Streets in Sacramento’s downtown railyard open to drivers for the first time

After decades hidden away, Sacramento’s massive railyard officially opened its doors to the public Friday, ushering in what officials predict will be a building boom in the northwest corner of downtown for decades to come.

City leaders cut a red ribbon Friday atop the new Fifth Street bridge, finally making it possible to drive from downtown into the heart of the old locomotive yard where bulldozers are at work preparing the site for development. Plans have been laid for a major Kaiser Permanente medical facility on site, a major-league soccer stadium, a new Superior Court building and up to 10,000 housing units.

“It’s a huge day, a real milestone,” said developer Larry Kelley, who heads the railyard development group and who also turned the former McClellan Air Force Base into a business park.

Closed off from the rest of the city for decades, the dusty expanse of land – with its remaining clutch of 19th century industrial buildings – has been undergoing quiet prepping in recent years. The land has been cleaned of most toxic materials. Parcels have been divided for development. A central street, Railyards Boulevard, has been laid, connecting the yard to streets on the west and east. And Fifth and Sixth streets have been extended on bridges from downtown in the heart of the yard.

“Opening these roads to the public sort of establishes the fact that the railyards is up, running and real,” Kelley said, standing atop the Fifth Street bridge Friday.

The city has been pushing in fits and starts for 25 years to open the railyard to development amid ownership changes, toxic cleanup fights, recession doldrums and changing markets. Through it all, city officials have held firm in saying that the 244-acre yard has more potential to redefine downtown than any other site.

“I know people have been looking (at it) and wondering, ‘When is this going to happen?’ ” Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui said. “Well, we had to get it right. And this is right.


“We are going to be having rehabilitation of these historic buildings. We are going to have museums here, life here, housing here. We’re going to have cultural activities. We’re going to open up to the riverfront. We’re going to be doing all those kinds of things that cities dream about.”

The site, which has sat mostly idle since Union Pacific closed operations in the 1990s, will take two decades to fully build out, developers say. The opening of the roads, however, means potential builders now can get a close-up view of the property, and some already existing plans can get underway in the coming year.

Kelley’s Downtown Railyard Venture LLC, which bought most of the railyard a year ago, plans the first apartment housing in 2018. An estimated 20,000 Sacramentans may ultimately live there, more than currently 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.

Local Republic FC soccer officials say a 20,000-seat major-league soccer stadium may be built on-site as early as 2018 or 2019.

Kaiser Permanente says its planned medical campus, including a 14-story hospital, could be built and running in six years, replacing the Morse Avenue medical facility.

The state intends to construct a new Superior Court building on site, but has not yet committed to a time frame.

Short-term, the city of Sacramento this winter will finish a $34 million rehabilitation of the blocklong train station at the front or southern end of the railyard, and recently began soliciting retail and office tenants to jointly use the building with Amtrak.

Denton Kelley, a railyard development partner, said his group hopes to launch rehabilitation work on the row of historic locomotive shops in the next two years to prep them for reuse as public marketplaces, squares, retail sites and housing.

A final environmental analysis will be reviewed by the City Council in November, marking the final legal step before development begins.

Advocates for dense urban infill on the site 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.

City officials and regional transportation planners agree, saying 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 car use, in particular long car commutes and the accompanying traffic and pollution.

Railyard development sites, such as the soccer stadium and medical facility, will be in walking distance to two light-rail stations, the train station and possibly a streetcar line that would loop through downtown and West Sacramento.

“The idea is to create enough jobs so that those living there have an opportunity to work there and reduce the congestion issues,” Denton Kelley said, “We just haven’t had housing opportunities in the urban grid.”

A recently released environmental analysis indicates that development of the site will have to be managed closely, and that some negative traffic and noise impacts will have to be monitored and mitigated.

The proposed soccer stadium would create noise that could waft over nearby neighborhoods. Stadium lighting also would have to be designed to minimize the amount that spills into Alkali Flat, the city analysis says. The stadium and other development likely will cause traffic congestion in the area and in nearby parts of downtown.

Notably, the analysis concludes that the railyard development will create far less traffic in the region than it would if a number of housing units – 6,000 to 10,000 – were built in suburban areas in less dense fashion and away from transit stops.

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.

Toxic cleanup has long been a major theme at the site, a former locomotive and rail-car construction and maintenance yard whose use dates back to the dawn of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Most of the soil has been cleaned, but not entirely. The shallow groundwater underneath 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.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

At a glance

The current downtown railyard development plan calls for:

  • 6,000-10,000 dwelling units
  • 405,741 square feet of retail space
  • 2.8 million to 3.9 million square feet of offices
  • 771,000 square feet of flexible mixed use
  • 1.2 million square feet of medical campus
  • 1,100 hotel rooms
  • 485,400 square feet of historic and cultural uses
  • 33 acres of open space
  • A soccer stadium with 19,621 seats, with expansion potential to 25,000
Related stories from Sacramento Bee