California Forum

Creating river walk in Sacramento could be easy and fast

Restaurant customers enjoy dinner at the water’s edge along the manmade River Walk in San Antonio, Texas. Planners envision a similar river walk attraction in downtown Sacramento as part of the railyard development project.
Restaurant customers enjoy dinner at the water’s edge along the manmade River Walk in San Antonio, Texas. Planners envision a similar river walk attraction in downtown Sacramento as part of the railyard development project. San Antonio Express-News file

Having been born and raised here, I cannot remember a time when Sacramento possessed this much forward momentum. Of course, there is the new downtown arena for the Kings and a potential Major League Soccer franchise.

But beyond the prestige promised by an enhanced national sports presence, natives as well as newcomers can see neighborhoods reawaken, sense new economic confidence and feel the rapidly growing vibrancy of our urban core.

How can we connect these dots into realizing an even bigger, unified vision? Fortunately, the answer is relatively easy and fast compared to what we have already achieved. A river walk created as part of the downtown railyard development can magnify our gains while capitalizing on Sacramento’s core strengths, not to mention its defining identity.

What we have now in Old Sacramento is a great start and a wonderful foundation from which to build. Any day, you can overhear visitors speaking languages from throughout the world. I’m proud of that. But Google “river walks in the U.S.” and you won’t find Sacramento on the top lists that pop up. It’s not because what we have is bad. You just need to think about what we could have compared to other cities that do make these lists.

Take San Antonio, which developed a thriving, visually vibrant river walk even though it isn’t alongside a natural river. It’s manmade.

We live at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, which rival any others in historic significance, natural wildlife and scenic beauty. However, this isn’t about joining the crowd or once again emulating Portland, Ore. – another great river walk city – but instead seizing a natural opportunity presenting itself at exactly the right time, place and state of mind.

Like our rivers, all those qualities converge at the downtown railyard, where plans are finally beginning to emerge through new local ownership. But how much more exciting could this vision become with a river walk that connects downtown with Old Sacramento through the railyard?

Restaurants, shops and amphitheaters would flourish in a river walk setting that celebrates an outdoor urban lifestyle. Catch a game, enjoy a meal, buy a gift – or keep your money and simply take in the natural scene. We can balance amenities you pay to get into, namely the arena, with an amenity that costs people nothing and adds tremendous long-term value to our city.

A river walk can also further reflect Sacramento’s cultural heritage through a much larger venue for festivals, exhibits and street fairs. Look at recently announced plans by the Sacramento Tree Foundation to plant 200 cherry trees in a traditional Japanese Hanami Line. Volunteers envision a park hosting an annual Japanese spring festival. We already have events planned along and even over the river – the farm-to-fork Tower Bridge dinner.

This vision of a world-class river walk obviously comes with a price tag and the matching question of who pays. But unlike the arena, this doesn’t have to become a decade-long conversation. In fact, the mechanism for funding a river walk has been on the books for 50 years through California’s Quimby Act, which sets aside development fees for park improvements. Development on the scale planned for the railyard is expected to generate more than enough funding to create a river walk that would rival that of any other major city in this country or the world.

The river exerts a powerful pull. Let’s see what happens when we really take this opportunity seriously and work together to open it up with a river walk. We can start by drafting a river walk master plan, a process for framing a public discussion, sharing inspiration and ultimately planting a seed that grows into action.

A river walk is well within our reach, given how far we’ve come and how strong our confidence. This natural progression recognizes Sacramento’s legacy as the quintessential River City and announces our newly discovered urban identity as a great American city. A river walk will become one more achievement where people will say Sacramento has done something right – again.

Allen Warren represents District 2 on the Sacramento City Council.