Editorials

Here's how to keep UC Davis' Aggie Square from becoming a gentrification bomb in Sacramento

An Oak Park sign welcomes visitors to McClatchy Park at 5th Avenue and 35th Street. UC Davis, in partnership with the city of Sacramento, is planning to open a massive research park a few miles away, which could put even more pressure on housing prices in the neighborhood.
An Oak Park sign welcomes visitors to McClatchy Park at 5th Avenue and 35th Street. UC Davis, in partnership with the city of Sacramento, is planning to open a massive research park a few miles away, which could put even more pressure on housing prices in the neighborhood. hamezcua@sacbee.com

For years, hundreds of working-class families have called the narrow streets off Stockton Boulevard and Broadway home. Filled with moderately priced, modest and even run-down houses, it’s a swath of Sacramento where rich people rarely go.

But that is likely to change once Aggie Square pops up next to UC Davis Medical Center.

Earlier this month, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and UC Davis President Gary May announced that they plan to build a massive research and innovation district, filled with business incubators, entertainment venues, parks and perhaps a hotel. It will take years and tens of millions of dollars to build. But once complete, Aggie Square will be a major shot in the arm for Sacramento, which has long sought to be more than a destination for government jobs.

So Steinberg is right to be excited about the economic possibilities. And it makes sense that Assemblyman Kevin McCarty predicts the district will be “a win for the neighborhoods up and down Stockton Boulevard,” and that City Councilman Jay Schenirer believes it will be a "job catalyst" for residents.

But what about housing? Where are all of these new employees going to live?

California is rife with examples of cities bringing in major employers without considering these very questions until it's too late. It's why the Bay Area is the Bay Area and why Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley, and why so many of the residents displaced from those regions are now colonizing a much cheaper Sacramento.

As it stands, the plans call for building Aggie Square on 25 acres smashed between two of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Sacramento – Oak Park and Tahoe Park. Already, people in those neighborhoods have seen their rents climb dramatically, as demand has spiked with the influx of deep-pocketed renters.

Some black residents are particularly angry about having to move out of Oak Park and into cheaper neighborhoods further away. This sense that a historically black neighborhood will be gentrified beyond recognition runs through the discord that's surfaced at City Council meetings in the wake of the police shooting of Stephon Clark.

Whether Aggie Square ends up being a blessing or a heartbreak to working-class residents will depend largely on whether the City Council and UC Davis are serious about building more housing and are proactive about enacting policies that protect existing residents from displacement as home prices inevitably rise with demand.

Of course, a project like this has many parts that will come into focus as it develops. So far, housing seems to be, if not an afterthought, a work in progress.

Schenirer told a member of The Bee's editorial board that the city is "working on a set of issues that we will bring to the table as we move forward on a partnership, certainly including housing issues."

A spokesperson from UC Davis, meanwhile, said that it's "still very early in the process. We’ve selected the site, together with the city, but the other specifics on its composition are still to be determined. Lots of planning and consultations to come. "

In short, stay tuned. Still, Aggie Square is being billed as "a live/work/play/study environment." We’ve heard a lot about the “work” and the “study,” and some about the “play,” but almost nothing about the “live.”

Given the current mood, not just of Oak Park, but of much of this rapidly evolving and increasingly pricey capital city, that's not good.

In his State of the City address, Steinberg floated ideas about cracking down on rent gouging, essentially banning landlords from rapidly raising prices to force residents to leave. More recently, he's talked about setting up a fund for rental assistance. That way, as many as 1,800 families on the verge of ending up on the street would be able to secure a small grant or loan to make ends meet.

If enacted, both policies could act as a backstop in Oak Park and Tahoe Park. Such policies also would be true to the way Steinberg envisions Aggie Square.

"The direction is clear and cannot be repeated enough," the mayor told The Bee's Ryan Lillis. "As we grow a dynamic economy and take advantage of all of our institutions and assets, that growth must be tied to our neighborhoods, our communities, especially our communities of color."

Aggie Square is an exciting project and can be a great economic driver for Sacramento, in the same way Technology Square has been for Atlanta, where May was once dean of Georgia Tech's College of Engineering.

But it's going to take more than excitement to make those gains equitable. The families in those modest houses off Stockton Boulevard have been there for a long time and must not be taken for granted. Aggie Square has to factor their needs in.

  Comments