This story is part of our “Beyond Sacramento” series, an initiative that lets you ask questions about our region that The Sacramento Bee explores and answers. Scroll to the form at the bottom of this article to submit your question.
The question, submitted by Jason Teague, is “What does the Sacramento skyline look like in the near future? Anything over 30 stories?”
After a period of euphoric planning in the years leading up to the economic collapse in 2008, dozens of high-rise building plans collected dust in Sacramento developers’ drawers. Until now.
The Sacramento skyline is rising, following a trend across Western cities such as Denver, Seattle and Long Beach to build up, instead of out, to accommodate increasing populations in the midst of housing shortages.
Currently, the skyline is defined by the Tower Bridge at 98 feet, and the city’s reigning giants, the Wells Fargo Tower, at 430 feet, and the US Bank Tower, at 404 feet.
Not for long, though. In the next few years, 11 new high-rise buildings may have the potential to elevate Sacramento’s skyline.
Sacramento Commons, at the corners of Seventh and N streets, and Seventh and P streets, will add three high-rise residential buildings maxing out at 24 stories, with construction on the first phase starting by year’s end.
The Yamanee Tower at 2500 J St., approved in July after two years of litigation, will rise to 15 stories, adding 134 market-rate condominiums.
The Richards Boulevard Office Complex project will add four government agency buildings to a lot near 344 N Seventh St., each ranging from eight to 13 stories tall. Construction begins next summer, according to central city planner Karlo Felix.
Other smaller projects include 601 Capitol Tower, which will rise to 88 feet and contribute 162 multi-unit dwellings at market rate, and a six-story apartment as part of the Cathedral Square Condominiums at 11th & J.
So how did Sacramento’s skyline come to be what it is today?
From shacks to skyscrapers
In the years following James Marshall’s discovery of gold in nearby foothills in 1848, Sacramento consisted of huddled, hastily constructed wooden structures covered with canvas.
After the Great Flood of 1862 swept parts of Sacramento under 30 feet of water, the city imported thousands of cubic yards of dirt via wagon to raise many parts of the city by one story, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
The city made a rapid recovery, becoming a bustling trading center for miners working in the gold fields.
By 1919, the state Capitol, completed nearly half a century prior, reigned as the tallest building in the city. Its pewter gray dome, rising 248 feet above a sea of squat brick buildings, and effaced with terracotta, marble and Grecian pillars, defined the skyline, according to Carson Anderson, the senior planner of historic preservation at Sacramento’s Community Development Department.
“It was mostly flat 100 years ago,” Anderson said.
In 1925, the first skyscrapers peeked over the horizon, crafted from reinforced concrete. The Elks Tower peaked at 226 feet, and the California Life Insurance building, now known as the Citizen Hotel, rose to 216 feet.
By the 1960s, corporate high rise buildings began to infiltrate downtown, routinely rising between 10 and 12 stories tall. Within a couple of decades, buildings began to break the 20-story boundary, according to Anderson.
“During the ‘80s and early ‘90s period, we really had that next leap up in terms of height,” Anderson said.
The Renaissance Tower — perhaps better known as the Darth Vader building for its black glass exterior and shape — was built in 1989, showcasing a stunning 372 feet and 28 stories.
Three years later, the Wells Fargo Tower was built, surpassing the Renaissance by three stories. The tower has since dominated as Sacramento’s tallest for nearly three decades.
Today, Sacramento’s skyline is the fourth highest in California, lagging behind Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. San Diego’s highest building, One America Plaza, stands at 500 feet, and Los Angeles and San Francisco’s tallest skyscrapers are 1,100 feet (Wilshire Grand Center) and 1,070 feet (Salesforce Tower), respectively.
The next Bay Area?
“In the early 2000s, there was an unsupported exuberance in what we could build based on a lot of easily available money and big dreams,” said Bruce Monighan, urban design manager at the city of Sacramento.
Monighan described plans for dozens of ambitious giants made of glass and steel, each exceeding 350 feet, each contributing hundreds of new residential units to downtown. Then in 2008, the housing market crashed. The grand plans never materialized.
“The money dried up,” Monighan said.
Although the economy has since mended, Monighan still believes that Sacramento is not yet ready for these high-rise residential buildings.
“Sacramento has not proven itself as a tier-one market for high end residential buildings as you might see in downtown San Francisco,” Monighan said.
The midrise building, which rises up to 75 feet, is an obvious choice for developers in Sacramento. When developers build over 75 feet, building codes change, and wood, the cheapest building material, can no longer be safely used.
Although the city now is besieged by dozens of high-rise building projects, Monighan said that Sacramento is still far from becoming the next San Francisco, at least height-wise.
Among other factors, construction costs have been weighing down the capital city, Monighan said. San Francisco and Sacramento developers draw from the same labor pool of contractors, and pay roughly the same per square foot for construction.
“The rent on both residential and commercial spaces is much higher in San Francisco,” Monighan said. “So the spread between cost and rent return is much different in San Francisco than in Sacramento.”
“The zoning’s in place. The mechanics are here. It’s a matter of whether or not there’s a market to continue to push for that height,” Monighan said.
As for whether anything over 30 stories is planned for Sacramento in the near future, local planners say it’ll be some time before the city sees those plans come to fruition.
Case in point: A deal to build Sacramento’s tallest building, a 33-story tower at 301 Capitol Mall, fell apart earlier this month after CalPERS, which owns the property, cut ties with developer CIM Group.
“This doesn’t mean that the project has to restart, but CalPERS needs to move with a sense of purpose in order to keep the project on track, on schedule and get something built,” Sacramento City Coucilman Steve Hansen previously told The Sacramento Bee.
Rising stories, rising prices
All of the new developments mentioned, except for the Richards Boulevard Office Complex, will contribute hundreds of housing units to downtown Sacramento. None, however, has released plans to make these units affordable for those with lower incomes.
While developers for Cathedral Square Condominiums have not yet determined pricing on their housing units, the remaining buildings, Sacramento Commons, Yamanee Tower and 601 Capitol will lease their dwellings at market rate.
The new units will come online as rents in Sacramento continue to skyrocket. According to ApartmentList.com, Sacramento rents have increased by 1.5 percent since August 2018, and the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $970. The city’s rent increase exceeds California’s average of 1 percent.
Until Sacramento sees a surplus of housing, the rent will continue rising, Monighan said.
“We have a couple thousand units getting constructed but if the need is double that, no matter how good it is, it’s not good enough,” Monighan said.
Starting in December 2012, however, the city adopted new legislation to expedite housing construction. The minimum parking requirement was reduced even further, to allow for more building space. The timeline on building permit approvals collapsed from a couple of years to between six and seven months. Fee waivers and deferrals for developers are more common.
Sacramento currently has more than 1,000 housing units under construction in downtown, and built 1,300 units between 2015 and 2018, said Downtown Sacramento Partnership spokeswoman Emily Penrod.
According to Monighan, more building permits were approved last year than in any year recorded in Sacramento’s history.
New face of Sacramento
As Sacramento’s skyline prepares for an upward climb, residents are hopeful for the rebirth of the city’s downtown.
“There used to be a lot of vacancies, and it closed up shop at 5 p.m.,” said Michael Ault, executive director at the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. “There was no reason to stay downtown as a cultural or dining destination.”
Nowadays, downtown has come alive in a kind of “urban renaissance.”
From the farm-to-fork movement producing award-winning restaurants, to creative artist spaces like the Warehouse Artist Lofts, to Sacramento Kings games at Golden 1 Center, downtown Sacramento is becoming increasingly desirable among residents. “It’s becoming a really cool urban destination,” Ault said. “The skyline that’s developing is really reflective of that.”
Major investments were announced earlier this year to build out the long empty downtown Railyards, proposing mixed-income neighborhoods, a hospital complex, a major league soccer stadium, and a commercial shopping district — effectively doubling the size of Sacramento’s downtown.
Though building plans have yet to be finalized, some areas of the property have been zoned for high-rise residential buildings, which could top out at 240 feet.
Sacramento’s skyline is in a state of flux. Long stuck in a limbo of urban adolescence, the city may soon be equipped to take another step towards high-rise urbanity.
“That’s the next leap forward,” Anderson said.