California Forum

Creating the Capitol Mall an exercise in civic futility

A nine-story walk-up observation tower echoing the shape of the Tower Bridge was the design idea proposed by architects Stan and Jess Field for Capitol Mall. Symbolically extending the river to the mall with appealing water features, it would add a new architectural landmark to the skyline while giving locals and visitors an unprecedented view of the Capitol and the Tower Bridge.
A nine-story walk-up observation tower echoing the shape of the Tower Bridge was the design idea proposed by architects Stan and Jess Field for Capitol Mall. Symbolically extending the river to the mall with appealing water features, it would add a new architectural landmark to the skyline while giving locals and visitors an unprecedented view of the Capitol and the Tower Bridge.

Walk by the arena site in downtown Sacramento on any given day and you’ll see people standing there staring. If they’re longtime locals, the looks on their faces are likely ones of disbelief. After all, talk of a new arena dates to the mid-90s.

How about the railyard? It’s been debated since the ’80s.

And then there’s Capitol Mall. The notion of creating a Capitol Mall befitting the state of California stretches back to ’07.

No, not 2007. 1907.

In a Nov. 4, 1949, article in The Sacramento Bee, the chair of the city’s “Capitol Mall advisory board,” Mrs. Arnold Waybur, was quoted as saying, “From 1907 until the present, plans for a mall have been offered. Many of these were very fine, but two wars and financial difficulties prevented their being carried out.”

In fact, for more than a century, city and state leaders have feuded, brooded and altogether bumbled their way through concepts and proposals to create a Capitol Mall capable of rising to its oft-stated potential as “one of the most beautiful streets anywhere,” in the words of renowned city planner Werner Hegemann in 1913. Hegemann – one of many experts whose advice on the subject has been sought and summarily dismissed – also declared that “much of the city’s destiny would be linked to a stately and magnificent mall.”

The debate swirling around the creation of an avenue fit for the capital of California is quite possibly Sacramento’s longest-running exercise in civic futility.

In 1935, one bold plan was put forward that extended Capitol Park from its current location – between 10th and 15th streets – nearly all the way to the riverfront, encircling the Capitol in natural grandeur.

But over time, most of mall’s grandest ambitions – and its physical footprint – had atrophied.

Decades after the 1935 plan was proposed, Bee writer Ralph Blagden opined, “In 24 years our vision has shrunk from an enlarged, widely grassed and monumental Capitol Mall of 1,040 feet all the way to 2nd Street, to an emaciated, spaghetti-like green strip.”

And Sacramento’s most heralded architect, Leonard Starks – designer of the Elks Tower, the I Street post office, McClatchy High School and the Alhambra Theatre, to name a few – suggested eliminating all traffic between Seventh and 10th streets to create a landscaped setting. “You are prostituting the architectural profession to call this ridiculous shoestring a mall,” he said. “If we are not going to try to give the people the kind of a mall they want, I say let’s get out of here. Let’s not do something today we’re going to be sorry for 25 years from now.”

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren even weighed in during a 1957 trip to Sacramento: “If this mall is completed, in no city in the country would we have a more inviting and beautiful approach than in Sacramento.” A few years later, the state director of public works told The Bee, “Governor (Pat) Brown is most anxious to have beautiful approaches to the Capitol, and he has asked us to do everything possible toward that end.”

By the ’60s, various camps fought over how to make the most of the downsized mall. Among the proposals: one that had Eighth Street dip below Capitol Mall; one that closed all traffic from Sixth to 10th streets; one that filled all of the median strips with pools and fountains; and even one with a massive arch that rose over and across the mall.

By the end of the decade, the Capitol Mall we know today, absent a few skyscrapers, was complete. Compromise had resulted in a commonplace space.

But now, nearly 110 years after the debate commenced, there are two milestones that should be lighting a fire under us to get this right.

The first is in November, which marks four years since the announcement of the winners of a design competition for the mall that resulted in some eye-popping ideas. Among them: observation towers, an uninterrupted park from one end of the mall to another, performance spaces, public art, lush landscaping and dramatic water features (yes, with recycled water).

The second milestone comes in January when the city marks 10 years since it acquired Capitol Mall from the state with the express purpose of creating the civic space that the state never could.

So what makes this decade any different?

A key new ingredient is about to be added to the mix – people. One block north of Capitol Mall, a billion-dollar development is rising with a new arena, shopping district, and a residential tower and hotel. Combined, they will bring millions of people downtown each year.

One block south, the Sacramento Commons project, with more than 1,000 residential units and a large new hotel, was approved this summer.

So now is the time for the city and the adjacent property owners – including the state (yes, Gov. Jerry Brown should help fulfill his father’s wishes) – to seize this moment.

How can a narrow strip of land – 52 feet at its widest point – on only eight blocks become a destination? Just look at New York’s High Line as one example. Only 30 to 60 feet wide and 13 blocks long, it has become an icon of adaptive reuse since opening in 2009, converting a raised rail platform into an urban oasis that is now one of Manhattan’s top destinations.

In Nashville, the city struggled with its own Capitol Mall until the early 1990s when the city and state of Tennessee initiated the design process for a massive green space. In 1996, the new Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park opened. In 2006, the Nashville Business Journal ranked it the city’s top tourist attraction. And one of its architects, Seab Tuck, says it boasts more than 1 million visitors annually and “has definitely created private and city investment.”

So let’s find out if Werner Hegemann was right. Let’s find out if a magnificent mall can indeed help change our city’s destiny. And let’s close this century-long chapter of civic incompetence once and for all.

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears in the magazine.

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