenfield’ development for the next 40 years,” Joiner said.

Officials with the North State Building Industry Association agree that infill builders would benefit from having their projects reviewed by council and commission members who understand the hurdles that type of development faces, including dealing with concerns of people living nearby.

“It is important to get the word out there on the challenges,” Ioannis Kazanis of the builders group said.

But he said his group continues to caution city and regional leaders not to turn their backs on traditional suburban housing developments in open areas outside of existing cities. “Infill is great. It’s the exciting thing right now, but we are still focused on the whole area,” Kazanis said. “There needs to be that balance.”

The Park Moderns developer, Mark Friedman of Fulcrum Property, said he is pleased that Cabaldon bought one of his units. Friedman said Cabaldon was the first person he pitched when he was marketing the project to potential buyers a few years ago.

“What better ambassador for the project?” Friedman said. “He’s one of the most thoughtful politicians about urban planning that I have ever met.”

Yolo County Supervisor Oscar Villegas, a former colleague of Cabaldon’s on the West Sacramento council, said the mayor’s comments hint at a bit of hometown marketing: “He’s signaling West Sac is open for business.”

The Park Moderns row houses, which perch facing an oval park, sell for $460,000 to $775,000. Cabaldon’s neighbors will include a university dean, the Sacramento Kings’ lead attorney, a psychiatrist, a downtown clothier, a restaurateur, and a graphic designer/musician. With construction in the district ongoing, likely for years to come, his neighbors also will include beeping backhoes, rumbling cement trucks and pile drivers.

Cabaldon says he is unfazed. He currently lives at the Ironworks Lofts, a few blocks away, where major street reconstruction recently finished and nearby apartment construction is underway.

“Isn’t that really the West Sac story?” he said. “We are constantly living under renovation. I’m used to that.”

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

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