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Redefining Downtown Sacramento

Downtown Sacramento with the central city “grid,” .5 mile and 1 mile radii indicated in red, green and blue.

According to a recent report, Sacramento’s downtown core is among the most populated in the United States, with an even larger number of jobs, but unlike other large downtowns, did not grow its population in the past decade. The report also re-examined our urban cores and job centers in a way that could redefine the boundaries of downtown Sacramento. Is it time for the Old City “grid” to include its surrounding neighborhoods?

Downtown Sacramento is traditionally envisioned as the area of about four square miles between the Sacramento River and Alhambra Boulevard, from the Union Pacific main line to Broadway. This area is home to about 30,000 people and employs about 100,000. According to the study Downtown Rebirth: Documenting the Live-Work Dynamic in 21st Century Cities, written by the International Downtown Association and the Center City District of Philadelphia, Sacramento is tenth among American cities for population within its commercial downtown job center, ranking alongside midtown and downtown Manhattan, center city Philadelphia, downtown San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, Boston and Jersey City. Population in 9 of those 10 city centers grew, especially Chicago, whose downtown population doubled between 2000 and 2010. Sacramento was the only downtown that lost population, only 1.7% or about 1000 people, dropping to 30,544 at the 2010 census.


Population change in commercial downtowns, within .5 mile and 1 mile radii.

The study explains that, despite decades of suburban dispersal, American downtowns are still critical job centers, and in many cities a high proportion of workers live close to their place of employment. Recent geographic trends point to a resurgence of American downtowns, a change from the past half-century’s narrative of urban decline. Rather than limit their approach to the defined downtown core, these researchers reviewed population and employment numbers within a half-mile and one-mile radius of the traditionally established downtown. When examined that way, Sacramento’s downtown picture changes dramatically. A one-mile ring around downtown includes the northern parts of Land Park and Curtis Park, the Broadway corridor in Oak Park, the “thrifty thirties” and “fabulous forties” of East Sacramento, Stockton Boulevard and UCD Medical Center, along with parts of West Sacramento, and industrial sites like the Railyards and Richards Boulevard/River District. This ring, covering about 15 square miles, includes more than 150,000 jobs and 73,000 people. 27% of that population live and work within the same boundary, identified as a “high live-work quotient” by the study. While not as high as cities with extremely high live-work quotients like Midtown Manhattan or the Chicago Loop, we do quite well when compared to other cities of similar size and geography.

Another intriguing factor of that one-mile radius around downtown is its recent growth. Downtown alone lost 1.7% of its population between 2000 and 2010, but when considered along with neighborhoods within a one-mile radius, population in the greater “downtown” zone went up 19.4%, a dramatic increase. Many of those new arrivals to the inner-ring suburbs are part of the younger generation that seeks greater proximity to the urban core, valuing a short commute and proximity to urban amenities. Some moved into these perimeter neighborhoods because of the limited number of for-sale houses in Midtown, or rising rents as property values rose during the past decade’s housing boom, or enough space for kids in established neighborhoods. This growth in “downtown-adjacent” population might also explain the proliferation of new businesses in these nearby neighborhoods, including restaurants, cafes, microbreweries and specialty shops aimed at an urban demographic on corridors like Freeport, Franklin and Folsom Boulevard, Broadway and eastern J and H Street. While most discussion of urban infill focuses on the central city, many recent infill projects were built in these “downtown adjacent” areas, including Alexan Midtown (located east of Midtown in the Alhambra Triangle) and East 34th Street in the Alhambra Triangle, 4th Avenue Lofts and the Broadway Triangle in Oak Park, and West Sacramento projects like Ironworks and GOOD. North of the downtown grid, construction of Township 9’s first residential units are underway; while many consider the Richards/River District to be part of downtown, geographically Township 9 is as far from the heart of downtown as East Sacramento or Land Park.


Township 9 under construction: outside of Sacramento’s traditional “downtown” but within 1 mile.

Since the 2010 census, new residential infill development has revved up considerably in the central city, including those stalled by the economic downturn and housing bubble collapse. These include small-footprint single-family homes like Tapestri Square and 2500 R Street, row houses at Washington Square and Craftsman on 20, and large apartment buildings in CADA’s area of influence like Legado de Ravel, WAL and 16 Powerhouse. Long-vacant parcels of central city land, invariably the site of former homes lost to fire, decay, vandalism or speculative demolition, are now becoming sites of opportunity for new residential or mixed-use construction. But high land prices (due to their central location) and limited availability (as the “old city” is mostly built out) limit the possibilities for new development without damaging the very neighborhoods whose vitality draws people and investment.

Another limiting factor in central city population growth is the large areas of downtown land cleared of population for office use in the mid-20th century. About 10,000 units of housing were lost between 1950 and 1970, as mid-century urban planners envisioned a city where everyone commuted from the suburbs to downtown offices and shops in their own automobiles on high-speed highways. Downtown went from a mixed-use neighborhood to an enormous commercial and office complex that went quiet when workers went home.

Jobs in the Core

According to the “Defining Downtown” study, in 2010, there were 151,828 jobs in downtown Sacramento and within one mile of downtown, and a population of 73,225. Of course, many of those 73,225 include children, retirees, the disabled and dependents. According to labor market data (via http://www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov/cgi/databrowsing/localAreaProfileQSResults.asp?selectedarea=Sacramento+County&selectedindex=34&menuChoice=localAreaPro&state=true&geogArea=0604000067&countyName) Sacramento County’s population was 1.45 million with an employed labor force of 618,000, so we can estimate that about 42% of that 73,225 are workers, or about 31,000 people. If 27% of that population also work within the same boundary, nearly 20,000 people, or two-thirds of all working people in this area, live and work in the same comfortable circle—only one in three does a “reverse commute” to a more distant neighborhood. Note also that the 151,282 jobs in the downtown circle represent nearly 20% of all employment in Sacramento County, in 1% of the land area, with 5% of its population. Sacramento also has a very high job density, with 53 jobs per acre in the central city grid, 25 per acre within a half-mile, and 18 per acre within a mile.

The most obvious source of jobs in this boundary is state employment, along with other government sector employment including county, city and federal jobs. As the control center for a $2 trillion state economy, 38 million people and a land area of 163,000 square miles, the state capital will always require a large administrative sector. But there are many other job centers downtown, including the multi-billion dollar industries that serve the needs of government like lobbyists, lawyers, advocacy groups and organizations. The medical sector is another enormous source of employment, at complexes like UC Davis Medical Center and Mercy hospitals, and a multitude of small medical clinics and laboratories. The largest educational facility is Sacramento City College, although our biggest universities, CSUS and UC Davis, are farther outside of this “downtown adjacent” zone. Despite rumors of its disappearance, there are still blue-collar jobs in this radius, including food processing at Blue Diamond, produce distribution off Broadway and North 16th Street, printing, manufacturing and goods distribution along R Street, Broadway and Richards Boulevard. White-collar private employment centers along the office buildings of Capitol Mall (primarily private sector west of 7th Street) and J Street.

The entire zone is interspersed with small local businesses, and new business models like “coworking” spaces like the Urban Hive, ThinkHouse and Hacker Lab in Midtown, or Capsity in Curtis Park/Land Park. Sacramento’s restaurant scene is growing, but the ability for the urban core to support restaurants is heavily dependent on population, leading a growing number of restaurants, cafes and pubs to expand or relocate outside of the central city. Downtown cafes like Naked Lounge, Old Soul, Temple and Chocolate Fish expanded to sites in East Sacramento and Oak Park, and Midtown restaurant Bacon & Butter plans to move from 21st Street to Tahoe Park. Food truck operators open brick-and-mortar restaurants like Broderick in West Sacramento. Some job sectors blur the lines between manufacturing and commercial activity, like the growing number of bakeries, coffee roasters, breweries and wineries, whose facilities are often outside the “grid” but within close proximity. In some cases, reduced restriction on manufacturing (West Sacramento’s Bike Dog Brewing) or single beer sales (Pangea Two Brews) motivated a location outside, but close to, the downtown grid. Arts and entertainment are also an increasingly visible employment sector, focused on Sacramento’s central city but also found in the surrounding neighborhoods. Because entry-level artists, actors and musicians often work in low-wage service occupations, less expensive quarters within short proximity to jobs, along with access to venues, galleries and theaters, are a high priority, as their job sector is heavily dependent on in-person networking and social connections facilitated by an urban location. Of course, not all work service jobs—many find work in our larger employment sectors, including medical, commercial and government employment. In either case, a place in “greater downtown Sacramento” is the best tradeoff between economy and proximity.


Is the Sacramento River a boundary of downtown if residents on the other side are close enough to easily walk or ride to downtown jobs?

Despite the perception that downtown Sacramento lacks jobs, they actually outnumber the population to such an extent that 72% of downtown workers come from outside this boundary, simply because not enough people live within it.  When compared to other cities, this 27.2% quotient is still high. Cities like Manhattan and Chicago rate “very high”, with 55.9% and 51.8% living in that live-work radius. Our rating puts us in the same category (“high live-work quotient”) as cities like Redmond, Washington (dominated by Microsoft’s campus), Savannah, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Wichita, Baltimore and San Diego’s UCSD and Medical Center (some cities have more than one major job node.) Other cities are classified as “emerging live-work areas,” like downtown Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Akron, Birmingham, Newark, or downtown San Diego, all about 19%. Other cities have “limited live-work characteristics” like Georgetown outside Washington DC, Jacksonville, and highly car-centric southern California cities like Riverside, Long Beach, Burbank, Santa Ana and Hollywood, between 8%-11%. Even Koreatown, Los Angeles’ most densely populated neighborhood, only employs 11% of its population within its boundaries. Other southern California cities fared the worst—Anaheim 4.1%, Ontario 2.8%, with only Aurora, CO and Chandler, AZ scoring lower. Within a national framework, Sacramento’s downtown has a large population and a large number of jobs, but still has an enormous jobs/housing imbalance, implying room for more nearby population among the growing number who prefer a small commute to a big backyard. But considering that many people in that radius do have backyards, tree-lined streets and single-family homes, and proximity to jobs and walkability, perhaps our “greater downtown” is the best of both worlds.

Sacramento’s New Downtown Boundary?

The boundaries of this new downtown, theoretically speaking, might include the proposed infill sites in the Railyards/River District, McKinley Village and Northwest Land Park, out to 46th Street and the “River District,” UCD Medical Center and its surrounding neighborhoods, south to 12th Avenue including Land Park. Although city limits end at the Sacramento River, West Sacramento’s riverfront infill, plans for new bridges at Broadway and Railyards Boulevard, and plans to reconnect to Sacramento via streetcar mean that West Sacramento, as far out as City Hall (the terminus of the proposed streetcar line) will become even more closely connected with downtown Sacramento—hopefully, to the mutual benefit of both cities. If the central city’s current wave of infill and adaptive reuse can match the growth of the nearby neighborhoods, an expanded downtown population could reach 100,000 or more by 2020. Considering that the 2000-2010 census was taken during a period of recession and high vacancy rates, 2020 figures might go even higher. The American River and its parkway form a northern boundary, since the American River parkway and Sutter’s Landing Park act as a buffer to development along the river itself.

What does this mean for Sacramento’s near future? It might mean revisiting some of the City of Sacramento’s zoning plans for these neighborhoods. Currently, outside of the central city grid, most of these inner “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods are zoned “Traditional Neighborhood Low,” 8 units per acre or less, meaning exclusively single-family homes or the occasional duplex, except on business corridors and specifically targeted growth areas. This land use category is contradicted by the existing residential density of these neighborhoods. Census Tract 3 around McKinley Park already has 13.1 people per acre, while Census Tract 15, East Sacramento has 15.7. Land Park’s Tract 23 has 14 per acre, and northern Curtis Park 18. All of these neighborhoods are comparable in population density to many Midtown neighborhoods (and are in fact higher than the population of Sacramento’s central business district, with a mere 8 people per acre.) The tract on the western end of Broadway, currently an industrial area and the New Helvetia/Seavey Circle housing projects, is zoned for much denser land uses, but currently has a lower housing density of 9 people per acre. Northern Oak Park has 18 people per acre, although the Broadway corridor is zoned for higher density than the “traditional neighborhood medium” and “traditional neighborhood low” areas a few blocks away from Broadway. These neighborhoods also lost population during the redevelopment and freeway building era of the 1950s-1970s. While not as enormous as the loss of housing in the central city, they lost on average about 30% of their population, and some dropped by more than half. This means that a maximum density of 8 units per acre does not reflect either current or historic housing trends in these neighborhoods.


Land use map of Sacramento’s central city and surrounding neighborhoods, from www.sacgp.org

By comparison, within the downtown “grid” the lowest-density areas are the “Traditional Neighborhood Medium” neighborhoods of Midtown, currently averaging about 19 people per acre but zoned for a maximum of 35 units per acre (upzoned from 21 units per acre in the most recent update of Sacramento’s general plan.) The rest of the central city, more than half the downtown core, is zoned for densities varying from 110 to 450 units per acre, although some of the highest-density zones like the central business district have fewer residents per acre than Land Park or East Sacramento—only 9 per acre. If Midtown’s zoning calls for higher density and more intense growth, and Downtown is zoned for densities 50 times its current population, should the neighborhoods around the central city where the most growth is happening be denied the opportunity for greater levels of infill development of the sort being proposed to revitalize the traditional core?


Legend of land-use map above indicating density ranges in housing units per acre.

To many visitors to Sacramento, it’s hard to tell the difference between many of these neighborhoods and Midtown Sacramento. All were old “streetcar suburbs” of Sacramento, including West Sacramento (whose first streetcar started running in 1913) built out between the 1880s and 1930s, and, except for West Sacramento, annexed to Sacramento in 1911 (increasing Sacramento’s population from 40,000 to 60,000.) Many are even architecturally similar, visible in the profusion of late 19th century Queen Annes, early 20th century foursquares, Craftsman bungalows and Neoclassic row houses popular with Sacramento’s streetcar suburb developers like Wright & Kimbrough. There are enough variants to give each neighborhood its own identity, like the stone bungalows of East Sacramento, picturesque brick Tudors in Curtis Park, ornate Italianates in Mansion Flats. But they all share tree-lined streets with good sidewalks, business corridors mostly dominated with traditional street-facing retail, and most importantly, close proximity to job centers that facilitate short, easy commutes, including those taken on foot, by bicycle, and public transit.

Low-density zoning in these traditional neighborhoods puts a maximum cap on walkability, despite their desirability and inherent design for higher population. An enforced maximum density also limits their potential for retail use, making their business corridors less viable and more dependent on automobile traffic to bring customers. That traffic becomes a burden to residents and a risk to pedestrians and bicyclists. If Midtown can retain its historic character and grow its economic base while growing its population density, can these other traditional neighborhoods do the same?


Infill projects like WAL on R Street are possible due to much higher maximum densities in the old city core.

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