Back-Seat Driver

Bills mount as downtown rail depot gets renovation

This historical mural in the downtown Sacramento train depot’s grand hall has been cleaned and restored as part of a building renovation project.
This historical mural in the downtown Sacramento train depot’s grand hall has been cleaned and restored as part of a building renovation project.

The more walls they tear into at the 90-year-old downtown train depot – aka Sacramento Valley Station – the more problems jump out at them.

The city is in the final nine months of a several-year effort to repair and modernize the station at Fourth and I streets and turn it into a combination transit depot and office and retail hub. It’s a labor of love, city officials say, but an expensive one.

The original construction price was set at $30.5 million, with a $4.5 million contingency fund set aside. So far, managers have tapped that contingency 14 times for $2.7 million worth of added costs. Those include work on leaking roofs, unstable foundations and floors that were out of level.

They’ve had to build molds to replicate crumbling chandelier medallions, and spend extra to deal with efflorescence, oil stains and water damage. Recently, they installed an ultrasonic device to keep birds from flying into the waiting room.

The money comes from the city’s portion of the countywide transportation sales tax.

Project manager Greg Taylor said he thinks most of the unknowns are now known. But experience tells him the city could well end up tapping the rest of the $1.8 million in the contingency fund. “It is a little bit of a gut feeling,” he said.

The city bought the vintage brick-and-terra-cotta structure and 24 surrounding acres in 2006 for $52 million, knowing the site was in bad shape. The building’s former owners, the railroad companies, left it a shambles. “It didn’t get a lot of love in its history,” Taylor said.

Since then, the city has been making it usable again. An earlier $10 million seismic retrofit of the structure a few years ago went $1.3 million over budget.

City officials argue that public ownership of a major civic building is the best way to make the building relevant again. The city is able to tap county, state and federal funds for transit and adaptive use. That’s money that private developers would not have access to.

On Saturday, the city and Amtrak opened new ticket counters on the west side of the main hall. The city now will rip out the old Amtrak ticketing area, which will allow them to reopen several large exit portals that have been hidden for decades.

In a few months, the city likely will start looking for new retail and office tenants who want to set up shop in the building.

Officials say they see the building becoming a central player in the emerging new downtown. Millions of rail passengers will come through the site each year. Kaiser Permanente will build a major campus in the old railyard a few hundred yards to the north. A new courthouse is going in a block away. The downtown arena is two blocks away. And there could be 10,000 people living someday in new housing built in the present-day railyard just north of the depot’s train platforms.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, an advocate who helped land $15 million in federal grants for the current project, says she sees the building as a connector between the city’s past and future.

“Our historical roots are here,” she said at the project groundbreaking. “Not only are we breathing life into this historic depot, but this project will be preparing us for regional growth and urban renaissance.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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