Tipping Point

This booming Sacramento neighborhood went bust in the recession. How Natomas is coming back

It’s rare when a community gets a second chance to invent itself.

North Natomas, the sprawling suburban-style neighborhood that boomed to life 20 years ago, went bust within a decade in the midst of the Great Recession. Home prices plummeted and construction came to a halt while the federal government ordered nearby levees strengthened.

Now this neighborhood billed as an urban oasis just a few miles north of downtown is on the comeback trail, while finding itself in a unique position to right old wrongs, fill in some blanks and perhaps become a rare commodity - a live-work-play community.

But what does Natomas aspire to be?

The community is in full-on growth mode again. Builders across the sprawling basin are hammering up some of the region’s more affordable new homes. Centene, a national healthcare giant, is well into construction of an office campus that will eventually bring 5,000 jobs and people to a site near Interstate 5. And a $45 million combination aquatic and community center is under construction near Inderkum High School.

Perhaps most symbolically, the once-abandoned, half-built set of offices near I-5 and Del Paso Road long referred to as Stonehenge are back under construction.

But nowhere is North Natomas’ uncharted future more in question than at the 183-acre site at the community’s core where the mammoth husk of the old Sleep Train Arena sits surrounded by acres of empty parking, quietly awaiting a promised transformation.

Three years ago, when the Sacramento Kings moved their basketball games and concerts downtown to the new Golden 1 Center arena, team officials promised Natomas residents and city leaders they would look to redevelop the site with development that could help elevate North Natomas from its suburban bedroom community status.

North Natomas currently has more than 50,000 residents and about 11,000 jobs, many of them in the warehouse, retail and service industries. To become whole, it needs to import more higher-paid jobs.

The Kings recently submitted a conceptual plan to the city for the Sleep Train site that could allow for multiple uses, including a hospital, housing, offices, hotels, tech centers, a childcare facility, restaurants, schools, entertainment, stores, parks, plazas and a light rail station. However, no specific development proposal was included and the Kings have said little recently about their efforts.

“We continue to work with the City to make progress towards a flexible master entitlement plan that is capable of adapting to a wide range of opportunities to benefit the Natomas community and the region as a whole,” the team wrote in a statement this week to The Sacramento Bee.

A zoo for Sleep Train Arena site?

That lack of specificity leaves North Natomas Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and some community leaders uneasy, but hopeful they can work with the Kings to come up with distinctive uses.

Natomas Chamber of Commerce official Jeff Beckman is among those who say the old arena site should be a community gathering spot that gives North Natomas a strong core and a brand that puts it on the regional map. “Something that creates a destination,” he said. “Maybe a place with entertainment.”

Dozens of residents recently have put up lawn signs proclaiming WWAZ: We Want A Zoo. That campaign sprung up after Sacramento Zoo officials announced the existing Land Park zoo facility is too small and old, and suggested they could be interested in relocating to part of the Sleep Train site.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

About this story

North Natomas was Sacramento’s boomtown community. Then the Great Recession hit, home prices plummeted and construction stopped.

Now Natomas is in a comeback. But will city and community leaders follow the lessons learned from the last boom? Or is another bust on the horizon?

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Tipping Point

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Ashby is among those pushing for higher-paying jobs to allow more residents to live and work in the community, which would allow more residents to avoid the increasingly congested commute on Interstate 5 over the American River into downtown.

That freeway, the only direct path from North Natomas to downtown Sacramento, has gotten more clogged than ever in the last six months, residents say. Ashby said people are scratching their heads over the fact that the freeway now seems to get clogged in both directions, similar to troubles on Highway 50 in the east county.

David Bugatto, head of Alleghany Properties, which owns fallow freeway-side property in the area, says Centene’s arrival could have a huge impact because it will prompt more large employers to consider Natomas.

“Centene is almost like throwing a rock into a pond, creating these circular rings,” he said. “What is going to happen as a result of Centene? We are talking to a lot of people on an ongoing basis.”

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North Natomas Councilwoman Angelique Ashby talks about coming changes for her Sacramento district at the Centene site on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Centene is building an office campus that could house 5,000 workers. Daniel Kim dkim@sacbee.com

Natomas housing boom, then foreclosures

Sitting north of the river, North Natomas has always stood out from the rest of the city. It’s also packed a lot of drama already in its brief two-decade lifespan as a community.

Overriding environmentalists’ protests and flood warnings in the 1990s, city officials opened the low-lying Natomas basin north of Interstate 80 and east of I-5 for development, at the site of seasonal winter American Lakes, unsure about what would happen.

What happened was a land-rush. North Natomas became the biggest boom-town in modern Sacramento, growing so fast that infrastructure couldn’t keep up. Schools weren’t built fast enough. Natomas Regional Park sat as a field of weeds bordered by busy residential areas. The city initially couldn’t afford the westside firehouse it had promised, causing anger among newly arrived residents.

“We didn’t ever expect that many building permits to be pulled,” then city planner Carol Shearly said. “The city struggled to keep up.”

That growth spurt proved to be nearly a house of cards when the Great Recession hit in 2006.

Although homes were moderately priced, many buyers did not have incomes to handle their loans when house values plummeted. North Natomas was among the Sacramento neighborhoods hit hardest by foreclosures. In its case, the people being forced out had just moved in.

At the same time, new flood worries forced a de facto seven-year moratorium on construction in the Natomas basin from 2008 through 2014. Suddenly, the boomtown was frozen in time. Construction wasn’t legally fully stopped. But to build a house, you would have had to build a berm or stilts underneath it.

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A large trench is dug for a levee wall along Garden Highway, protecting the area from the Sacramento River when it reaches flooding stage, as part of the Natomas Levee Improvement Program in 2010. Sacramento Bee file

For years, tightly packed clusters of homes sat next to blocks of empty lots, some with unused utility lines sticking up out of the ground. Roads were unfinished. A planned walkable Town Center just off of Del Paso Road remained just an empty lot.

The building moratorium may have lost Natomas the chance to land a new Kaiser Permanente hospital.

But that down period may also have had a silver lining: It gave the unfinished community a chance to breathe and take a measure of where it stood. In the last couple of years, Ashby points out, amenities have been added in the formerly vacant regional park, including ball fields, walking paths, the upcoming aquatics center, a dog park, and a city-operated farmer’s market. More schools and more parks have been built.

“We landed in a good spot,” she said: North Natomas has has become a community with a clear identity as a solid place for families.

To the chagrin of some city planners, Natomas also has turned out to be more like a suburban tract in Roseville and Elk Grove than the type of leafy, pedestrian-friendly city neighborhoods seen in Land Park, East Sacramento and Curtis Park that the city takes pride in.

The stucco houses, built in the same era, have a sameness to them, unlike the varied and eclectic architecture in older city neighborhoods. Former planner Shearly’s biggest regret: The streets are wide and intersections large, making walking outside of neighborhoods uncomfortable and even scary.

But many and maybe most Natomas residents like the clean, new suburban feel of their community. Ashby describes North Natomas as the city’s answer for the buyers who otherwise might have chosen to live farther from downtown in Roseville, Rancho Cordova or Elk Grove.

Rebound from the recession

North Natomas is in fact similar to many Sacramento city neighborhoods in its ethnic and racial diversity. But economically, it’s rebounded from the recession and become healthier. The median income there is substantially above the city average. The median home price, $381,000, also is above the city average. And North Natomas residents are better educated. About 42 percent of adults there have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32 percent citywide.

The multi-year building moratorium may have offered another benefit for Natomas. Crisand Giles, policy director for the North State Building Industry Association, said builders are more experienced now in creating live-work communities. Some of that new thinking can be applied to the Sleep Train site. And, she said, Natomas is benefiting from being among the first communities in the region now to sport rows of all-electric homes.

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North Natomas is growing fast, but it has room to grow further. A drone image shows undeveloped commercial property between East Commerce Way and Interstate 5 in the Sacramento neighborhood on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Daniel Kim dkim@sacbee.com

But the sea of mainly small-lot, entry-level homes and slightly larger step-up houses is bursting at the seams. Ashby says the community needs bigger homes for larger families and for well-paid managers and executives to get them to come to Natomas – and to keep them from leaving.

Longtime Westlake neighborhood resident Ken Nicholson likes the clean feel and stable nature of his neighborhood, but says you need good neighbors because they’re going to be close. “I can reach out my side window and if the neighbor does the same we can pretty much touch hands,” he said. “I miss the big yards, I don’t miss mowing them though.”

More housing projects are in the works. It’s prompting the question among some residents: When will North Natomas stop growing? When houses reach the airport?

Construction is set to begin soon on the first of several thousand homes in Northlake, a community planned northwest of the junction of Interstate 5 and Highway 99. And another group of developers recently won county approval to study possibilities at an even larger nearby community called the Upper West Side.

If built, those two developments alone could expand Natomas by 50 percent. That has some Natomas residents saying enough. “I do not understand why so many homes are planned without the infrastructure in place to handle traffic,” Natomas resident Suzanne Graham said.

Traffic and transit have long been a sore spot. Caltrans officials say they are looking at expanding I-5, but that’s unlikely to reduce congestion as more building occurs in the greater Natomas basin.

For more than two decades, Sacramento Regional Transit has planned to build a light rail line from downtown through the heart of South and North Natomas along Truxel Road, past the former Sleep Train arena site and on to the airport. The billion-dollar cost has been a stumbling point.

Residents near Truxel have protested the alignment of the proposed rail line, with some suggesting trains should run along the freeway. But the planned alignment was chosen because the light rail extension is expected to carry local riders in South and North Natomas to and from downtown jobs, relieving I-5 of some of its car burden.

The question of what Natomas wants and needs next is not limited to housing, traffic and zoo debates. Natomas resident Stan Deutsch took an informal poll of neighbors this week asking what’s on their list of things the community needs to have to finally be complete.

Some said taller trees. Some said better shopping. Open space. Flood protection and escape routes. Arts and culture. Medical facilities. But the item that came up most often, he said: a maturing population needs more high-quality, sit-down restaurants.

“Everyone agrees,” he wrote. “We seem to have quite enough pizza and sushi shops.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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The Centene office complex is taking shape near Interstate 5 in the North Natomas neighborhood of Sacramento at sunset on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Daniel Kim dkim@sacbee.com


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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
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