Commentary: Choosing Reality Over Dreams on K Street

By David Watts Barton, Sacramentopress.com, July 12, 2010

K Street. The very mention of this once-thriving street-turned-derelict-pedestrian mall sends people who’ve watched downtown’s progress, or lack thereof, into fits. Everyone has an opinion, an accusation, a conspiracy theory or a pet peeve about it.

And everyone has got a cure-all, that one big project that will change EVERYTHING.

Tuesday night, the City Council will meet to vote on which of the two teams of developers proposing projects for the 700 and 800 blocks of K Street should be given an exclusive right to negotiate. This is a big deal, with tens of millions of dollars in one case, or, in the other case, hundreds of millions of dollars involved.

More important, it is a test of whether city leaders are going to come through with at least one of the big projects that have been hanging fire for what seems like an eternity. The railyards, the Riverfront Promenade, the R Street Corridor…can they get at least ONE of these projects done? Or, perhaps, started?

But there is another, deeper question to be answered Tuesday night: Will the opinions of architects, of city planners, of business people and city staff, considering all the factors – cost, especially – be what wins out? Or will the decision be made by powerful interests with the ear of select politicians?

This latter question was raised anew last week, when Mayor Kevin Johnson, seeing that the grand project he was backing – the awkwardly-named “AuthentiCity,” aka the Boqueria – was losing out to the much more modest (and also poorly named) K Street Promenade, decided to add another step to the process: a committee comprised of himself and the three central city Council members: Ray Thretheway, Robert King Fong and Steve Cohn.

The latter project, by local developers who between them have done the very popular “Shady Lady” block of R Street, the Cosmopolitan complex on K Street, the Sheraton Hotel, the Sterling Hotel and Esquire development, and who have nearly all of their financing locked down, was favored by a committee of professionals. It was also approved by the Sacramento Old City Association and just yesterday, the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

Even more significantly, the K Street Promenade was also backed by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which represents the businesses of the downtown area of which K Street is the heart. Not only was it backed by the DSP, it was backed by the DSP at a time when that body’s chairman, Kipp Blewett, was head of the competing “AuthentiCity/Boqueria” project. Clearly, for a group to vote against its leader’s own project, the other proposal must be the superior choice.

And so it is. The K Street Promenade has new housing, parking, retail space and a slate of businesses – local businesses – signed up to bring new life to this blighted block: The guys from the Shady Lady are suggesting a 500-seat music venue, the man behind Kru and Red Lotus is talking about another Asian restaurant, Old Soul Coffee Roasters are engaged in the idea, and even the Top This yogurt shop folks are on board.

It is also remarkably cheaper, with a shortfall of only about $8 million that may need public financing, while the AuthentiCity project will need at least $80 million, and probably $100 million – or more – in public financing. Just where that money will come from even they are not sure. They’ve got some ideas, but…we’ll see.

The AuthentiCity project, which is said to feature an outpost of the Knitting Factory nightclub chain, is coming to be known by one feature of the project, the Sacramento Boqueria, a big farmers market with dining and educational options that is going to show the world that Sacramento is – you’ve heard this before – a “world class city.”

Haven’t we outgrown this whole notion yet?

One sign of a world class city is that its citizens don’t sit around dreaming up ways to hit that one grand slam that is going to instantly vault it into the status of “world class” cities. Ideas like the Saca twin towers. Like Aura. Like the Sacramento Boqueria. Big projects that promise much but ultimately come to nothing.

I believe in dreaming big. But right now, in this town, we need a success. And success isn’t going to come in one fell swoop, with one grand gesture. It is going to come with something that is already happening on K Street: critical mass. The Promenade on K project offers just that.

With the existing establishments in and around K Street – the Community Center Theatre, the Cosmopolitan Cafe and Cabaret, The Crest Theatre, Esquire Grill, Marilyn’s on K nightclub, Pyramid Brewing, Parlare Eurolounge, Temple Coffee, Grange, the IMAX, and the still-to-open trio of nightclubs (Dive Bar, etc.) on K Street between 10th and 11th streets – critical mass is growing. What is needed now is simply MORE establishments to draw more people. We don’t need a “game-changer.” We just need more players in the game. The game will take care of itself.

This is the free market in action. This is the essence of good business, and of a healthy ecosystem. Diversity. Sustainability. Critical mass. I live five blocks from 10th and K, and K Street isn’t nearly as desolate as many would have you believe. On any given night, there are many people going to the above establishments. Add more establishments and there will be more people. This is not a zero-sum game.

The right idea is NOT to create one make-or-break grand gesture that “changes everything.” The right idea is to add more of what is already working, until K Street is a place to go because you want to be where the fun is, NOT because you want to go study California’s agricultural plenty or to take your friends visiting from Phoenix for one day a year to admire our Hall of Fame.

If nothing else, the money should guide us. This city is broke. We don’t have enough money to keep fire stations open, and we are cutting services at every level. City staff has clearly said, in its report, that the $14 million parking bond that the AuthentiCity folks want is not going to happen. But Mayor Johnson – and if they are to be believed, Tretheway, Cohn and Fong – want to spend $100 million we don’t have for a project that will take at least six years to complete, with uncertain results.

We’ve been down this path before. The Big Fix. The Grand Scheme. The Big Dream. And it hasn’t worked. And it won’t work this time.

It would be nice if the City Council members who are aligned in this case with our Dream Big Mayor would wake up and smell the reality. K Street has long been a street of broken dreams, and this Boqueria dream would be the biggest dream yet – and the biggest come-down when it fails.

By the way, the Boqueria project is an interesting idea, and one that would fit quite nicely into the project in which it was originally proposed: The revitalized railyards. It was long ago suggested for the gorgeous old railroad shops in the railyards, which is a marvelous fit. And that is where it should stay, a showcase of California that serves as a tourist magnet anchor for that enormous development. Then again, even there it may not work: Copia, a similar project started in Napa’s wine region with tens of millions of dollars of support from the Mondavi family, opened in 2001 to great fanfare but closed in 2008 after the tourists failed to materialize. And that was in “world class” Napa. During a real estate boom. That ain’t now.

Supporters of the Rubicon proposal speak in grandiose terms of “boldness” and “vision.” But looking at the whole proposal – not just the Boqueria, which is the LAST phase of the project, nearly six years out, and thus may never even be built – does what they’re proposing really look visionary? The drawings are not great, but they do give us a pretty good view of the “vision” – and it looks like something that could just as easily be in Roseville. A high-rise hotel. High-rise offices. High-rise housing units. Is that the vision we want for our historic downtown?

Supporters on both sides have been inundating council members with their opinions about this. One executive member of city staff told me he’d never had so many calls on a topic. This is good. The more people involved in this process, the better. And the better people understand this, the more likely they are to support the more modest, but more doable project that could continue to grow K Street as the vital core of Sacramento’s downtown.

Or we could go for big dreams and wait for years until it all comes crumbling down, taking tens of millions of our dollars with it.

And speaking of dreamers: On what did Johnson, Tretheway, Fong and Cohn base their ad hoc decision of last week? Do they know something city staff, the Old City Association, city planners and others with actual expertise don’t? Or were they dazzled and looking for something to put a little shine on their otherwise tarnished reputations? These four council members need to be held accountable for their votes, because if they choose to saddle the city with more debt and more bond issues, and a project that ultimately gets done, or worse, a project that doesn’t change K Street except to tear down some old buildings and bring in a bunch of tourists, while offering nothing to the residents of our city – they need to be held accountable.

Downtown Sacramento needs K Street work to start NOW. Sacramento doesn’t need better dreams; it needs a better reality. The Promenade’s development teams – D&S Development, CFY Development and David Taylor Interests – have said that they have financing that will allow them to start this fall, and that the project could be COMPLETED by sometime in 2012. At that point, the AuthentiCity/Boqueria project will still just be getting going – assuming they’ve gotten adequate funding, mostly from taxpayers – and the Boqueria itself, which is what has grabbed the public imagination, would still be three or four years off.

We need a success now! Besides, the Promenade project, with new housing, parking, retail and a host of local entrepreneurs involved, is by no means a small dream. It is, in my mind – and I speak only for myself here – the preferable dream. The fact that it is the dream that can actually be achieved means that it could be something better than a Big Dream that never gets done. It could be a better reality for downtown Sacramento.

As one poster on SacPress noted, “the most extraordinary project doesn’t matter if it never gets built.” If you want to focus on bold dreams, go look at the hole in the ground at 3rd and L streets, site of the “bold” Saca Towers, and contemplate the vanity of man. And recall that that project failed even when money was available for big dreams.

Dear members of the City Council, don’t believe the hype. Let’s get something good done. We are through being dazzled with promises. We just want some places to go on K Street Mall. We’re tired of big, “world class” dreams. We will be quite happy with a modest, Sacramento-class reality.