Do you know what has happened to improve the worst block in downtown Sacramento since it was profiled in this column last May?
The one-block stretch of J Street between 10th and 11th streets is just as blighted as it was last spring. It remains a wretched eyesore of boarded buildings right next to the stately Citizen Hotel and Cesar Chavez Plaza, which is across the street from City Hall.
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In other words, the gateway to downtown Sacramento is just as blighted as it was last year and five years ago and ten years ago. Ten years have passed since this street was zoned for high-rise development, but all that has happened on the block since then are fires, vandalism and graffiti.
On Thursday, a city zoning administrator gave a property owner until July to make good on his plan for high condominiums, a hotel or some combination of the two on one side of the worst block in downtown Sacramento. If John Saca can’t make his condo plan work, and he has no real development successes in Sacramento to prove that he can, then he risks losing his entitlements to build.
That would be a shame, because he or another developer would then have to start at square one with city planners to approve a new project on J street. But the city had to put Saca on a strict timeline. It has to do the same with Steve Eggert and Peter Geremia, who are also well-known local developers who have also done nothing with their J Street properties across the street from Saca’s properties.
“We see this as acting in bad faith,” said Louis Mirante of House Sacramento, a group which advocates for more central-city housing. “(Saca) is acting in bad faith.”
It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Neither Saca nor anyone representing him bothered to show up for Thursday’s zoning hearing.
For years now, Saca has refused interview requests. I’ve reached him via email in the past and he won’t talk. He seems to feel he has been mistreated by The Bee.
In 2007, I stuck up for him in this column when he failed to build two 53-story hotel and condominium skyscrapers on the Capitol Mall. Back then, he seemed like a good guy who caught a bad break when he ran out of money in a tough economy.
But that was then. That was ten years ago. The sample size of project success for Saca is essentially the same now as it was then. He has been talking about building condos and/or a hotel on J Street – and calling it “The Metropolitan” – since 2014.
At some point, we all earn our reputations. It’s sad, but Saca is earning a reputation as a guy who proposes big, grandiose development plans and fails to deliver. And in the course of that failure, his buildings on J Street are the definition of blight.
City officials acknowledge that Saca’s empty buildings – and those of Eggert and Geremia across the street – absolutely contribute to crime, vandalism and the often bleak conditions of Cesar Chavez Plaza.
Saca may be holding out for an unrealistically big payday. The city said the assessed value of Saca’s properties is $5 million. But City Councilman Steve Hansen said he has been told by potential buyers that Saca has asked them for $13 million, a figure the developer himself has repeated to Hansen.
Try walking on the street at night. It doesn’t feel safe. Consider what out-of-town guests at the Citizen Hotel see every time they step outside the lobby and then consider the impression it projects of Sacramento.
But the blight on J Street comes at a bigger cost.
“My generation, the millenials, are experiencing some of the lowest rates of home ownership and some of the highest rates of rent burden of any age group that has come before us,” said Mirante, who is 26. “A huge part of that is the state of California has failed to build sufficient housing for the population growth and for the changes in wages and for the types of people we want to be housed.”
The city of Sacramento has built only 43 percent of the housing it needs to build over the last eight years, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
“The effect of that is my generation in Sacramento is seeing a 10 percent increase in our rent every year,” Mirante said. “We’re being pushed out, and that’s not fair. We need to make sure housing projects downtown fit the needs of downtown.”
If it pencils out that Sacramento could sustain high-rise condos and a hotel on J Street, great. But the last time we heard from Saca before this, a representative of his was asking for the city to help him with his project.
What kind of help? We don’t know. “I made it clear we were twice bitten (by previous Saca plans), twice shy,” Hansen said to the Bee in June.
Hansen is right. There is little reason to feel Saca can deliver, so skepticism is in order. A timeline that elapses on July 16 is in order.
Saca has 10 days to appeal that timeline. If he does, the City Council will consider his appeal. It’s past time for Mayor Darrell Steinberg to become engaged in the state of J Street between 10th and 11th because of its proximity to the heart of downtown.
Enough time has been wasted. If Sacramento doesn’t move soon and capitalize on building occurring all over the city, a window of opportunity will close and more years could be lost when the next economic downturn hits.
The clock is ticking. The next time I write about this block, it should be because something good is happening. Otherwise, it’s a failure for all of Sacramento.