The best block of Downtown Sacramento

Marcos Breton’s latest editorial takes aim at the 1000 block of J Street, best known for its long-shuttered buildings, entitled for two high-rise condo towers more than a decade ago.

Breton directs much ire at developer John Saca, known for his failed project/hole in the ground on Capitol Mall, whose plans for a 40-story building at the northeastern corner of 10th and J streets have resulted only in a new hole after the Biltmore Hotel burned in late 2015.

But there is also a hole in Breton’s article. Despite its obvious presence, he ignores the portion of this block in active, vital use, and fails to outline potential solutions that could bring the dormant parts of this block back to life. Recent nearby projects demonstrate how refocusing on pragmatic reuse, instead of lofty high-rise dreams, can re-knit our urban fabric.

The word “blighted” is a nebulous term whose real definition is “a property that isn’t worth as much as a real estate developer thinks it should be.” It can be used to describe any place where something the speaker doesn’t like can be seen: peeling paint, litter, vacant storefronts or, most often, visible poor, homeless, nonwhite, and/or young people.

The general assumption is that the only cure for “blight” is immediate demolition, based on the assumption that dirty people don’t like to stand in front of new buildings. For a visitor from the tidy, organized, middle-class suburbs, this block seems like chaos. But this block includes other elements that are easy to miss, primarily on the occupied and active southeastern corner of 10th and J streets.

These two buildings on the 1000 block of J Street escape Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton’s notice, and his ire. They are in active use and play important roles in downtown Sacramento. [Photo William Burg]

Rodney’s Cigars & Liquor, with its green terra cotta Streamline Moderne exterior and aromatic walk-in humidor, is a long-time fixture on this corner. Originally located at 11th and J streets, Rodney’s relocated here in the early 1970s. The store is a cross-section of economic strata, selling expensive cigars and top-shelf liquor alongside Arizona Iced Tea, fortified wine and cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Behind Rodney’s on the 10th Street side of the building is Parlare Euro Lounge, a nightclub with surprising longevity when compared to other “ultra lounge” bars.

The building next door, another 1940s terra cotta façade atop bold burgundy tile, is home to a trio of local businesses. Dad’s Sandwiches is a back-to-basics diner for burgers and sandwiches, decorated with historic Sacramento photos. Kim’s Vietnamese Restaurant produces a legendary pho and a tasty, inexpensive banh mi. In a city drowning in overpriced, curated “farm-to-fork” destination restaurants, Kim’s and Dad’s present an authentic, inexpensive alternative.

In between both restaurants, PLA Skate Shop is another locally owned business, serving the needs of Sacramento’s board riders. The shop’s customers (and employees) often inhabit the sidewalk in front of the shop, testing the tensile strength of their merchandise and the concrete with street-skating moves. While some of those aforementioned suburban visitors might consider street skaters a detriment to a city block, they provide the much-needed “eyes on the street” so important to public safety.

These local businesses are compact, efficient, inexpensive and useful to city dwellers. The main difference between these two buildings and the vacant portions of the block is, perhaps, the attitude of its landlord. Tenants paying regular rent are a greater appeal to these owners than the long-term gamble of a proposed high-rise without financing.

The Fred Mayes clock, a listed city landmark, was recently restored to its 1940s Art Deco appearance. [Photo William Burg]

In front of these buildings, the recently restored Fred Mayes clock, a listed city landmark, glows atop its pedestal on the sidewalk. Alongside the clock is a bus stop served by one of Sacramento Regional Transit’s few high-frequency bus lines. Assorted street hardware, including a street elevator, presumably with access to Sacramento’s underground sidewalk, and sandwich boards to entice pedestrians into the stores, provide the background for short waits and social interactions at this busy intersection. Skaters, street people, commuters and other pedestrians mean a busy sidewalk, a great place for people-watching.

Traffic engineers consider an empty sidewalk the best sidewalk. To an engineer, this block is undesirable chaos. For the flaneur, someone who walks in the city for pleasure–not to get from Point A to Point B but to enjoy the city’s urban dance–this is something like paradise. This stretch of the block feels like a big city. The layers of urban grit, variety of sights, sounds and smells are impossible to fabricate except through sufficient application of time, decay, renewal and people. It’s the same feeling you can find on the sidewalks of San Francisco, New York, Chicago or other big cities–at least in the spots that haven’t been gentrified yet.

This is a terrible thing for those who love a nice suburban mall and prefer their doses of urbanity in controlled, safe environments, but it’s a rare treasure for Sacramento’s city dwellers. There were once more corners and blocks like this in American cities, including downtown Sacramento. Today, they’re a rare thing, a gift for the flaneur, even if they horrify real estate speculators and local journalists.

The other treasure of this block hides from the street. The door to the right of Dad’s leads to an upstairs artists’ studio and band practice space. Quiet during the daytime, evening visitors often notice music coming from the upper story’s windows, a hint of the creativity taking place inside. Sacramento also once had many more downtown art galleries and studios, until the office-building boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s pushed most of them out into Midtown or North Sacramento. For a city finally embracing its homegrown artistic talent, places like this are essential to a healthy arts economy. But they are generally impossible in new high-rise buildings. As with the local businesses downstairs, creative uses require old buildings.

The 1000 block of J Street packs appeal and potential for Downtown Sacramento. [Photo William Burg]

Old buildings are the under-appreciated resource on this block. I discussed the potential of this block, and others, in a recent article for CityScout Magazine, including comparison with several projects, recently completed or currently underway. The Plaza Building and RCA Building, around the corner and opposite Cesar Chavez Plaza, are the surviving buildings on the Saca lots proposed for the Metropolitan. The city of Sacramento owned the Plaza Building until 2014, then sold it to Saca. At the time, other developers approached the city asking for the opportunity to convert it to residential “mini apartments.” This was denied in favor of Saca’s consolidation of the site, although considering recent articles about “mini apartments,” perhaps it was just an idea ahead of its time—or, at least, ahead of Sacramento’s time. The RCA (Retailers Credit Association) Building, a 1940 Art Deco edifice with an unfortunate 1970s ground-floor remodel that makes it resemble a Brutalist bunker, has similar reuse potential.

A fire in the fall of 2015 doomed the Biltmore Hotel, a single-resident occupancy hotel closed in 2001 for an office building project that was never completed. [Photo William Burg]

On the other side of J Street, the Copenhagen Building is probably beyond repair, due to fire damage nearly 30 years ago, and long-term habitation by bats, but the three other buildings on the eastern end of the block have potential for repair and reuse. Obviously, the vacant space formerly occupied by the Biltmore Hotel, a former SRO, will require new construction. But new and old coexist marvelously in a downtown, where architectural variety is evident on every block–at least the most interesting blocks.

Repair and reuse are important economic strategies in Sacramento that receive little press compared to new construction, but their contribution cannot be ignored. Breton mentions the MAY Building in his article but fails to note that it is a historic building–the former Mohr & Yoerk meat market, once occupied by Bon Marche and Ransohoff’s department stores.

The statement that the MAY was “without subsidies” isn’t entirely accurate. The team that restored it to residential use utilized a federal historic rehabilitation tax credit program to recoup some of the costs of building restoration. This tax credit appears in many recent projects, including WAL, the Maydestone, the Libby Cannery and the Washington Firehouse in West Sacramento. The historic Bel-Vue Apartments on 8th Street will utilize tax credits as part of a larger mixed-income project on the 800 block of K Street, between K and L Street.

Some may claim that not every building is suitable for reuse as a historic building, or that I am theorizing about possible outcomes that no builder would attempt. So I will close by mentioning the final element of this block that Breton failed to notice: last summer, a company called Zaytuna LLC received city permits for 1012 J Street, former site of the Lorenzo Patino School of Law. The plan calls for a modern re-façade, with ground floor retail and two apartments upstairs. The apartments will almost certainly be market rate–and we will see how they interact with the band practice spaces next door–but it is clear that at least one developer sees potential in these buildings.

A proposed project at 1012 J Street was submitted by Zaytuna LLC to convert this former law school into a mixed use building with upstairs apartments and ground floor retail. [Source: City of Sacramento]

If Steve Hansen follows through with his statement and the city does not renew Saca’s high-rise development permits, what sort of outcomes could we see on this block? Could its vibrant and utilized corner become a template for the rest of the block, once again becoming part of a messy, creative, funky, gritty urban street? Recent successes, current plans, and the evidence of our own senses suggest a brighter future for this block than Breton’s grim assessment, if developers with high-rise dreams can be brought down to the sidewalk level with the rest of us.

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William Burg
William Burg is a California historian who specializes in the history of Sacramento, transportation, urban planning and counterculture.