Marcos Bretón

Opinion: How Sacramento fought to save a neighborhood – and changed its image

Before a great idea can be realized in the fullness of time, it can be branded a terrible idea in the moment.

That’s the story of R Street – a vibrant and transforming stretch of Sacramento’s urban core that was once viewed as a bust.

R Street is Sacramento’s own spin on Fourth Street in Berkeley or any other cool neighborhood of warehouses refashioned for eclectic use in cities across America. And it’s finally emerging as a success story now after being a failure for decades. It’s proof that before a neighborhood can flower organically, there has to be plan for that flowering that enough people believe in and support – no matter what.

R Street is a symbol of a new confidence in Sacramento. What kind of confidence? The kind that would pass up the easy money of drab development – more state buildings anyone? – for the vision of a more interesting urban core.

R Street is also a living, breathing rebuttal to many nasty insults hurled at Sacramento. Chief among them, that Sacramento studies issues to death, moves at a snail’s pace and never gets things done.

The next time someone says that about Sacramento, remember the story of R Street.

Remember that the corridor that begins at Interstate 5 and runs to 29th Street between Q and S streets was, by the late 1980s, a relic of Sacramento’s past. All that was left of R Street were the warehouses from industries that had fled the urban core – along with all the people.

As far back as 1988, Sacramento began studying what to do with this forgotten neighborhood. “The largely rundown strip is within blocks of major freeways, light-rail lines, downtown stores, the waterfront, Capitol, City Hall and the central business district,” wrote Jim Sanders in The Bee on May 12, 1988.

“Developers say the location is ideal for high-rises, with easy commuter access, while environmentalists see it as a last frontier for new housing opportunities downtown.”

This is where the battle lines were set. Some of the most powerful interests in Sacramento certainly did not want R Street to become what it is today.

In 1988, the city could have simply gone with those interests and allowed construction of office buildings that would have dominated the neighborhood and sat empty on nights and weekends – as opposed to the growing roster of housing, art venues, restaurants and nightclubs we see today.

To get to where R Street is now, the city had to stop for a few years and study a better use for the city’s former industrial spine. Just the idea threw big developers into a rage at the time.

In the same 1988 Bee article, these were the talking points of major developers who opposed the city’s push to examine whether R Street would be better used for something besides more downtown offices: “It would be a total waste of taxpayer money and a tremendous loss to the city,” Bob Roche, spokesman for RJB Interests, said of the city’s effort. At the time, RJB was pushing to build a 25-story office tower at Seventh and Q streets.

The pressure on the city was intense. Developer Joe Benvenuti – one of the original owners of the Kings – pressed hard for office and residential towers totaling more than 900,000 square feet. Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, arguably the most influential developer Sacramento has ever known, owned the old Crystal Ice plant on R Street between 16th and 18th streets and had his own plan for high-rise offices.

Sacramento city staff recommended in July 1988 that the city spend $250,000 to fund a master plan for R Street that would take a year to complete. Other city advisory panels agreed, but the fight over what to do with R Street dragged on for the rest of 1988, all of 1989 and all of 1990. It wasn’t until January 1991 that Sacramento City Council voted to restrict high-rises in the area.

The city was ripped for that by some of the strongest interests in the area.

“If that decision stays on, we probably won’t see anything happening on R Street,” said Tsakopoulos in The Bee on Jan. 11, 1991. “In effect, it will stop what little development happens downtown. It gets to a point where it doesn’t make (economic) sense to do business in the city anymore.”

The last point by Tsakopoulos is one that many influential people would make about Sacramento until the idea calcified and became part of what many would characterize as Sacramento’s lack of identity and inferiority complex. Hold that thought and think of what R Street is now. Think of how midtown has flourished and how the downtown is now seeing critical mass of interest from developers seeking to build around the construction of a new downtown arena.

Then consider that in 1991, in the throes of a major recession, Sacramento was menaced by the idea that if the city didn’t get off the dime on R Street – if it didn’t drop those silly ideas of building a strollable mix of housing, art venues, shops and restaurants – Sacramento would be crushed by an exodus of state buildings erected someplace else.

In 1991, the State Controller’s Office threatened to move its building – and its 900 workers – out of the city. “We face a great threat,” then-Mayor Anne Rudin said in The Bee in 1991. “State workers are our main economic base.”

By 1992, despite the city’s freshly minted plan, Tsakopoulos and Benvenuti were pushing for office buildings on R Street. Those office buildings were a guaranteed project, money in the bank. When they were finally blocked by the Sacramento City Council in 1996, city leaders were branded as a bunch of rubes.

“That’s ludicrous,” Tsakopoulos said in The Bee on Nov. 8, 1996, after the city rejected his office plans. “It’ll simply never happen. That is not a legitimate site for housing.”

Other influential people agreed with Tsakopoulos in the moment: “I will not see housing there in my lifetime,” said then-City Councilman Sam Pannell Jr., who died a little more than a year later in December 1997.

Not much happened for years. Toxic contamination and crumpling infrastructure slowed construction. For a very long time, the worn warehouses of R Street symbolized a Sacramento from the past that was frozen in limbo in the present.

But when the streets were repaired and when developer Paul Petrovich built a Safeway where people could shop, and when restaurateur Randy Paragary found the right formula to make a restaurant/bar work on the corner of 15th and R, things began happening. The political courage of Joe Serna Jr., a councilman and then mayor, plus many others began looking smart and prescient after seeming dumb for so many years.

The work of city planners like Steve Peterson and John Dangberg – years of tireless, thankless work – began seeming pretty smart as well. By 2005, a ripple began to grow. Cool young entrepreneurs began to move in, along with a new generation of developers such as Bay Miry, Mark Friedman and Mike Heller. That maligned idea of life on R Street – life beyond state buildings – began to be realized. All the insults hurled at Sacramento proved to be false.

Look at R Street now. On Friday, Heller announced that he had purchased the former Capital Wholesale Electric building at 12th and R streets. He plans to bring in a new restaurant. The building sits across the street from what will soon become the Warehouse Artists Lofts. Heller plans a major development at the Crystal Ice and Cold Storage plant once owned by Tsakopoulos.

“R Street is going to be a special corridor,” Heller told The Bee last week. “It’s going to happen much sooner than later.”

It wouldn’t have happened at all unless Sacramento had shown vision, political courage and guts. It wouldn’t have happened unless the city had invested in R Street for years in what some would derisively call “subsidies.”

It’s a new day in Sacramento, but it was actually decades in the making.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.