Courting Disaster

The most expensive building in Sacramento history—a new courthouse—is set to rise downtown, but where it ends up will pit the best interests of the city against those of the county and the California government. With the future of Capitol Mall in the balance, it’s time for Sacramento to stop being prisoners of the state

In the late ’90s, the state of California made what appeared, on its surface, a win-win decision for both itself and the city of Sacramento: to consolidate state office Ispace from around the region and construct a complex of buildings on the border of midtown and downtown that would house thousands of state workers. Jubilant local leaders hoped it would translate into an influx of well-paid employees who would frequent surrounding restaurants and shops, injecting new life into a key district between the residential-heavy midtown and a burgeoning downtown district. It sounded great.

Did it work? Not so much.

What followed instead was an epic urban planning tug of war between the state and the Sacramento design review board (a group of city planning staffers and private citizens, such as architects charged with elevating civic design projects). The review board hoped the government would consider a design that would integrate well with the surrounding area, including architecture sensitive to its unique surroundings, and with retail or public space in the plan that would prevent the huge scale of the project from overwhelming its new neighbors.

Guess who won?

In 2002, the state, largely ignoring the powerless pleas of the review board, foisted upon the city a massive, 1.5 million-square-foot office complex known as the East End Project, which is largely contained between 15th and 17th streets, and between L and N streets, on prime property adjacent to Capitol Park. With its black windows; blocky, intimidating architecture; activity-killing, block-long parking garage; and virtual absence of pedestrian-friendly retail, the complex instantly became a dark, forboding, concrete canyon, sucking the life out of a critical part of the central city as thousands of state workers fled for the suburbs every day at 5 p.m.

If the state decides to place the new county courthouse on Capitol Mall instead of the railyards, it will effectively bookend the Capital District with two huge government projects that create civic dead zones on weekends and evenings. (Illustration by Jason Lee)

At the root of the issue: Unlike private companies, the state of California is not subject to local design review. For the most part, it has the authority to build what it wants, where it wants and how it wants, regardless of its impact on Sacramento. It’s a problem that is largely unique to state capitals around the country (since the majority of state workers work in capital cities) and, because of California’s sheer size, Sacramento is especially vulnerable.

Now we’re on the verge of it happening all over again.

In coming months, on a block on Capitol Mall that once held the promise of transforming downtown’s fortunes, the state is contemplating placing an edifice that would bookend the Capitol District with yet another impediment to a vibrant urban core—a $439 million superior county courthouse that would take the shape of a 12- to 16-story mid-rise.

That block is 301 Capitol Mall, best known as the site where developer John Saca came tantalizingly close to constructing twin 53-story towers that would have housed 804 condos, along with shopping, restaurants and a luxury InterContinental Hotel.

But the state is also considering an undetermined space in the railyards.

And the railyards’ owner is openly courting the project. If the city wants to avoid a repeat of what happened with the East End Project, it will do everything it can to persuade the state and county to build the courthouse there.

The stakes for downtown are huge. For years, community leaders have dreamed of turning Capitol Mall into our own version of Paris’ Champs Élysées. And right up until the Great Recession hit, there were glimpses of that vision coming true. The stunning 38-story Daniel Libeskind-designed condo complex, Aura, along with The Towers, would have populated Capitol Mall with thousands of new residents and visitors. When the economy tanked, those projects fizzled, but the hope of transforming the closest thing we have to a formal gateway to the city, with its inspiring views of the Capitol dome, shouldn’t.

There isn’t much time to save Capitol Mall from a mistake that will permanently scuttle its chances at becoming the dynamic entrance to the city that it should—and can still—be.

To put the new county courthouse there would be to place yet another building on the Mall that isn’t built for public use. Another building that will lock its doors at 5 p.m. And by its nature, instead of engaging the public, it will be incarcerating it. That’s right—the tenants of the newest building on the city’s most prestigious stretch would include a steady stream of felons and their accusers. In fact, the site selection guidelines dictate that “preference may be given to siting a new judicial branch facility near a jail facility.” That helps explain why the old county courthouse at 8th and H sits at the center of a constellation of dozens of bail bond storefronts. All of this would be a mere stone’s throw from the tourist-friendly Old Sacramento district, Westfield’s Downtown Plaza, and the new $100 million expansion of the Crocker Art Museum that just opened in October.

How’s that for progress?

Instead, the owner of the site, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (which bought out Saca when he couldn’t fund the project), should invest in an urban project as it has in other cities (like the Cesar Pelli-designed, 31-story JPMorgan Chase building in San Francisco or the recently completed 25-story Zen themed apartment tower in Houston). After all, it had ponied up $100 million in its partnership with Saca, and after the project failed in 2007, Calpers reassured the city it would collaborate with LA -based urban developer CIM Group in the best interests of the city, with one spokesman telling KCRA at the time: “We’re going to work with CIM to make sure we can develop something that’s iconic of nature that the city can embrace.” The right project on that site could act as an economic stimulus to the region in dire need of one, and help shape downtown’s budding renaissance. A county courthouse definitely does not fall into that category.

The ultimate decision for where to place the courthouse lies with a man named William Vickrey, director of the San Francisco-based Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). He will rely on the advice of his staff and that of a special six-person project advisory group which, on this project, is composed of two county judges, one court executive officer, one county executive, an AOC representative and precisely one City of Sacramento representative, assistant city manager John Dangberg. Here’s hoping our man inside sees the potential in Capitol Mall and can sway the others to choose the railyards.

The current schedule calls for escrow to close on the selected site by this July, which means that a final decision would need to be made by mid-May. Which means there isn’t much time to save Capitol Mall from a mistake that will permanently scuttle its chances at becoming the dynamic entrance to the city that it should—and can still—be.

If downtown were a giant Monopoly board, 301 Capitol Mall would be our Boardwalk (hint: a hotel would do quite nicely here). So let’s hold on to this property until something special comes along. If ever there was a time to play our “get out of jail free” card, this is surely it. S