The Battle for Midtown


PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY DON BUTTON

Darkness falls on Midtown. Gridlocked cars’ taillights glow for blocks as a critical mass of pedestrians clogs the city’s frenzied arteries. Teenagers run wild, weekend-warrior rock bands affront noise levels and adults swill cheap wine. Oh, and there’s art: Tonight is Second Saturday, a festival that celebrates Sacramento’s galleries and artists—though it’s evolved into something other than discovering the next Wayne Thiebaud.

So it goes this July evening: Hundreds of revelers dressed as zombies caravan down Midtown’s J Street, chewing on replica limbs, fake blood dripping from offensively gnarly faux teeth. A crowd of nonzombies watches the trail of the dead, snapping cell-phone grabs but keeping a safe distance. Afterward, Midtown’s restaurants and clubs thrive into the early morning. Police estimate that some 15,000 people, living or otherwise, converge on the neighborhood each Second Saturday.

Many herald the event as a glimpse of Midtown’s future. Others, it gives them nightmares.

It’s all a stark change from 25 years ago, when Midtown actually was a dead zone. People dismissed the neighborhood as a slum. Even Mayor Kevin Johnson says he doesn’t remember Midtown during the ’70s, because there “wasn’t a whole lot going on.” That’s an understatement: Midtown, from Alhambra Boulevard to 16th Street, B Street to Broadway, was a no man’s land.

Old-school residents such as Dale Kooyman, who led the Central City Alliance of Neighborhoods for years, puts it this way: You’d call the police to report a crime, and they’d respond, “You live in Midtown, what’d you expect?”

In those days, few anticipated Midtown would become widely celebrated as Sacramento’s most vibrant district. That Roseville suburbanites would forgo their own chic mall and restaurants for recently christened Midtown hotspots such as The Block, the Handle or the Sutter District. And that lofts and high-density growth would encroach upon Midtown’s long-established neighborhoods.

And so today, there’s a fight for Midtown’s future that’s divided its very populace.

Midtown itself is infinitesimally small compared to the greater region, but this split impacts all of Sacramento. Midtowners are at odds over growth, livability, night life, preservation and sustainability. Many residents disapprove of the increasing concentration of bars and clubs, developers and entrepreneurs lament the city’s lack of vision and investment, and City Hall frustrates everyone with its profuse red-tape bureaucracy—and downtown-development bias.

It’s a clash that’s at once Midtown’s rib and rub: Midtowners have backbone and give a damn, but don’t always share a common vision.

Some residents, 85 percent of whom are renters, argue that Midtown is literally too much fun. That its vibrant night life threatens its erstwhile sleepy residential neighborhoods. That each evening, when liquored-up clubgoers stumble to their cars, stopping only to urinate—invariably on Joe Midtown’s historic Craftsman’s facade—before drunk-driving back to the godforsaken suburbs, it’s truly a bad night’s sleep. For this contingent, the only thing world class about Midtown is its noise and nuisance.

But many see a different Midtown emerging. A budding 24-hour neighborhood. An opportunity to shed Sacramento’s inferiority complex. A place to raise kids amid cultural diversity, where drunks are inner-city facts of life and development is a metric of progress, not a threat to livability. The slogan for developer Michael Heller’s trendy MARRS complex on 20th Street, one of Midtown’s many new destinations, best illuminates this attitude: “It’s too early to go to bed.”

At the end of the day, though, everyone wants sweet dreams.

Entrepreneur Aaron Zeff has a big vision for Midtown, including: moving more toward a 24-hour economy and turning J Street into the city’s flagship boulevard—or even shutting the street down for major events.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DON BUTTON

Slummin’ it

Dale Kooyman strolls out front of his Midtown home, stopping to explain the neighborhood’s changes over the decades—and to point out the local dogs’ “favorite pooping ground.” He’s relandscaped the spot in question with towering flora, which discourages canines and even prevents the afternoon sun from bearing down on his property. But it also shuts him away from the city outside.

Kooyman first came to Midtown in 1976, charmed by its Midwestern feel. “But when I moved here, this [area] was a slum,” he explains of Boulevard Park, the central city’s first subdivision. Back then, The Suttertown News—a now-defunct community paper that started up in ’75 and ended in ’93—connected Kooyman with Karen Jacques; the two became Midtown neighborhood advocates.

“The whole idea was that these were not neighborhoods,” says Jacques, who came to Sacramento 30 years ago, of City Hall’s attitude. “That reasonable people would not live here.”

Kooyman and Jacques founded the Central City Alliance of Neighborhoods; today, there’s the Midtown Neighborhood Association. William Burg, a historian with the state of California, is a member of the MNA with Jacques. He reminds that Midtown was built unlike typical 21st-century American neighborhoods, complete with permeable grid streets and ample public transit.

“There was a streetcar line to East Sac and Land Park before there was development where it was going,” Burg explains of the city’s once forward-thinking transit approach before automobile ubiquity.

But cars became king. And when commuters drove into the central city, they’d park on Kooyman’s block, impacting residential parking—until 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that residents should be allowed to park within a reasonable distance of their homes. It was a small victory, though in general, the early days of Midtown were rife with breakdowns and no love from the city.

In fact, some 30 years ago, Midtown didn’t even have a name.

At least not until local restaurateur Randy Paragary got his start, at a spot on N and 28th streets in 1974, called The Arbor, which he and his friends built with their own hands. Back then, Paragary says no one called Midtown “Midtown.” At least, not until the’80s, when a hub of restaurants and retail popped up between J and N streets along 28th, in what is now known as the Sutter District. Paragary opened his namesake restaurant and later Cafe Bernardo and Centro Cocina Mexicana—in addition to Capitol Grill, Harlow’s and retail such as Simms Hardware.

“And that kind of triggered this concept of the original definition of ‘Midtown,’” he remembers.

Rob Kerth, former city council member and executive director of the Midtown Business Association, says the name “Midtown” didn’t begin to stick until the MBA itself coined it in 1983. But the concept of a “hospitality” district wasn’t new to Sacramento: Del Paso Boulevard flourished in the ’40s and ’50s. Old Sacramento, too, and later Fulton Avenue during the T.G.I. Friday’s and El Torito days, which Kerth says people called the “Herpes Triangle.”

Of course, before all this was K Street, the original central-city destination. “But a hospitality district prospers by its housing,” Kerth explains, and all the housing downtown, such as the Crocker district, had been more or less destroyed.

Midtown would have to buck trends and increase the supply, diversity and quality of housing to succeed. And this growth would have to respect its neighborhoods. “The politics of the central city has always been pretty destructive,” reminds Jacques, who says that in four decades of city managers, only Bill Edgar truly valued the neighborhoods.

Kooyman, too, says the early days of Midtown preservation ultimately were slow-moving. “We had kind of a little mini populist movement here,” he reflects. “We managed to get some success, but it took years.”

So from the mid-’80s and through much of the ’90s, residents and the city duked it out, and stakeholders like Paragary and Kerth waited for Midtown to grow up.

The Midtown Business Association’s Rob Kerth (left) and Aja Uranga-Foster support the alley activation project, which transforms alleyways such as this one (between 17th and 18th streets and L Street and Capitol Avenue) into thriving multiuse destinations.

Here comes the neighborhood

A waitress balancing two glasses and a bottle of red wine on a serving tray dashes down 19th Street amid evening rush-hour traffic. She’s not alone; four-dozen other servers join her in Midtown’s inaugural Bastille Day Waiters’ Race. The servers scurry past cop cars and smoldering flares toward the finish. Renowned local chef Patrick Mulvaney follows her with a butler and broom, sweeping up untoward broken glass.

Ten years ago, this running of Sacramento’s servers never could have happened in Midtown. Just ask Sotiris Kolokotronis.

Between the years 2004 and 2008, infill developer Kolokotronis plunked nearly 200 rental units and more than $100 million worth of real estate in Midtown, including his 1801 L Street building—site of last week’s Waiters’ Race finish line. Before this happened, dirt lots and chain-link fence adorned the street. Now, it’s one of Midtown’s premier hot spots.

Inside 1801—which features retail space at the ground level along L Street, live-work units on 18th and 17th streets, and rentals throughout—Kolokotronis relaxes at his second-floor office’s chic glass conference table. “This is something that has happened without a lot of public money, compared to what the city is doing [downtown],” Kolokotronis explains, gesturing out his front window to the revamped neighborhood, which has been coined the Handle District.

He’s right: In 2002, the same day the city committed a $5 million loan for his 1801 complex, they gave $16 million to fund CIM Groups 800 J Street lofts downtown. And just last week, city council voted to give $42 million in property, plus $16 million in subsidy and loans, to redevelop two blocks of K Street. Midtown has never tasted such funding.

Kolokotronis’ office—which used to be an art gallery and, prior to 2002, a fenced-off vacant dirt lot facing the Alfa Romeo shop on 18th Street—is a space similar to the recent influx of Midtown housing aimed at tenants willing to pay higher prices. All this housing reached a tipping point that, around 2007, significantly recast Midtown’s image, both topographically and also in the eyes of Sacramentans. More restaurants and night life came to Midtown over the past five years, too. It was an unprecedented sea change.

Urban development isn’t easy, Kolokotronis says, but building this kind of housing in Midtown was imperative. “You had to first change people’s minds about Midtown,” he explains.

But while many see the arrival of lively night life and new crowds as a step in the right direction, others view the new Midtown as a threat.

“[But] there’s a misconception that we are anti-business. And anti-young. And anti—just about everything,” Kooyman explains of residents’ activism. “Anti-fun, right? As if we were never young ourselves or never drank ourselves.”

Still, alcohol is a problem. And a recent MBA poll of Midtown’s visitors affirms this: Guests coming into Midtown’s top two worries are: 1) finding parking; and 2) not getting a DUI on the drive back home.

On the other hand, some neighborhood activists have earned their obstructionist stripes, in part by relentlessly protesting Midtown events, development and liquor-license applications. Kooyman explains that residents need to challenge Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control license requests because this is the only means to attain conditions to prevent noise and late-night alcohol-related nuisances.

The logic of other e-mail complaints are hit-and-miss:

In October of 2007, an e-mail thread featuring Kooyman, Jacques and others implored city officials to have “a serious dialogue about how to manage the drunkenness problem and stop the proliferation of bars.”

In June 2008, in another thread, titled “Vandalism vs. building communities,” residents asked city officials if they “expect families to move to this area” with its upswings in crime and vandalism. (A joke about drunks “peeing on Mr. Henderson’s prize-winning azaleas” rubs residents the wrong way.)

October 2008: Residents complained of “jostling, hooting and hollering” during the early morning hours.

May 2009: Neighbors protested the Cinco de Mayo festivities at Centro Cocina Mexicana, and The Block concert series and the inaugural MidFest concert in Marshall Park. In June, they protest the Sacramento Kings NBA draft party.

January 2010: A resident complained of excessive noise levels and youth loitering—at an all-ages Christian church club on L Street.

This last e-mail complaint may blur the line between civic activism and what others might call NIMBY fussing, but it does address another front in the battle for Midtown’s future: the music community’s struggles. Not unlike the city of San Francisco’s “War on Fun,” where exorbitant entertainment fees undermined the City by the Bay’s music scene, Sacramento too has had it’s own live-music setbacks.

Among others: A few years back, The Distillery, which has put on live shows for years, was suddenly too loud for its neighbors, the new St. Anton Building, an upscale loft-style residence. Farther east on K Street, The Golden Bear bar repeatedly has struggled to both secure its entertainment permit and also appease noise complaints. Not to mention Midtown’s many illegal house shows and underground venues, which accommodate a subculture of Sacramento’s most talented musicians and artists who for many reasons can’t play at legal venues.

There’s a bumper sticker around town that reads “Keep Midtown janky,” à la the “Keep Austin weird” slogan. The “janky” movement is an apt maxim for an increasingly wary Midtown arts-and-music counterculture. And the concern is that these very artists and musicians, who gave Midtown its pulse, will be the first to leave when so-called homogenization shuts them out of the urban mix—if they haven’t left already.

State of California historian and neighborhood advocate William Burg stands near one of Midtown’s venerable underground venues of yore. Many Midtown musicians and artists, disenfranchised by the city’s restrictive entertainment-permit requirements, look to underground venues for the answer.

Big vision

“We can either look to the past for failures and repeat those. Or we can try some experiments.”

Entrepreneur Aaron Zeff, CEO of Priority Parking, came from San Francisco to Sacramento in 2005, when he saw a “very inefficient” parking environment in the central city to capitalize on. “But I saw a very creative class in Midtown,” he says—qualifying that it was a group that would rather “beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”

Zeff does neither. He’s interested in progressive, proactive ideas, such as making Sacto a “more 24-hour city than the current 9-to-5 economy.” Zeff was part of Midtown’s experiment to implement a property and business improvement district, or PBID, in 2007. This succeeded, and since 2008, the MBA has generated some half a million dollars in self-prescribed assessment every year. Kerth and MBA operations manager Aja Uranga-Foster appropriate these leveraged-resource funds to improve parking, hire neighborhood guides, clean up the streets and advocate with the city, among other expenses.

Some of these everyday costs baffle. The MBA pays to clean up nearly 10,000 graffiti tags each year, to the tune of $80,000. “There’s really only about 25 or 30 guys doing it,” Kerth says of the taggers. “If I could just find them all, I’d say, ‘You know, I’ll give you two grand if you’d just stop.’”

Zeff has other big ideas to push at City Hall. He’d like to see Sacramento develop its alleyways, or what he calls an alley activation project, in areas such as behind Lucca Restaurant & Bar (between I and J and 16th and 17th streets). Alleys make up 19 percent of Midtown’s real estate, but the project has stalled—partly because the city doesn’t receive federal redevelopment dollars for alleyways, just street-facing projects.

The experiments keep coming: Zeff wants J Street to be developed “from freeway to freeway”—including more lighting and improved streetscape on the main thoroughfare. Not to mention shutting down J Street occasionally for big event such as Second Saturday (it can be done; see photo of Zeff, above).

But instead of J, all the money’s gone to K Street. “And the urban renewal of K Street is a case study on how not to revitalize a central city,” he argues.

Interestingly, and despite what Zeff might call City Hall’s chronic myopia when it comes to big ideas, he has an ally in his corner: Mayor Kevin Johnson.

The mayor, who spoke with SN&R last week, says he “absolutely” is intrigued by the alley activation in Midtown—despite city staff’s rebuffs. Same goes for J Street’s revitalization. “J Street has the potential to be something that doesn’t focus on vehicles and be more about the pedestrian experience, with retail and shops up and down the street,” the mayor explains.

Johnson also emphasizes lessons learned from Midtown—in spite of its slow evolution and confusing growing pains. “The key to [Midtown’s] success has been largely how it has developed organically without a lot of bureaucratic interference,” he says. “And I think there’s a lot to be learned from that.”

Zeff, though, gives credit where credit’s due. “Everyone likes to champion Midtown,” he begins, “but it’s not the political and financial support of the city that’s made it successful. What’s made it successful is the creative energy of the people.

“And Midtown has the creative energy to pull the city out of the spiral it’s been in for the last 35 to 40 years.”

Karen Jacques says that in spite of the new Sutter District garage, parking is as much a problem today as it was when she arrived in the neighborhood 30 years ago—though city officials are making positive strides of late.

True grid

It’s dusk on the first Sunday in July. A ball of fire shoots through the Midtown sky, then detonates mid-air, the explosion echoing for blocks. Blasts are louder and more frequent as the sun sets in the central city. In the Boulevard Park neighborhood, smoke billows and crackling flames dot alleyways and side streets. Most restaurants and retail stores, or at least the smart ones, are shuttered. It’s a dead zone. Again.

But it’s the Fourth of July—one of the only days each year when Midtown goes ghost town. As historian Burg says of Midtown’s progression over the past decade: “A Tuesday now is like a Saturday 10 years ago. A Saturday now is like Second Saturday. And Second Saturday looks like a complete madhouse.”

During the recent recession, however, the no man’s land days of yore nearly reared its ugly head again in Midtown. Furlough Fridays almost toppled its thriving restaurants, and most business owners at one time or another took a hard look at rock bottom over the past couple years. Many didn’t make it. And times are still dire.

Yet the recession’s impact has expedited certain social evolutions. The “autocentric city,” as historian Burg calls it, appears to be on the downswing, both because of depleted natural resources and also a broader cultural shift. Kolokotronis calls this “rediscovering the core.” Second Saturday is proof in the pudding.

But will Midtown become suburbia’s new playground?

A while back, the MBA conducted a different poll to find out where those frequenting Midtown actually came from. The results surprised: 60 percent of people who visit Midtown’s shops and night life live right here in town, or in adjacent ZIP codes such as East Sacramento or Land Park.

So now, there’s a new, concerted effort by the MBA to improve things like security practices, streetscape cleanliness, parking access, sound pollution, healthy retail recruitment—all things that will nurture the neighborhood. Additionally, Councilman Cohn just secured funding for additional streetlights in Midtown.

“I think both the MBA and the city have improved recently,” observes Jacques—though she notes that a major problem has left town: Ray Kerridge and “his complete disregard for the livability of the central city.”

And in spite of the economy, things just might sustain. It bodes well that there’s more affordable housing in Midtown than anywhere else in the region: 17 percent. The only other area comparable is north Natomas, which is mandated to offer 15 percent. Plus, affordability equals diversity: lots of renters at varied income levels.

Is diversity Midtown’s hope for the future?

Restaurateur Paragary says this is why his restaurants have succeeded over the years: Sacramentans want diverse foods served in diverse ways at diverse price points. Kerth wishes for more diversity in housing, up and down the fiscal capacity of renters. Kolokotronis wants more tenants who can buy upscale housing and are also interested in Midtown’s diverse urban milieu. Jacques wants a diverse mix of property owners who are stewards to the neighborhoods. Zeff wants “a culturally diverse economy.”

One thing is certain: The neighborhoods are far stronger now than they’ve been for a while.

Upstanding citizens

There’s no border on city maps. And there isn’t a checkpoint at Capitol Park. “There’s no Berlin Wall at 16th Street” either, jokes businessman Zeff. Yet there’s always been a strange divide between Midtown and downtown.

In fact, Kerth likes to tease the Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s Mike Ault by floating the term “greater Midtown” to describe certain non-Midtown hotbeds, such as the thriving R Street Corridor near 15th Street.

The silver punch line, though, is that the future of both Midtown and downtown have never been so entwined. “There’s always been a big separation between Midtown and downtown, but now we’re working together more and more often,” explains MBA’s Foster-Uranga.

Still, those hundreds of millions the city has invested in downtown never made it to Midtown’s side of 16th. But Kolokotronis says the city now has to “ante up.”

“We have a long way to go, and we need more public-private partnerships,” he argues.

The mayor has a vision for Midtown that might validate such joint ventures. “While Midtown is a shining light,” Johnson says, “I definitely think there are a lot of potential improvements for Midtown. When you think about it on a national scale, it’s impressive, but it certainly doesn’t rival the Gaslamp District [in San Diego] or places like that around the country.”

But it will be three to four or more years, or longer, until investors start pouring millions back into Midtown. And there still are battles on the horizon.

Developers and businessmen such as Paragary and Zeff want to see more hospitality-district “concentration,” such as the new Sutter and Handle districts or The Block on J Street between 27th and 28th streets. Of course, Kooyman cites “overconcentration,” especially of alcohol-serving establishments, as the root of most Midtown’s problems.

“Preservation, here or in any city, is always under threat,” he reminds.

And, as always, cars, transit and parking will be thorny neighborhood issues. City officials are looking at ways to revise the parking ordinance, including after-6 p.m. metering and extended residential-only parking in the evenings, ideas Jacques praises.

Burg, and even Kolokotronis, would like to see the city improve its public transportation—“but you have to bite the bullet,” Burg says of funding streetcars, which used to run east-west on C, H, J, K, M, P, T and X streets until 1947.

There is a glimmer of hope: Los Angeles, whose budget deficit is 10 times that of the city of Sacramento, recently began building new streetcar lines.

At the end of the day, there are some 40,000 people living in Midtown. It’s a city. And Burg says Midtown needs to stop making excuses.

“For a long time, ‘city’ was a four-letter word,” the historian explains. “And we’re finally getting beyond that. We have a city to offer. We just need to realize it. And start acting like it.

“And say ‘Screw you’ to people who look at the place and don’t see anything. It’s a great place. It’s an amazing place.”

Sacramento News & Review

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