Living, working downtown (Sacramento Business Journal)

By Mark Anderson, Sacramento Business Journal, July 20, 2010 

Downtown Sacramento is home to more than 9,000 households, but that’s not enough to make it feel like a bustling city center on a Sunday afternoon. Much of its animation comes from the almost 100,000 who go to work there during the work week.

For all the focused energy in Sacramento over the past decade to build more places to live downtown, only about 550 residential units were built in that time span.

Those units are in such places as the 800J apartments, the Globe Mills Lofts, Signature Properties townhomes at Washington Square, two projects in Old Sacramento and several others scattered through the central city.

Most people who live downtown do so in older homes, and it is the urban experience that attracts them. For many, it comes down to this: Downtown is an easy place to get around without a car.

David Watts Barton, 50, editor in chief of the online Sacramento Press, lives in a restored Victorian house in Alkali Flat, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. He’s just a few blocks from City Hall.

“I can walk everywhere,” he said, running down a list that includes cafés, restaurants, the post office, live theaters, movie theaters, clubs, nightclubs, concert venues and the library. Because he does some writing for some national wire services, he also can walk just a few blocks to get files or cover cases at the county and federal courthouses.

“If it wasn’t for my love of the outdoors and nature and going to places like San Francisco, I would never have to leave my neighborhood,” he said.

Raised in Arden Arcade, he’s lived in neighborhoods all through Sacramento. He first lived downtown in 1981. Now, he’s chosen to live downtown for the lifestyle.

“It is really green. In the core you do not have to use a lot of resources. You don’t need to use fuel to get around. Sacramento is moving toward being more of a green area, and the core is going to lead that.”

The thing that surprises most people is how quiet the neighborhood is, he said. “There is a lot of foot traffic.”

Some of the problems he sees with downtown include too many abandoned buildings that have stayed boarded up for years, and the unsightly entrance to the city from the north.

“People say downtown has some problems, but what they forget is that it used to be a lot worse,” he said.

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Downtown Sacramento is home to more than 9,000 households, but that’s not enough to make it feel like a bustling city center on a Sunday afternoon. Much of its animation comes from the almost 100,000 who go to work there during the work week.

For all the focused energy in Sacramento over the past decade to build more places to live downtown, only about 550 residential units were built in that time span.

Those units are in such places as the 800J apartments, the Globe Mills Lofts, Signature Properties townhomes at Washington Square, two projects in Old Sacramento and several others scattered through the central city.

Most people who live downtown do so in older homes, and it is the urban experience that attracts them. For many, it comes down to this: Downtown is an easy place to get around without a car.

‘There before it was cool’

Michael Zwahlen, 36, a photographer and owner of Zwahlen Images and blogger of the Living in Urban Sac website, lived downtown for six years before buying a house in Curtis Park about five years ago.

Ironically, the things that attracted him to downtown in the first place priced him right out again. He moved to Curtis Park — just across the Capital City Freeway from the central city — because he couldn’t afford to buy the same kind of home downtown.

“I was down there before it was cool. People weren’t talking about living downtown,” he said, adding that it was the late 1990s was before all the new restaurants opened.

“The revitalization started in the early 2000s,” he said. “That’s when more restaurants started opening up down there and it became the focus of planning for a lot of projects.”

The restaurants, in turn, drew other restaurants, but the housing took too long to get approvals, he said.

“I’ve seen a lot of project proposals that missed the window of development and they fell apart,” Zwahlen said. “The approvals took so long they were two steps behind the market crashes.”

The city worked hard to streamline its approvals system in the past four years, but it didn’t happen soon enough for many projects.

“That has been a sore point,” he said. “We had such an enormously long approval process to get things done that some of the projects don’t survive, and that has hurt development downtown. We won’t see how efficient the city’s new approval system is until things start growing again, and that seems a few years away.”

A reverse commute to Folsom

Corey McKenna, 27, a writer, chose to live downtown a couple of years ago to avoid the expense of having a car. He had been living in rural Loomis, where not having a car means you are stuck at home.

By living downtown, he could walk to just about anything, including the light-rail station a few blocks from his apartment where he can catch a train to work. The unlimited rail pass costs about $100 a month.

The Elk Grove native remembered coming up to Sacramento as a kid and noticing that downtown Sacramento had a lot more energy than the suburbs.

His place is one of the new lofts downtown. It has wood floors and 10-foot ceilings, and it’s pretty close to anything he needs.

For the first year, he often would go out to eat nearby at Crepeville and The Buckhorn Grill.

More recently, he’s getting boxes of produce delivered from a Community Supported Agriculture organic farm.

And because his commute can eat up to three hours of his day, he’s not able to spend as much time downtown as he would like.

“Parts of it are starting to get really old,” he said. His place is near Cesar Chavez Park, and there are sections of the city around there that are empty.

Even the park itself, which on a Friday evening can be bustling with 3,000 people at a free concert, is like a ghost town on Sunday.

“It comes and goes. There are not a constant number of people on the streets. The thing I’m seeing more of now is that it really is an empty downtown. There are some real dead zones. It is a sticky problem. Do you entice people to come downtown as a destination, or do you try to get more people to live here? If you had more neighborhoods down here, more people would live here.”

That’s a sticking point for political consultant and public affairs campaign strategist Steven Maviglio, owner of Forza Communications.

He has worked downtown for the past decade, but he said he wouldn’t consider living there the way it is now, though his office is downtown and he spends about 12 hours a day within blocks of his office, just a short stroll from the Capitol.

“There is more foot traffic and there are more restaurants, but there are some major problems of not a lot of security and vast expanses of vacant lots, empty buildings and people-less streets,” he said. “That leaves you with a feeling of having it be less safe than you would want to live in a downtown.”

‘I don’t need to leave the grid’

Lisa Martinez, 30, director of outreach for the  Downtown Sacramento Partnership, prefers living in an urban environment. The suburbs, and the need to always get in a car, just bothered her too much.

“When I moved here from Chicago, I wanted to live in an urban environment,” she said.

She had grown up in a suburban neighborhood in northwest Indiana, but she learned to love the feeling of being part of a downtown as she attended DePaul University in Chicago. Her apartment in Chicago faced an elevated train platform.

“I could tell if I was going to be late for class if the train was passing by,” she said.

“I knew immediately this wasn’t going to work,” Martinez said. “It was so weird to me. There was nobody on the streets other than people walking their dogs or getting exercise. You have to have a car. It is awkward to even cross the streets by walking because the cars drive like they have the right-of-way,” she said.

Five years ago, when they looked all over the area for a place to live, it was downtown that was calling.

“It was just really hard for me to live in the suburbs,” she said. By living downtown, the couple was able to sell one of their cars, and often they both walk to work.

After work on a recent evening, the couple strolled from her office near City Hall to an event in midtown, then stopped by a restaurant and a pub on the way home, she said. “We both love it.

“Taking the car out of the equation makes everything much easier. You don’t have to worry about finding parking or getting tickets because you are just going to walk. There isn’t anything that is that far,” she said. “I don’t need to leave the grid. Some of my friends joke I need a pass code to get out of the grid.”