Stuart Leavenworth: Under-imagined Capitol Mall could be a prime public space

Stuart Leavenworth
Stuart Leavenworth

The Sept. 29 Farm to Fork “Bridge Dinner” grabbed most of the attention last weekend, and understandably so. How often do you see the Tower Bridge closed to traffic and lined end-to-end with foodies and a banquet of locally grown treats?

I was one of the Farm to Fortunate, and I can assure you – the bridge is truly a glorious place to consume about 10 times the U.S. government’s recommended daily caloric intake.

But to me, the more consequential event took place a day earlier. Thousands of people converged on Capitol Mall for the city’s first Farm to Fork festival. There were musical performances and delicious eats, cooking demonstrations and booths devoted to every food cause and product you could imagine. Yet it was the setting that made the festival even more appealing.

While standing on Capitol Mall, visitors have a gorgeous, unobstructed sightline. On one end is the Tower Bridge, gleaming gold. On the other is the elegance of the state Capitol.

These sightlines make the mall one of Sacramento’s special public spaces, yet it is arguably the most underutilized in the city. It attracts crowds during the Amgen Tour, public rallies and occasional festivals. But there are so many weekends when this space sits empty and forlorn, as if it had been hit by a neutron weapon.

It’s not as if the city has ignored the opportunities. Eight years ago it spent $1.2 million changing the mall’s status from a state highway to a public street, the first step in any potential makeover.

In 2011, the city hosted a design competition, which generated several intriguing ideas for a makeover. The winning entry – by Kimberly Garza, a Boston architect originally from Sacramento – proposed carpeting the mall with an urban forest, lush with native oaks and pine trees, interspaced with civic amenities such as an amphitheater and farmers market.

If implemented, Garza’s design, and several others in the competition, would surely breathe new life into the mall. But they also might do so at the expense of sightlines. Once fully grown, pine trees and oaks could surely block the view of either the bridge or Capitol for anyone on the mall. Some critics believe the design could violate the Capitol View Protection Act, a 1992 city ordinance that imposes setback requirements and height limits on projects that would block views of the Capitol.

Not much has happened in the two years since the design competition, which is unfortunate but not surprising, given the economy and the numerous competing demands for limited city funds. City Manager John Shirey regularly chides me when The Bee publishes an editorial or op-ed urging the city to invest in parks, museums, trolleys or other civic amenities. “So is The Bee going to help underwrite that?” he’ll ask. Point taken.

Still, it wouldn’t take much for the city to launch a remake of the mall that would incorporate some of the best ideas from the design competition while still protecting sightlines.

In Garza’s proposal, she sketched out a possible sculpture garden in Crocker Park, an inspired idea. Others in the competition had interesting suggestions for making the mall more inviting for bicycle transit, festivals and concerts.

How about a sunken amphitheater on part of the mall for outdoor concerts? Or a reflecting pool near the Capitol? Or plantings, benches and shade trees on the sides?

Farm to Fork offers the potential to change how we eat, while creating new opportunities for local farmers and food producers. But Farm to Fork and its inaugural festival also offer the potential to rethink how we use our urban spaces. The mall is a space ripe for reinvention.