Cities are trying to assess their options in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that eliminates redevelopment. For the City of Sacramento, the ruling not only jeopardizes two signature projects on its downtown K Street, but also casts the promenade’s other stubborn deficiencies in light of broader challenges for which those projects may have had an ameliorative effect.
Downtown K Street is in many ways ground zero for California’s urban development issues because it exemplifies so many of the problems, questions and opportunities facing urban retail centers throughout the state, just one block from the State Capitol building where policymakers are scrambling today to deal with these issues.
Linking a destination Convention Center on 13th Street to a struggling downtown mall on 7th, the promenade features restaurants, bars, drugstores and corner shops on the ground floor with cheap office space and public housing above. The 700 and 800 blocks are mostly ruins. After decades of accumulating the properties, city officials agreed with two development teams last year to revamp the area, based on subsidies, into housing, restaurants, boutique shops, and a live-music venue. Reacting to the Supreme Court ruling, the developers and city officials commented variously on how eliminating redevelopment affects their plans, suggesting public funding for the project is so comingled – some redevelopment, some not – that Sacramento lacks a clear picture of what is going to happen.
It’s not alone in that confusion. As California Planning & Development Report’s Bill Fulton explains, cities did not wait for the verdict last summer when lawmakers debated eliminating redevelopment – they hurriedly obligated future tax-increment funds in development contracts. And now that redevelopment agencies are eliminated, and subject to a complicated process of winding down and unraveling their assets, it is unclear which projects get to go forward and which do not. Those decisions will be left to county auditors, local oversight committees, and the state Department of Finance – and of course, likely in many instances, lawyers and judges. The K Street revamp is one of many projects hanging in the balance.
Directly to the ruins’ east is Westfield Downtown Plaza, a two-story shopping mall whose ground floor struggles with 10-15 percent vacancies, and whose second floor is nearly one-third vacant. Originally built in 1971, the mall’s frontage looks more like a fortress than a market, buttressed against growing national trends that prefer open-air markets (or “lifestyle centers”) or single-retailer “big box” stores.
While today’s sluggish economy is certainly a factor, the long-term decline of the regional shopping mall, since its heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s, also reflects a serious shift in consumer preferences (In 2008, Newsweek observed construction of new malls had stopped completely and nearly a fifth of the country’s largest 2,000 regional malls was failing). In a way, that shift is consistent with public policies that attempt integrating retail with housing and other uses, but it also portends a new challenge for local governments stuck with an abandoned mall at the center of their downtown.
Local officials will be reminded by their urban planners, as Sacramento was last year, that among the top criteria that attract retail investors is foot traffic. How many consumers are expected, by reasons independent of a particular outlet, to walk past that outlet per day. In its police power as a regulator of land use, and in its ability to invest in streetscape improvements like lighting, cross-walks, and transit stops, cities have broad powers to open downtown areas to natural pedestrian routes, or at least highlight those areas for the eyes of downtown drivers.
In Sacramento, K Street was a walkable plaza for 32 years, until city officials reintroduced motor traffic last December. Officials have also suggested bringing 5th Street up to grade (the street currently dips beneath the mall) to run traffic through the mall so that drivers will see retail outlets as they intersect K Street. Policymakers would be wise to keep an eye on Downtown Plaza, and the commercial uses from 7th to 13th Street, to see whether visibility-by-car outperforms accessibility-by-walking in drawing retail customers.
Another thing to watch: In recent years, nearly all of the new projects we’ve seen on K Street have been steps that cumulatively redefine the street’s niche, as a whole, in the life of downtown. Take for instance three downtown nightspots that opened last year between 10th and 11th: a hard rock-themed pizza restaurant sandwiched between two nightclubs (including the infamous “mermaid bar” that features a human aquarium above an often-packed piano bar). Where K Street was once a ghost town after the sun goes down, it’s now a nighttime attraction for young bar-goers and aquatic entertainers. Corner shops that had long adorned K Street are now staying open later to cater to these nightly visitors.
Sometimes the best spur for new retail development is a reimagining of the types of consumers that can be drawn to the area, based on a critical mass of new venues.
Between K and L Streets, 11th Street is also a pedestrian plaza, hemmed by coffee shops, convenience stores, and restaurants, and proffering a view of downtown K directly to legislators and Governor’s staff in the Capitol building across L Street. Those policymakers are even now working on solutions to unemployment, housing scarcity, traffic congestion, and the void left by redevelopment. They might benefit those efforts by taking a look at the living laboratory just next door.
Josh Rosa is a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commissioner