City Beat

A $20 million boost for a ‘tired looking’ tourist attraction in Sacramento

Sacramento’s riverfront needs a lot of help. Would $20 million do the trick?

That’s how much Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants to spend on developing the banks of the Sacramento River as early as this year.

Since before he took office, Steinberg has considered the riverfront one of his top “targets of opportunity.”

“It’s time to stop imagining and to start doing,” the mayor said during the State of Downtown event on Tuesday at Memorial Auditorium.

The mayor said he wants between $15 million and $20 million of hotel tax revenue dedicated to the riverfront this year. That money would come from hotel tax dollars left over after the City Council funds the expansion of the Convention Center and renovations at the Community Center Theater and Memorial Auditorium.

Steinberg wants to begin with Old Sacramento, where a new family-friendly playground and a renovated public market are likely to be the first two projects funded. The City Council approved $150,000 this week for architects and design concepts for both locations.

The playground would sit on a mostly vacant plot along Front Street, near the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum. Richard Rich, the city’s riverfront project manager, said the playground must be dynamic enough to draw families to Old Sacramento. One concept under discussion is a historic-themed adventure playground. A carousel has also been discussed for the park.

Steinberg and Rich both said the existing public market buildings along Front Street need drastic renovation. The buildings currently act as a physical barrier between Old Sacramento and the river.

In an interview, Steinberg said the city still has some accounting to do before it knows how much hotel tax revenue will remain for riverfront improvements. The city first has to issue construction bonds for the theaters and convention center later this year.

But it will likely be millions, and Steinberg wants it placed in a “Destination Sacramento” fund for tourist-related projects.

“We have a dramatically underutilized asset for our city and our region,” Steinberg said of the riverfront.

The mayor and the city’s business community received a tutorial Tuesday on how a city can reclaim its riverfront.

Tom Murphy, who was mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006, said during an address at Sacramento’s State of Downtown that his city’s riverfronts were once bordered by roads, parking lots and abandoned factories. The water was dirty and kids growing up in Pittsburgh were told by their mothers to avoid the rivers that surround the city.

Now the public has access to miles of riverfront lined with trails and dotted with public art, shops and places where residents can rent kayaks.

Murphy described Sacramento’s riverfront as “tired looking” and filled with dead spaces. And he said City Hall should think beyond tourists.

“You need to be talking about what you can do to bring the locals down there,” he said.

Steinberg doesn’t want to stop with Old Sacramento. He said he also wants to focus on Jibboom Street where a cluster of gas stations and budget hotels are wedged between the Sacramento River and Interstate 5 north of downtown.

The area is at the north end of a drab stretch of riverfront, but is also close to the Powerhouse Science Center site, where the city has committed to spending $30 million on a new science museum. The mayor said he envisions housing and other additions to the area.

“We can do something better there,” Steinberg said.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

Related stories from Sacramento Bee