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The Great Sacramento Revival: A Look Back, A Look Forward


Artisan coffee, handlebar mustaches, basket equipped bikes and a plethora of farm-to-fork dining choices available. Did I just step into Portland? Nope. This is the scene in Midtown Sacramento.

Long derided by many Bay Area residents as a stop along the way to Tahoe, Sacramento has come of age. With decades’ long investment into the refurbishing and redevelopment of its urban core and reversing prior missteps of over-suburbanization, Sacramento is reinventing itself from a once staid government town to the next great city where the young and old alike can live out a lifestyle of vibrant and intelligent urbanity.

By reinvesting into its historical central city, focusing on infill projects and the brand new Golden 1 Center taking center stage downtown, Sacramento’s coolness factor is now something to be reckoned with.


Sacramento has long lived under the shadow of its more glamorous sister down the way. From the years I’ve spent in Sacramento, its underrated reputation is just as much a fault of its locals as it is of outsiders who don’t know much about the city. Being an enthusiastic student of the city’s history, nothing was more grating than hearing native Sacramentans meekly touting their city for its convenient location equidistant between the Bay Area and Tahoe, as if the only thing of value in Sacramento was the ease of getting out.

A cursory look at Sacramento’s history makes it clear that this is a city which can hold its own. From its emergence in the Gold Rush days, Sacramento was never a village or a town. It started its life as a cosmopolitan city, with its streets full of East Coast migrants, Mexicans, native Miwoks, Chinese and European immigrants. It was a city where fortune seekers from all walks of life came to chase their dreams.

As the early years passed, Sacramento saw itself established as the new state capitol and played a crucial role in America’s westward expansion as the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. The gilded age produced many of California’s most eminent industrialists, including the “Big Four” of the Central Pacific Railroad, Mark Hopkins Jr, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford, who all made their fortunes in Sacramento. Their legacy includes several distinctive and architecturally artistic mansions that dot the grid. The city’s Victorian housing stock, trailing only San Francisco as the second largest in California, is a indicator of what prominence Sacramento enjoyed in it’s earlier stages.


The post-war era witnessed a series of policy choices governing the redevelopment of downtown Sacramento which brought about catastrophic results to the vibrancy of Sacramento’s urban core.

Big changes were underway as the city government focused on suburban expansion as the crux of future development. Government policies such as redlining steered homeowners away from downtown areas that were considered dilapidated and run down, even if many of these neighborhoods still had a working class life. The vision that these city planners aspired to was the car centric urban model dominated by a massive suburban development linked by an expansive network of freeways.

Entire historic neighborhoods in the downtown area were torn down to make way for large government buildings which hosted a daytime working population who fled the central city after sundown to return to their cozy homes in the ‘burbs. On the evenings and weekends, Sacramento’s central city was left a virtual ghost town.

From 1950 to 1970, Sacramento’s downtown population dropped from 58,000 people, half of the city’s population at the time, to roughly 27,000. In contrast, Sacramento city’s population exploded to 257,000 with the county’s population ballooning to 631,000, thus effectively marginalizing the population of Sacramento’s urban core. A new Sacramento made of tract homes, strip malls and freeways came to dominate life in the city.


Spurred by the demolition of the historic Alhambra Theater in the 1970s, a local movement advocating historical preservation began to make ground as well as the rise of people who simply wanted a shorter commute. Taking over and renovating dilapidated homes, these new residents began reviving life in the central core.

Government involvement also started to work for the benefit of urban vibrancy including the establishment of CADA, which slowed the demolition of historic buildings and focused on reintroducing vibrancy into key corridors, and the arresting of redlining practices which had contributed to the targeted deterioration of key neighborhoods.

The last decade has seen urban vibrancy come to critical mass in neighborhoods such as Midtown. The atmosphere is characterized by beautifully restored 19th century Victorian and Craftsman homes, a diversity of innovative food establishments leading the trend in farm-to-fork fare, and a healthy plethora of thrift shops, high end boutiques and bars jostling side by side with galleries, community centers and newly converted live/work lofts.

This scene has reinvigorated Sacramento’s urban core with a distinct urban culture that can be defined as a certain unforced quirkiness combined an unpretentious sophistication.


With the planned construction of the downtown arena, a revival of the long-stalled railyards project and increased development of the West Sacramento riverfront, Sacramento is finally coming unto its own. Under the leadership of Mayor Kevin Johnson, the city of Sacramento has concentrated its focus into the central city’s revitalization.

Over the past decade, over $1 billion dollars of investment have been sunk into Sacramento’s downtown. Mayor Johnson has set a goal of 10,000 new housing units to be built downtown over the next ten years and it seems that goal will be reached with 781 units already built and an additional 13,000 in the planning stages.

Everywhere you look, projects are emerging which will shape the future of Sacramento’s downtown. From the development of mixed use housing on K Street, the planned construction of a Kaiser hospital in the long abandoned Railyards, and the revitalization of R street as a major artistic and entertainment corridor, Sacramento’s urban revival is well on its way.

By establishing an attractive urban atmosphere packed with historic sites, architecture, a walkable layout, and a density of classic theaters, performance venues, restaurants and bars, Sacramento will increasingly become a favored destination for cutting edge and creative businesses, and the deep talent pool they will bring with them, many of whom will see the obvious advantage of operating in an up-and-coming Northern Californian city with a lower cost base.

Sacramento’s metropolitan region of nearly 2.5 million and growing ranks it as one of the top 25 largest metro areas of the United States. With a strong housing market which clocked in a solid 10% appreciation last year and an expected 6% for 2016, Sacramento’s housing market has recovered since the darkness of the housing crash roughly seven years ago. However, with the local economy still dependent on government and construction, a revitalized and distinct central city can work to help the region diversify its economy and fuel growth in other industries such as technology and tourism.

Sacramento needs not compare itself with San Francisco. The fact is, both cities will continually be different and have their own spheres. But Sacramento’s reinvention should start with the assertion of a unique and alternative Northern Californian spirit. A place where a grounded sensibility and creativity can co-exist, a place where history is deep rooted but possessing a culture embracing smart and sustainable urbanism, a pioneer city with a vibrant urban core and the wild outdoors as its backyard.

As the gilded Victorians which line the leafy streets of the “City of Trees” can attest, greatness once thrived in the city of Sacramento, and an array of urban redevelopment projects are building the stage where past glories are now returning to California’s capital city.

Photo by C.M. Keiner/CC Flickr


About the author

Fred Kuo

Frederick Kuo is a San Francisco based Broker whose projects cover the Bay Area to the Sacramento region. A graduate of UCLA, his writing is focuses on issues of urban development, real estate, current events and history. You can find out more information on his website frederickkuo.com.

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