Downtown Sacramento: 10 Thousand New Units Again?

New Apartments in “Township Nine” 

Last week, Mayor Kevin Johnson launches his “Think Downtown” housing initiative for Sacramento’s central city.

By Cosmo Garvin/Sacramento News and Review

( Original Title: Does Mayor Kevin Johnson’s new downtown-housing plan actually bring new housing to the central city?)

The mayor’s policy initiatives are always branded to the hilt. This one is no exception; the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency has agreed to foot the bill for a public-relations campaign led by 3 fold Communications.

A lot of marketing can make it difficult to tease out the actual substance of initiatives like these. But at bottom, the mayor’s housing proposal looks like a slightly downsized restatement of the vision city leaders have been kicking around for a long time.

The gist is that the mayor wants to bring 10,000 housing units to the central city in the next 10 years. (Central city meaning that area of town between the American River and W Street, the Sacramento River and Alhambra Boulevard.) Johnson also wants to put policies in place that will make building downtown housing easier. And he wants to sell central-city living to suburbanites.

What isn’t mentioned by the mayor and his surrogates is the fact that there are already 10,000 housing units or more planned for the central city.

In fact, the current plan for the downtown rail yards alone includes 10,000 to 12,000 housing units. That plan dates back to a pre-Johnson time, when Sacramento’s stated goal was to become America’s “most livable city”  and when city leaders and developers dreamed of soaring condo towers downtown.

Of course, that was before the recession. It was before the rail yards changed hands again, before we had to make room for a soccer stadium. Today, folks around City Hall say 5,000 to 6,000 homes in the rail yards is more likely.

But nearby Township Nine is under construction, planned for 2,500 units. Add in the ancillary development around the Kings arena, another 500 units. The Sacramento Commons project at Seventh and N is proposed for 1,000. Start adding in smaller projects Ice Blocks and the Midtown Whole Foods (with apartments on top), and 10,000 units doesn’t seem so bold.

So why the PR campaign? And why do developers need incentives to do what they already plan to do?

“Just because 10,000 or 20,000 units are proposed, doesn’t mean that’s what will get built,” says Bill Burg, president of Preservation Sacramento.

“City processes can be annoying and frustrating. There’s a lot of red tape,” says Burg, and that can put developers off.

So, as the mayor’s initiative gels this summer, look for efforts to streamline the permitting process and make development easier. (There’s a reason that Region Builders was tapped to lead the steering committee for the mayor’s housing initiative.)

There are few folks more committed to promoting the central city than Burg. He’s been a one-man marketing campaign, evangelizing grid living for years and talking about the “58,000.” That’s the number of residents the central city used to have back in 1950. Today, it’s around 30,000.

But Burg says we also need to be careful about what kinds of incentives the city gives developers, and what rules it throws out.

Burg is concerned that the mayor’s initiative will be presented fully formed with little input from community groups (a criticism aimed at many of the mayor’s policy initiatives). And he worries about streamlining the development process too much. “Is the process just going to get rid of rules that—though they may clog up the process—also protect neighborhoods?”

For example, the controversial Sacramento Commons project would add hundreds of units, but would also demolish 200 existing historically important garden apartments, in what Burg calls the “missing middle ” range of affordability.

He says new housing shouldn’t come at the expense of historic buildings and affordable housing that exist now. “We could double the number of people living downtown now and not have to demolish a thing. We definitely need more housing, but there are ways to get it right.”

The mayor has called for 6,000 “market rate” units, which would be attractive to wealthier residents, 2,500 of affordable “workforce” units, and 1,500 units for the very poor.

Affordable-housing advocates have said that they are cautiously optimistic about the mayor’s plan, but there will almost certainly be debate about the meaning of “affordable,” and how much is enough.

A recent article about the mayor’s housing initiative, printed in the Sacramento Business Journal, cited a study by the Midtown Business Association showing that 73 percent of housing in Midtown is affordable, and only 27 percent is market rate. But readers weren’t told that the study looked only at apartment buildings with 15 units or more.

A lot of numbers will be thrown around as the mayor’s housing initiative moves forward. It’s important to look beyond the marketing and the talking points and ask what the numbers really mean.

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