California Forum

Smart urban living can be the future of Sacramento

Ali Youssefi sees a future for K Street, under redevelopment above, of restaurants, retail and patios from the convention center to the arena.
Ali Youssefi sees a future for K Street, under redevelopment above, of restaurants, retail and patios from the convention center to the arena. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Seventh in an occasional series

Nearly 2.5 million people live in the Sacramento metropolitan area. Amazingly, less than 1 percent live downtown. Expand the definition of downtown to include the central city or the grid, and that number barely clips 1 percent.

Decades of misguided public policy intensified by cheap housing and an overdependence on cars have made it so that almost all Sacramentans live in the suburbs. But the future of urban living in Sacramento is bright. It’s not a question of if the paradigm is changing, it’s how fast.

The transformation of Sacramento’s urban landscape is being fueled by more than $850 million of development currently under construction – development that includes housing, retail and a 780,000-square-foot entertainment and sports complex. Investors, residents and visitors are about to descend on the grid on a scale unlike any period in recent history.

I moved back to Sacramento when I was 23 to become an affordable housing developer. I joined my father at his company, CFY Development, and rented an apartment on Fifth and P streets, eight blocks from our office. For the last 10 years, I’ve been a developer who not only builds projects downtown, but also lives, works and goes out here.

As our city’s future is being shaped, the burden is on all of us – developers, planners, designers, property owners, city staff and others – to make sure we do it right. Here are a few of the ways I’d encourage us to proceed:

More diversified housing needed

People are the lifeblood of a thriving downtown. The local development community, with the support of City Hall, is in the process of expediting a population migration that would otherwise take decades.

I’m often approached by friends and family looking to make the leap from the suburbs to the central city, but finding them the right place to live isn’t always easy. While urban living may be attractive to a large demographic, downtown Sacramento’s housing stock is not. The importance of diversifying the central city’s housing supply can’t be overstated, which is one of the reasons I was excited to design and develop Warehouse Artist Lofts, a community for artists.

To support and bolster the wave of new downtown residents, we need to continue investing in civic and cultural amenities, like theaters, art centers, outdoor public spaces and more. An easy way to give our cultural scene a boost is to attract and empower artists. We also need to cultivate a robust and diverse mix of employment opportunities, and create walkable, vibrant neighborhoods.

Connect city blocks to create neighborhoods

The need for civic amenities and jobs is understood, but more overlooked is the necessity to better activate our urban neighborhoods. The difference between an active block and a vibrant neighborhood is important.

Sacramento has plenty of active blocks, characterized by storefronts, outdoor patios and a high percentage of retail coverage along the streetscape. What we don’t have is critical mass when it comes to city blocks that connect – in this regard, we are a city of islands.

On the bright side, we have the ability to change this, given the high number of underdeveloped sites within our commercial cores. K Street is a good example, where five years from now we will have a street brimming with restaurants, retail and patios stretching from the convention center to the arena, with hopefully no blocklong gaps in between.

And the downtown railyard, one of the largest infill opportunities in the country, gives us a chance to create this type of connectivity from scratch. In any of these neighborhoods, whether a block has a 20-story tower, a six-story midrise or a series of two-story buildings, the streetscape should always be designed with the pedestrian in mind.

Keep Sacramento’s cool buildings

While downtown has its fair share of blighted and underutilized properties, a good number of our best development sites aren’t merely vacant lots – they’re empty buildings. This presents an opportunity for us to reinvigorate downtown in a manner that is relevant to who we are and where we came from.

Much of our downtown was built in the early 1900s, an era that produced a variety of architectural styles worth keeping. Preservation and adaptive reuse of these buildings can result in character, inside and out, that can’t be imitated with new construction. In addition to the visual benefits of preservation, there can be significant economic and environmental benefits as well.

Let’s be the greenest city

Our generation has an obligation to dramatically reduce the environmental impacts of building construction and operations. I am making a commitment to develop high-performance buildings in downtown Sacramento, and I hope other property owners, managers and developers will do the same. A sustainable urban environment will have positive reverberations on our economy as well as the marketability of the city.

When Golden 1 Center opens in October, it will be one of the most environmentally sustainable arenas in the world. Let’s capitalize on this energy and set ourselves apart from other cities in the fields of green technology and urban sustainability.

Downtown has changed a lot since I moved back, but the pace of change will be even faster over the next 10 years. With all of this development potential comes the opportunity for us to apply a vision that will guide our city’s growth for decades.

This vision should include celebrating our architectural heritage through preservation, implementing innovative strategies in sustainability and capitalizing on the appeal of urban living by expanding housing options downtown.

If we raise the standard by which we develop city blocks around pedestrians and mixed-use neighborhoods, and insist on these blocks being connected with one another, we’ll be an even better place for people to live, work and visit than we are today.

Ali Youssefi is the vice president of CFY Development.

Ali Youssefi

▪ Born and raised in Sacramento, Ali Youssefi graduated from Jesuit High School in 2001.

▪ He received a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and economics from Dartmouth College in 2005.

▪ After college, Ali worked as an investment banking analyst at WR Hambrecht + Co in San Francisco.

▪ Ali is on the board of directors of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, Sacramento Steps Forward, R Street Sacramento Partnership, Verge Center for Contemporary Art, B Street Theatre, E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts, and the National Iranian American Council.

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