UC Davis eyes downtown Sacramento railyard for new food center

UC Davis is considering Sacramento’s downtown railyard for a satellite campus devoted to food and agriculture programs, a center that could attract food processors and other companies to set up shop nearby.

University spokeswoman Luanne Lawrence said Monday the project would become part of UC Davis’ World Food Center, a year-old program focused on food safety, agricultural policy, nutrition and related matters. Lawrence said the project would also likely include a medical clinic for treating diabetes, obesity and other food-related disorders, and for providing nutrition counseling.

Lawrence said the project remains in the early stage of discussion, and the university hasn’t made any decision about the size of the development or how much it would cost. “We haven’t talked about square footage; we haven’t talked about physical plant,” she said.

Besides the railyard, she said UC Davis has been approached by developers about other sites, including the fledgling Bridge District residential and commercial development taking shape in West Sacramento. But Mark Friedman, the main developer of the Bridge District, said he believes his project won’t land the food center. “My understanding is the campus is really focused elsewhere,” Friedman said.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said he hasn’t given up on the project, however. “It would be very easy to move quickly there,” he said, adding that the Bridge District already has its “legal and economic entitlements.”

The center would likely be an economic catalyst. Friedman said the development could become “a magnet” for food and agribusiness companies to establish offices or other facilities.

Developer Larry Kelley, who is purchasing the Sacramento railyard, said the university has sketched “a very grand vision.”

“It would be a tremendous project no matter where it goes,” Kelley said. “It can be, I think, a very impactful development. We’re excited about it.”

But Kelley said he, too, doesn’t have a concrete idea of how big the project would be. “It’s very conceptual at this point,” Kelley said. “They don’t have hard drawings. There’s a long way between here and there.”

City Councilman Steve Cohn represents the district that includes the railyard, one of the nation’s largest urban infill sites. He said he’s been told the UC Davis proposal includes a year-round farmers market. The market could be housed in one of the railyard’s historic shop buildings, Cohn said.

“I think it would be great for Sacramento,” Cohn said.

He said Sacramento developer Kipp Blewett’s Rubicon Partners, which proposed building a farmers market at 8th and K streets four years ago, is working on the proposal to bring the UC Davis center to the railyard. Blewett declined to comment.

Sacramento officials have been laboring for years to find a project to jump-start the railyard, a 240-acre site on the northern fringe of downtown once owned by Union Pacific. The land was taken over by Chicago investment firm Inland American Real Estate three years ago after the previous owner, a developer from Georgia, defaulted on his loans.

Two years ago, the southern end of the railyard was selected as the home of the new Sacramento Kings arena, but the team’s former owners abandoned the project. The planned arena has since moved to Downtown Plaza. As for the railyard, preliminary site work continues; Inland is building streets and bridges to connect the railyard to the rest of the city.

Kelley made his deal to buy out Inland last summer, but it hasn’t been completed yet.

The World Food Center would be a major draw for the railyard. The center was launched a year ago as a kind of extension of the university’s signature programs, its world-class agricultural research.

“We will create the world’s pre-eminent center where scholars, policy experts, government officials, media and others come for research, guidance and direction on all food-related issues as they pertain to our planet,” said Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of the University of California at Davis, in a presentation to the UC Board of Regents last July.

Lawrence said the center’s headquarters would remain on the Davis campus, but Katehi wants to put an education and research facility somewhere in the vicinity of the Capitol to be “closer to the heart of where the agricultural policy is made.” A central location would also provide greater access to entities such as the California Department of Food and Agriculture, commodity industry groups and the California Farm Bureau Federation, she said.

Friedman, who attended some of the early meetings on the project, said university officials are still grappling with questions about the size and scope of the center.

“There have been different formulations of it,” the developer said. “It depends on funding.”

The U.S. arm of Dutch banking conglomerate Rabobank has discussed taking some sort of financial role in the project, said the bank’s spokesman Greg Jones. Rabobank is a major agricultural lender in California, and its U.S. bank is based in Roseville.

“We share UC Davis’ vision and have had preliminary discussions with the university and our business partners around the country,” Jones said.