Holes in Our Wall

I moved home to Sacramento this summer, and boy, the place is a mess! The physical state of downtown bears some resemblance to the wrecked walls and gates of Jerusalem, during the fateful summer of 445 BCE.

I’m exaggerating a bit, but the heart of our city is in a troubling state. The old commercial core is surrounded by a ring of vacant buildings in various stages of decomposition. Some of this blight is of the garden variety: Small-time entrepreneurs went out of business and the landlords have yet to find a new tenant. Such troubles are always present in a city.

However, something larger and darker is happening in Sacramento. The rot has affected large swaths of downtown encircling the gaping hole where the new arena will (hopefully) rise to finally fix our problems. Six downtown city blocks suffer from at least a quarter of all property being in some form of abandonment. Two of these blocks have no signs of commercial life at all. Others feature surface parking where glamorous high-rise condos were once planned.

Here is a map.

Notice how the dead blocks ring the heart of the city, including the arena site on which the city’s current development scheme pins its hopes. This is not a matter of one big project gone wrong. The problem is systemic and therefore requires systemic changes. We need development based on community needs rather than speculative wealth extraction. Established local developers have an important role to play, but only if they can somehow minimize their reliance on the more predatory elements of speculative capitalism.

We need to have a frank conversation about “development” as a concept. Why does it tend to take particular forms and produce certain side effects? I’ll offer more detailed thoughts in a future post, but I believe a change of spirit is needed for Sacramento. The city must be rebuilt in a comprehensive way, requiring transformative collaboration.

The Wall Has Fallen

For ideas about how such transformation might unfold, it is useful to review past experience, especially where urban renewal was as spiritual and social as it was physical: So please consider the state of Jerusalem 2,460 years ago, just before the arrival of a fellow named Nehemiah.

Nehemiah came because he heard that the city of his ancestors was in a sorry state. Although the Jewish people were still living there and worshiping at a rebuilt Temple, the city wall had been torn down and its gates had been burned. For generations the city had been subject to humiliation at the hands of outsiders, known as the Babylonian Exile.

Nehemiah led an implausible and spectacularly successful community-based rebuilding effort, restoring the city’s integrity. Everyone dropped what they were doing and set to work on some portion of the wall, often nearest their homes. The entire city was involved, although not through their official positions. Priests and mayors, goldsmiths and merchants all built the wall with their own hands.

Nowadays, people are generally fortunate enough to avoid the need for literal city walls. However, the function of walls and gates remains essential to a city – a healthy community, like a healthy organism, needs skin and pores to help it decide who and what comes in or goes out.

Sacramento’s protective layer has broken down. The heart of the city lies vulnerable to our own modern Babylon. We are at the mercy of speculators who don’t necessarily share the community’s interests, who rarely have to live with the real consequences of their wins or losses.

With gaping holes in the downtown, the city’s government is hindered from pushing for what will really benefit its people. If someone wants to build something within existing laws, it seems, the city often will help make it happen regardless of the costs and benefits to the community (on the other hand, there is still a lot of red tape). Conformance to our law is an important restraint, but the law is not enough when any profits made will leave the community, worsening the underlying divestment and decay.

Our civic body is badly wounded and vulnerable to infection. Our lifeblood is draining out.

Our wall is breached. Our gates have burned.

It is hard to know where to start with such a huge mess. But we have to start somewhere. And one spot near the cathedral fills me with the strong sense of instruction: “Start here,” it seems to say.

My Place on the Wall

I am drawn, again and again, to the desolate stretch of J Street between 10th and 11th. Both sides of the street have been mostly vacant for years. My focus is upon the south side of this block, half of which has been named “Cathedral Square” for its proximity to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

We’ll get to the cathedral in a moment, but let’s start at the corner near the park, at 10th and J. Most Sacramentans wince when I mention this spot, which is perhaps the worst blight in downtown despite its prime location.

A few businesses remain on this block, within sight of City Hall: a liquor store, a bustling sandwich shop and a crowded Vietnamese restaurant. A clothing boutique recently closed, but a small design firm recently hung a sign from a fire escape, suggesting new life upstairs. These entrepreneurs are making heroic efforts in grim surroundings. Good for them.

Next door to this strip is a large vacant storefront that was most recently the Lorenzo Patiño School of Law. There is evidence of remodeling on the ground floor, but that building’s upper windows are mostly covered by graffiti. I have some ideas for this property, which I’ll share soon. But first, we have to look at the neighboring properties that make this such a difficult location for a profitable enterprise. We have to look at the origin of the blight.

Next door to the Patiño Building is the boarded-up Copenhagen Furniture store. It burned in 1997; some people driving down J Street today were not yet born in 1997.

The rest of the block is not even boarded up – peer through the dirty windows and thick cobwebs, and you’ll see debris from ceiling collapses that grow worse each winter. Moss and lichen grow on protected spots as nature reclaims these structures in the absence of human activity. This is among the city’s most centrally-located properties, on one of its busiest streets.

Very little has happened here since 2008, when a pair of local development companies cleared out the last tenants before their planned project ground to a halt. Their failure was part of a catastrophic global cascade of failed bets. My intent is not to blame them. This is a systemic problem, remember.

Their gamble’s desired outcome was to create a large box looming over its namesake’s spire. “Cathedral Square” would be 25 stories of retail, parking and apartments. I put the name in quotes because the building would have been oriented toward J Street, giving the cathedral itself a cold shoulder. The building would have blocked views of the cathedral from Cesar Chavez Plaza (city hall’s front yard). It would be the very opposite of what its name suggests: Residents of this upscale tower would have had great views at the community’s expense.

The strip across J Street been dead for nearly as long as the south side, and it provides important context. The north side of J is the field of dreams for John Saca, who envisions a 40-story tower of condos he calls the “Metropolitan.” The city recently sold him the 7-story Plaza Building for $600,000, so he can finally build.

I’m not sure we should bet another key site on Saca. His prior downtown project was supposed to be a pair of 52-story towers at 3rd and Capitol, but resulted in a full-block hole in the ground at the gateway to our city. It is a stunning failure, where cottonwoods now grow in the foundation of what was supposed to have been one of the tallest residential buildings on the entire West Coast.

But let’s say Saca pulls it off this time. Then Sacramento’s tallest building will loom over its central park – as well as the cathedral, the Elks Building and the Citizen Hotel. Saca’s grand slab would be twice as tall as each of these three historic architectural beauties.

Saca’s tower would be closer to the cathedral than the cathedral is tall – within 100 meters. This massive block would also block the morning sun in Chavez Plaza while creating afternoon glare and worsening the summer heat there. Saca’s vision is roughly equivalent to building a 5-story condominium building, right to the curb of M Street. That little ridge at 45th would nice spot for a penthouse overlooking the Fab Forties, wouldn’t it? To be fair, these proposed downtown towers are within existing height ordinances. But just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it is right.

Outside money controls downtown within an increasingly globalized framework, and outside money will continue to control downtown until the community comes up with a positive alternative.

Rebuilding Community

And that gets us back to Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s story is nested within a larger text written by the scribe Ezra, who was commissioned by a distant king to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem in a ruthlessly top-down manner.

Certainly the local people saw some benefit from that reconstruction – both in construction jobs and in the end result of once again having a central place of worship. However, that benefit was incidental: That Temple was built for the king’s own glory, and the city itself languished for many more years until Nehemiah showed up and the community finally found its soul again.

For better or worse, construction of a new temple for the Sacramento Kings is already underway. But in the same way that the Temple’s reconstruction was far from the end of Jerusalem’s troubles, we should not kid ourselves that a new arena will solve Sacramento’s problems. We heard the same promises of renewal when they built Downtown Plaza a generation ago, and that fix failed so miserably that they had to wipe it off the face of the earth. Despite a glut of available property including 60 blocks of infill at the Sacramento Railyards project, no other site will work for the latest fix.

No other sacrifice will satisfy our absentee kings.

So Sacramentans have to come up with a better plan for our downtown, based on our needs as a community. And we have to implement it in a way that will stretch us beyond our individual interests. We all have to get our hands dirty and rebuild our wall.

I’ve got an idea for one of the breaches, and I hope that my sharing a new vision for Cathedral Square inspires others to find their own spot on the wall. More soon…

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