Is Sacramento’s ‘city within a city’ ready to rise?

Aerial view of the Sacramento railyard, October, 2015, looking southward toward downtown.
Aerial view of the Sacramento railyard, October, 2015, looking southward toward downtown. rpench@sacbee.com

Empty now, Sacramento’s downtown railyard someday could be home to as many as 21,000 residents, more than live in Land Park and Curtis Park together. A like number of people would also work there, making the railyard the region’s most densely packed and self-supporting neighborhood.

Those numbers are part of a city report, released Friday, describing the latest plans for the long-dormant railyard and the potential impacts that development will have as it finally gets underway in earnest over the next few years.

The proposal for the 244-acre site – described as a city within a city – includes several major anchors, notably a Kaiser Permanente medical campus and a 20,000-capacity soccer stadium.

Advocates say residents will have less need for cars than others in the region, either walking to work on site or to downtown offices blocks away, and will have access to a light-rail station on site as well as the train depot.

“The idea is to create enough jobs so that those living there have an opportunity to work there and reduce the congestion issues,” said Denton Kelley, a partner in the Downtown Railyard Venture LLC, which owns 200 acres of the old railyard. “We just haven’t had housing opportunities in the urban grid.”

Mayor Kevin Johnson, in a statement Friday, predicted the railyard will be “a national model for how to build cities in the 21st century: diversely programmed, transit-accessible, and technically wired.”

But the sheer size of the project poses logistical hurdles and a variety of impacts on the central city, listed in a 3,700-page preliminary environmental impact released Friday for public review and comment. A final environmental analysis will be reviewed by the City Council in November.

The environmental report identifies expected traffic jams and the possible need for new schools, and it questions whether proposed 450-foot heights for riverfront residential towers are appropriate. It reviews how many residents will use transit, walk or bike, analyzes potential light and noise pollution, and even discusses what will become of the purple martin swallows that nest under the I Street Bridge ramp.

The environmental analysis is among the final legal steps before development begins on the dusty territory north of downtown that has sat mostly idle since Union Pacific closed operations in the 1990s.

Soccer officials this week said they are eager to start work on a stadium in the northeast corner of the railyard in hopes of showing Major League Soccer officials that the city is worthy of being awarded a franchise in the next few years, essentially a higher-level replacement for Sacramento’s existing Republic FC soccer team.

The environmental report notes that the soccer stadium noise, especially from concerts, will carry to parts of the adjacent Alkali Flat neighborhood. Stadium lighting also will have to be designed to minimize the amount that spills into Alkali Flat, the city analysis says.

Notably, the analysis concludes the project will create far less traffic in the region than it would if 6,000 to 10,000 housing units were built in suburban areas. But it identifies several areas downtown of added traffic congestion. The Interstate 5 ramps at J Street, already jammed at peak hours, would be worse more hours of the day.

The soccer stadium notably would create “severe” congestion before sold-out events, including a mile away at the intersection of 12th Street, 16th Street and Richards Boulevard unless mitigation measures are put in place. The city and soccer team owners will set up a traffic management plan, to be operated by city police and paid for by the team.

The report says pedestrian and transit improvements can help mitigate event traffic issues as well. That includes a planned light-rail station to be constructed one block from the stadium, and a series of bikeways in the railyard.

Kaiser Permanente, the soccer team and other developers in the railyard would be required to contribute money to an Interstate 5 corridor improvement plan, some of which could go toward a planned expansion of the Richards Boulevard interchange. The Kaiser Permanente project, which will replace the company’s Morse Avenue facility, could take a decade to build.

The analysis concludes, notably, that the sheer size of the railyard project will cause increased vehicle-related pollution, though it’s estimated to be 15 percent less than a more car-oriented suburban development.

City officials and regional transportation planners say continued population growth is a given in the region in coming decades. They have been pushing for more of it to be infill, like the railyard project, to reduce the amount of long car commutes and the accompanying traffic and pollution.

The report, conducted for the city by Environmental Science Associates, concluded there are no health risk concerns due to the site’s proximity to diesel traffic on Interstate 5. That could prove to be a controversial finding. Some clean air advocates contend the state’s environmental review process allows analysts to do less than full reviews of freeway car exhaust impacts.

Toxic cleanup has long been a major theme at the site, a former locomotive and rail car maintenance yard. Most of the soil has been cleaned, but not entirely, the report notes. The shallow groundwater under the site is polluted and will require decades of filtering. Analysts say some separation vapor barriers may have to be laid between structures and the soil during development. Agreements among the state and current and past landowners govern how to handle future cleanup and who is responsible if unexpected pollution is discovered.

The environmental analysis also focuses on a planned stormwater system with a pump station feeding into the Sacramento River, to reduce flows to the city’s antiquated and over-burdened storm and sewer system. The outflow area is sensitive river habitat, which will require extensive permitting from various government agencies, and will limit how and when riverbank work can be done.

Denton Kelley, a principal with the railyard ownership group, estimated that construction in the yard will begin in 2018 and that full build-out of the railyard will take several decades.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

Public workshop set for downtown railyard environmental impact report

The report is available for review on the city website.

Open house to discuss project set for 6 p.m.Wednesday, June 15, at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St.

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