Opinion

Sacramento’s ugliest city block is getting a makeover. Why we can’t wait for something bigger.

‘Everyone in Sacramento should be upset about the way these blocks look’

Sacramento City Councilmember Steve Hansen shows why this block on J Street has been sitting in blight and what the city plans to do with it, Wednesday, August 21, 2019.
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Sacramento City Councilmember Steve Hansen shows why this block on J Street has been sitting in blight and what the city plans to do with it, Wednesday, August 21, 2019.

Two years ago, I profiled the worst block in downtown Sacramento. What a sad, sorry picture of blight it was.

The one block stretch of J Street between 10th and 11th streets was – well, still is – like a little slice of the Rust Belt right in the capital of California. On both sides of the block there were – well, there still are – shuttered buildings that have been vacant since the 1990s. There were – are –shattered windows, graffiti, decayed walls, and unsecured spaces inviting squatters inside for, well, nothing good.

In that summer of 2017, as I walked the block with a colleague, I easily could have trespassed and made my way inside long abandoned buildings.

Clearly, Sacramento has other horrible blocks in downtown, such as the 800 block of K Street, and the gigantic hole in the ground at Third and Capitol. So why is the 1000 block of J Street the worst? Because it is adjacent to the Citizen Hotel, Cesar Chavez Plaza and City Hall – the front porch of Sacramento.

This is the worst block because it is so close and yet so far from the renaissance flowering in the state capital.

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Why? Because the dream of this block was 20- to 25-story high rises. And two sets of local owners clung to that dream until was it obviously wasn’t coming true anytime soon.

And while the owners waited, the properties got worse and worse. The entire downtown paid the price for rich guys sitting on the dream of big pay days that never materialized.

As I wrote in 2017: “On the side of the street where Copenhagen Scandinavian Interiors operated decades ago, the owners include Steve Eggert and Peter Geremia, development partners until they split professionally in 2015....On the other side of the street, where years ago the Broiler steakhouse would draw politicos, the string of blighted parcels is owned by the Saca family.”

John Saca, you might recall, tried and failed to build a 53-story high rise at Third and Capitol.

I called these guys out, but others said they were good guys and that criticizing them was unfair.

I don’t know know what kind of guys they are because they wanted nothing to do with me, but I know this: Plenty of property owners were doing a much better job of securing their buildings. And any feelings of guilt I felt evaporated by walking that block.

Walking it during the day was bad enough. But walking it at night? It’s dark, spooky and unacceptable.

The clock is ticking. The economy is solid now. If this block doesn’t improve soon, it will miss another development window before the inevitable recession hits. And then what? Are we still talking about this rancid block 10 years from now?

Well, a lot has been brewing since 2017. Eggert and Geremia sold their side of this block to Anthem Properties of Canada. That deal closed escrow last fall. The price was $5 million, sources confirmed. On other side of the street, Saca is pondering a more realistic project with Sotiris Kolokotronis, one of the most – if not, the most – prolific builders in downtown Sacramento.

On Wednesday, City Councilman Steve Hansen said that Anthem had just submitted its pre-application to build an eight-story mid-rise building. It would be six stories of mid-market apartments with a ground floor and underground parking.

Anthem is one of the most noteworthy developers in Canada. The other great news is it want to invest in Sacramento.

“We believe in Sacramento,” said Riaan Debeer, vice president of development for the Vancouver-based company. “With what is happening in the downtown, we see this as a long-term relationship with Sacramento, a first step in what we believe will be many more projects.”

Debeer said his company looked at building a 20-story high rise on J Street but it simply is too expensive. At six stories of apartments, it would still be a big project for Sacramento and a giant of a building on a block where neighboring structures are two to three stories tall.

Anthem wants these apartments to be mid-range of market rate so they will be more affordable to more people.

Hansen said Kolokotronis is working on a similar proposal for the other side of the street.

“What I think is exciting is we finally have progress,” Hansen said. “We in Sacramento always lament when we don’t land on the moon. But when we land in a good place, we should celebrate it.”

Hansen said he hopes the application will be a four- to six-month process with other significant work happening before the end of this calendar year.

“We could see demolition this November,” he said.

Worst_Block_160.jpg
Sacramento City Councilmember Steve Hansen stands on J Street, Aug. 21, 2019, where he said a plan has been submitted to build an eight-story apartment building. Despite pockets of renewal in other spots of downtown, this block on J Street between 10th and 11th Streets sit vacant. Jason Pierce jpierce@sacbee.com

Kolokotronis, whose newest buildings are sprouting across and down the street from The Sacramento Bee building on Q Street, is an ambitious builder who is thought to be four to six months behind where Anthem is right now.

If all goes according plan, Anthem would start construction next summer and open its apartments for business in 2022.

“The Anthem philosophy is real estate that works,” Debeer said. “It responds to the local market, the local context. It works for us but also for the local community.”

Would high rises on this block be exciting? Of course. So would a luxury hotel. But with Anthem and Kolokotronis involved, downtown Sacramento has a chance to erase its worst block and turn it into a vibrant street where young people live, walk their dogs at night, and care for their community. The projects would bring life to a black hole.

Maybe in 20 years, we’ll regret not building skyscrapers on the 1000 block of J Street. But 10 more years of blight while waiting for that elusive dream is too high a price to pay. We’ve waited long enough.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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