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Proposed alley project leads to clash of old and new in Midtown

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By Debra Belt

It is a small, unkempt patch of land on a dirt alley in Sacramento’s Boulevard Park neighborhood. Yet, the modest site at 2207 C St. is the subject of an intense debate that is expected to heat up as a proposed residential project for the alley lot heads to City Council Feb. 1.

At issue is a single-family home, a modern infill project that has neighbors, preservationists, politicians, architects, the city and the builders deadlocked over the design of the residence and its alley location in one of Sacramento’s oldest neighborhoods. As Midtown’s alley development movement advances, interest in the project is high, and followers say it could set a precedent in residential neighborhoods, for better or for worse, depending upon who is voicing their opinion.

The Boulevard Park Neighborhood Association and some area residents oppose the project because they think it’s too tall, too modern and does not complement surrounding turn-of-the-century homes in the historic neighborhood. They want to the design to be changed or built somewhere else.

The city of Sacramento Planning Division, Design Commission, AIA Central Valley Urban Design Committee and other neighbors support the project, saying the scale of the three-story residence meets city guidelines and that it is a quality design making good use of available space within the Central City. Advocates note that the alley site is 80 feet from the street front, removing it from the immediate context of the neighborhood.

Seeking to balance the strong and numerous views weighing in on the project, City Council member Steve Cohn in December “called up” the project for council review. Cohn said he did so at the request of the neighborhood association and neighbors who live near the proposed project.

“There is concern that the project is too large for the scale of the block, and neighbors are also concerned about the modern design in a neighborhood of traditional older homes,” Cohn said in a telephone interview. “The main issue is that the proposed building is three stories and faces immediate neighbors.”

Before the call-up, the project circulated through the city’s design review process and was approved by city Design Director William Crouch. The Boulevard Park Neighborhood Association and 21 area residents appealed the director’s decision. In response, the city Planning Division generated a 71-page report addressing neighborhood concerns and citing design considerations to “promote creative architectural solutions that acknowledge contextual design issues, yet allow for flexibility and variety of design.”

The project then went to the city Design Commission. After listening to three hours of testimony from both sides, the commission unanimously approved the project.

The call-up is the final step in this lengthy process. Luis Sanchez, senior architect for the city, said in an e-mail that “the City Code is written to allow a call-up by a City Council member whose district the project is in, if it is felt that additional discussion on the project design, and decision by the commission is warranted.”

Sanchez also said City Council has the final say, and the review of the situation starts anew.

“The role of the City Council is to make a determination on the final project design,” he said. “It is reviewed de novo by the City Council.”

Nathan and Erica Cunningham, the couple trying to build the proposed home for themselves and their two daughters, said this approval process has delayed their project for seven months and cost them almost $2,000 in additional fees. They refer to the project as a "modern and progressive” design.

“We are of the school of thought that with new construction on an infill site, let’s not copy or imitate the original surrounding architecture,” said Nathan Cunningham in an e-mail. “Instead, let’s respect this original architecture for what it is, and move forward by designing and building something that reflects how we live in the current century.”

Sanchez said a difference of opinion on what is the most appropriate design for a neighborhood is not unusual.

“The voice of the neighborhood is important, and the design discussion between neighborhood groups, design staff and city agencies is a healthy dialogue for any growing city,” he said.

The debate about how much a neighborhood can influence what landowners build on their private property is as old as Boulevard Park itself. It is, however, one that becomes more fierce as viable lots in Sacramento’s city center dwindle and people look to limited available resources such as alley sites, which have become a buzz topic as the city looks to create a more vibrant, diverse and sustainable city center with its 2030 General Plan.

Bruce Monighan, president of AIA Central Valley, said that Sacramento as a community has talked about infill and alley development for nearly a decade. “If not here on the alleys, when and where will this city allow a new chapter of the American dream?”

Monighan added, “The neighbors are effectively saying that in order to live in their neighborhood, you must look like them. What are we trying to legislate here? He asked. “Is it personal taste?”

The Cunninghams, who specialize in building and renovating homes in Sacramento’s core neighborhoods, said there are only a small number of affordable lots suitable for residential development in the Central City. They said they were lucky to find someone who was willing to sell the alley lot for a reasonable price.

Some residents in Boulevard Park, however, think this neighborhood is not the place to build a modern residence.

“This is a historic residential neighborhood surrounding the property, but the design somehow seeks to make an independent, isolated statement that effectively turns its back on the neighborhood,” wrote residents Lyvonne and Robert Sewell in a letter submitted to city associate planner David Hung.

Jon Marshack, former vice chair of Sacramento’s Design Review and Preservation Board, is strongly opposed to the project. “While this design has numerous laudable features, it is totally out of place within this neighborhood’s historic context,” he wrote in a letter to Sacramento’s Design Director. “I urge you to require that the proposed project be redesigned to respect its historic neighborhood context or relocated to a more appropriate site.”

Of additional concern to the neighbors is that the project is adjacent to the Boulevard Park subdivision, which is the subject of a proposed National Register historic district.

Darby Patterson, the owner of the one house in the neighborhood that is already on the National Register, supports the proposed alley residence.

“This is something new, positive and vibrant,” Patterson said in a telephone interview. “I live in a city and expect to make changes as the city grows. If we all stayed in the same place we would all still be living in Victorians.”

Patterson also said she is tired of absentee ownership, vermin, weeds and graffiti on the alley. “Civilizing the alley sounds good to me.”

At the alley site, the only clues to the neighborhood controversy is the public notice posted on the defunct Earle Plumbing Shop currently occupying the property and the mysterious pieces of lumber “ghosting” the shape and height of the proposed structure, which is designed to be three stories and utilize Cor-ten steel siding on the north side facing an industrial area and the railroad tracks.

Cohn said he has met with the builder of the proposed project and the neighbors and is trying to reach some degree of resolution before the City Council meeting.

“The neighbors propose reducing the residence to two stories or going with a more traditional design,” Cohn said. “The applicant (builder) has proposed to shift the third story four feet to the north to minimize the height, revisit window openings on the east and develop landscaping for more privacy. We have one more meeting before this goes to council and are seeking some agreement.”

Cohn acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.

“You have a young couple with a very clear idea about what they want and it’s at odds with what the neighbors expect,” he said. “We are trying to treat each issue on its own merits and bring the two factions together through dialogue.”

Disclosure statement: Writer Debra Belt is married to Stephen Henry of Henry + Associates, the architect of the proposed alley project.



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