Throughout much of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, K Street was Sacramento’s grandest urban boulevard. Lined with neon marquees, restaurants and shops galore, it was, effectively, the epicenter of Sacramento – our version of New York’s bustling Times Square.
But times changed. After World War II, a flight to the suburbs decimated downtowns across the country as the promise of spacious and affordable homes with pools, garages and backyards beckoned. One by one, downtown movie palaces and retail venues closed as suburban megaplexes and shopping centers with abundant parking flourished.
By the 1960s, things were looking bleak. And so in 1969, seeking to breathe new life into the one-time people magnet, city officials closed K Street between Seventh and 13th to automobile traffic and created a pedestrian mall filled with large-scale concrete sculptures.
Unfortunately, budget shortages prevented the mall from being executed as planned. Less than a decade after the transformation, city leaders like then-Mayor Phil Isenberg wanted to start over. In 1978, The Sacramento Bee quoted Isenberg as saying, “To my knowledge, there is not one person in America who believes that the K Street Mall is beautiful.”
So they ripped it up. In the ’90s, a new, two-story Downtown Plaza was built on K from Fourth to Seventh streets. And Eighth to 12th streets remained closed to traffic except for the north-south lanes slicing through them.
But “The Kay” continued to stagnate.
By 2009, the Great Recession was in full swing, and civic leaders cried out to open K Street to cars once again. Business owners and city officials bet big that the increased visibility would improve business.
In November 2011, with much fanfare, cars were once again welcomed to K Street. It was the first time in 42 years that the rubber had met this road, and expectations ran high.
Now, just over five years later, the verdict, albeit a silent one, is in.
The plan didn’t work.
Reintroducing cars to K Street has been a failed experiment by virtually any measure.
To wit, one night in mid-January, as thousands of fans vacated the Golden 1 Center, the sidewalks swelled with people, but the street itself remained empty. Traffic was heavy on J and L streets, but K was a superfluous boulevard – a vehicular bridge to nowhere.
When I recently contacted the city’s transportation department to request the number of vehicles that traverse this stretch each day – information that is readily available for nearly every street in the city – I was informed that no such records exist. “Since it was opened, we (have not seen) much traffic going on K Street,” I was told.
Incredibly, when Sacramento decided to spend millions reopening a street for cars for the first time in generations, the city never bothered to count the vehicles or measure the effort’s progress.
However, there is ample evidence of this civic wrong turn.
First, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes on any given day to see that the street has little traffic.
Second, the proclaimed hope by civic leaders in 2011 was that businesses would see an increase in visibility and, by extension, an increase in business. Not so much.
Consider the brief history of K Street’s fortunes after reopening the street to cars. The Cosmopolitan Cabaret closed in 2012, and then became a concert hall called Assembly, which closed in 2014. In 2013, the once-popular Pyramid Alehouse at 11th and K shut its doors. In 2014, Marilyn’s on K ended a nearly decade-long run at Ninth and K. In 2016, Esther Son closed Estelle’s Patisserie on Ninth, and she will reopen a new incarnation soon in Downtown Commons a few blocks west in, of all places, a pedestrian mall. In late 2016, trendy retailer Denim Spot shut down its K Street storefront and relocated to H Street.
And in October 2016, Randy Paragary announced that he was closing KBar and Cafe Bernardo at the corner of 10th and K.
If driving on K Street isn’t creating a retail renaissance, why not create a destination by using the street in a different capacity? Why not design a 21st-century pedestrian mall that brings people to the street?
We now have the mother of all feeders of guaranteed foot traffic – the Golden 1 Center. On any given event night, thousands of people pour onto K Street, walking back to their cars or foraging for food and drink. This is a variable that didn’t exist in 2011. This isn’t a case of “build a pedestrian mall and they will come.” As of October, they’re already coming.
Think pedestrian malls can’t be wildly successful? Don’t tell that to Denver, whose 16th Street Mall – a 1.25-mile-long streetscape designed by I.M. Pei in 1982 – is the No. 1 tourist destination in the Mile High City.
For our K Street makeover, let’s move light rail from K to H Street, a replacement route already considered by Regional Transit.
Let’s create an outdoor cafe space like in New York’s reimagined Times Square, where dozens of tables now dot Broadway. We can also fill it with bold new public art. We had Art Hotel and now ArtStreet; how about ArtBoulevard? Let’s create designated areas for much-needed street musicians. We can fashion miniature parks with green grass inviting pedestrians to relax or picnic, and program the street with maker fairs and farmers markets. K Street could become an urban canvas that we constantly reinvent.
I can think of no better place in Sacramento to create a hub of urban design innovation, where artists, architects, designers and placemakers convene to reimagine the downtown core.
Few cities in America have the makings of a transformative opportunity like this one. Executed right, K Street can become the destination it was in the 1940s. But this time the destination will be the street, or rather the lack thereof.
Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.