An unmistakable surge of development in downtown Sacramento

The new arena is helping draw development to downtown Sacramento.
The new arena is helping draw development to downtown Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

For the vision of thousands more people living in central Sacramento to become reality, they’ll need stores, schools and hospitals.

So it’s significant that a Whole Foods Market is set to open in midtown by the end of 2017, that Washington Elementary School in midtown is scheduled to reopen in fall 2016 and that Kaiser Permanente plans to build a new hospital in the downtown railyard.

The central city’s resurgence was highlighted when on the same night last week the city’s Planning and Design Commission endorsed the Whole Foods project, and the Sacramento City Unified School District board voted on Washington Elementary, which it closed in 2013 due to falling enrollment.

Projects like these, emerging fast and furious, are essential to fulfill the vision of Mayor Kevin Johnson and others for downtown Sacramento to be a place to live as well as work. In his State of the City speech in January, Johnson set out a goal of 10,000 additional housing units by 2025 – 6,000 market-rate homes, 2,500 affordable units and 1,500 for the homeless.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported, the mayor has a head start because of several proposals well underway. With empty nesters and young single professionals gravitating toward central cities, the market-rate units will get built. The Whole Foods project includes 141 apartments in what is shaping up to be the largest residential project built in the central city since the recession.

The affordable units and the homeless housing will be the bigger challenge, and may require government money and intervention.

Speaking of which: Whatever your views on the taxpayer subsidy for the new downtown arena, you can’t ignore the growing evidence that the city’s investment is having the desired effect on jump-starting surrounding development.

Of course, the rebounding economy has a lot to do with it, but there is finally movement on some of the most blighted and scrutinized properties downtown. Construction is proceeding on the 700 block of K Street, where plans call for shops, restaurants and 137 housing units. A developer proposes to demolish a vacant hotel on J Street near 10th to clear the way for a possible residential tower. The closed Greyhound bus station could be redeveloped, possibly with a Raley’s specialty market. The city plans to accept bids on the infamous “hole in the ground” on K Street. A little farther out, things are hopping along the R Street corridor.

All the activity got the attention of The New York Times, which in an article on Tuesday said that the arena has “unleashed a torrent of new downtown market demand that has resulted in several rings of construction,” though some projects mentioned were on the drawing board well before the arena deal and others (most notably a streetcar line) may not happen at all.

The Kaiser hospital will be an anchor tenant for the long-delayed railyard development; Sutter Health opened its new $812 million main hospital in midtown over the weekend. Importantly, they will create jobs that pay much more than retail and restaurant minimum-wage work.

Though about the same number of people live inside the “grid” as in 1970 – 30,000 or so – they make up a much smaller percentage of the city’s total population – about 6 percent, down from 11 percent. Encouraged by City Hall, developers are betting that the central city will lure many more residents, and the businesses to serve them.

It’s far too early to declare mission accomplished, but the momentum is unmistakable.