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Sacramento needs to build a better image for its downtown, and Downtown Plaza should be “ground zero” for change, urban design experts said Wednesday.
City and business leaders often refer to the heart of downtown as the J-K-L Corridor, named for the major streets the area is built on.
But referring to downtown that way promotes the idea that it's just an area to move through on the way to somewhere else. The city needs to focus on creating a downtown district that becomes the center of the city, said Betsy Jackson, president of The Urban Agenda Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Stop thinking and speaking of this as a corridor," Jackson said at City Hall during a presentation by a team of urban design and city planning experts.
Mayor Kevin Johnson invited the six-person team to visit the city through a National Endowment for the Arts leadership initiative called the Mayors' Institute on City Design. The program is offered in partnership with the American Architectural Foundation and the United States Conference of Mayors.
The institute holds six to eight such workshops throughout the country each year. The team was brought to Sacramento to help support ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown.
The team spent two and a half days touring Sacramento, learning from local stakeholders and developing guiding principles and recommendations. Those stakeholders – city staff, labor officials, artists and business owners – attended the presentation.
Echoing the concerns of all local stakeholders, the team identified major change at Westfield Downtown Plaza as downtown's top redevelopment priority.
The 1970s-era shopping mall is a visual and physical barrier that helps disconnect downtown from the central city's grid and doesn't contribute as much as it could to downtown's economy. The city should consider replacing the internally focused plaza with externally focused mixed uses such as retail, office and residences, said Graham Stroh, a program manager with the American Architectural Foundation.
"That is probably ground zero for Sacramentans," he said.
The team offered plenty of other ideas. They include:
• Improve downtown's connections to its near neighborhoods;
• Invest in quality for streetscape, landscaping, parks, trash pickup, maintenance and graffiti prevention/removal;
• Activate public spaces year-round with events and recreation that draw different demographic groups and make use of undeveloped lots;
• Promote informal, spontaneous uses of public spaces and different activities for different sites;
• Enhance major streets with more landscaping and a green infrastructure of open space and natural areas, starting with 10th and J streets, then expanding to I Street and beyond;
• Educate property owners and residents about the economic benefits of preserving and adapting historic properties, such as Sacramento's original street level hidden away in basements and hollow sidewalks;
• Reform permitting and regulations to make development less confusing, less expensive and less time-consuming;
• Build safety by adding downtown guides at night;
• Review efficiency of one-way streets;
• Improve on the almost-nonexistent access to Sacramento and American rivers;
• Build downtown's identity through mid-rise buildings that stand out from the low-rise residential buildings of surrounding neighborhoods.
The city should develop a "customer service approach" to building downtown and its image, Jackson said.
"The idea is you need to sweat these details," she said.
The other people on the team were Brad Cownover, a regional landscape architect with the U.S. Forest Service in Portland; Mark Dawson of Sasaki Associates in Boston; and Keith Lichten with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The team will present a final plan to the city within two weeks. The plan will be posted on the city's website and then used to continue a conversation about changing downtown, said Kunal Merchant, Johnson's chief of staff.