Monday, August 06, 2007

Capitol Mall Extreme Makeover Proposal - Councilman Steve Cohn

Capitol Mall Extreme Makeover Proposal - Councilman Steve Cohn


Sacramento’s Capitol Mall needs an extreme makeover. Not the Hollywood variety, but a serious, concerted effort to make Capitol Mall Sacramento’s signature street.

Imagine if, instead of six lanes of roadway and a barren grass median strip, we put the roadway where the median strip is now and widened the sidewalks on either side to fill in where the current roadways are. Then we’d plant a second row of shade trees, put the new streetcar line connecting downtown with West Sac in the middle, and line the sidewalk with cafes similar to the outdoor café at Il Fornaio in front of the Wells Fargo Building. Voila! We’d have the most beautiful and vibrant sidewalk cafe district this side of Paris—and an instant venue for arts and major special events.

With the Crocker Art Museum and Old Sac close by and several attractive new office and condo towers lining the street, the resources are in place to make this dream a reality.

Most of the city’s efforts at downtown redevelopment have centered around K Street, long considered Sacramento’s “Main Street,” a label I have never understood, since J Street/Fair Oaks Boulevard and Capitol Avenue/Folsom Boulevard are, in fact, the two main east-west arteries in Sacramento. Unfortunately, despite millions invested to date, K Street between Seventh and Ninth is still plagued by divided ownership, lack of investment and vagrancy problems.

The pedestrian/transit mall concept has yet to flourish on K Street, though efforts are still under way to stimulate the street with new retail, housing and performing arts venues.

Meanwhile, just two blocks away sits Sacramento’s most prestigious address, Capitol Mall. Unlike K Street, this one-mile corridor between two fabulous bookends—the State Capitol and Tower Bridge—is a very wide street with unlimited possibilities. But in its present sterile state, it is a gross underachiever.

For many years, the state of California completely controlled the mall as a state highway, with six travel lanes and a large, barren median strip, ostensibly to preserve views of the Capitol. Until recently, this wide street was adorned with nondescript state and private office buildings. Despite its views and location, it was one of the last places on Earth you’d think of taking a leisurely promenade.

Several years ago, the city acquired the mall from the state, allowing the city to make significant changes to the street as long as we preserve the Capitol view. Because of its proximity to the Capitol, its unparalleled breadth and views of both the Capitol and Tower Bridge, it has been attracting a lot of private investment, starting with the Emerald Building and Wells Fargo Tower about 20 years ago, and more recently the ongoing construction of two new Class A office towers and plans for several signature condo towers, including Aura Tower, designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind. Although John Saca’s two-tower concept has gone awry, CalPERS is bringing in a seasoned developer, CIM, to do a landmark building at the west end.

The time is now right for the city to partner with the property owners along the Mall to develop a new vision, along the lines of the ChampsÉlysées in Paris, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the Ramblas in Barcelona, the Paseo del Prado in Madrid or my personal favorite, the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, which has the added feature of cool bubbling fountains throughout the boulevard. Sacramento currently lacks a grand avenue with sidewalk cafes and shops where pedestrians outnumber motorists.

Sacramento is no longer a small town or a collection of suburbs. We need to start thinking longer term about the kind of amenities that will make Sacramento a great city for decades and centuries to come. A great city must have a great center.

But Sacramento currently lacks a grand avenue with sidewalk cafes and shops where pedestrians outnumber motorists. Not a narrow K Street pedestrian mall, but a grand, tree-lined boulevard used by streetcars, buses, pedestrians, cyclists and, yes, even cars, but with sidewalks wide enough to accommodate thousands of pedestrians. Capitol Mall once hosted the mother of all parties to celebrate the Allied Victory in World War II.

It is time to regain that magic on the mall once more. This renovated Capitol Mall would fit well with other major redevelopment projects downtown, such as the railyards, with plans for beautifully restored historic buildings serving as markets and museums, thousands of new residents, hundreds of new shops and restaurants and a new performing arts center alongside a lively waterfront. Nearby, both sides of the Sacramento waterfront are being designed for mixed uses and open space, while the Richards Boulevard area, now known as the River District, will also be converted to a lively new mixed-use district of residences, offices and retail.

Adding to the Central City’s parks and open space is also critical. The south bank of the American River in the Central City has retained its natural beauty, but it has been blocked by industrial sites and landfills. The city plans to reopen access to uncover a whole new section of the American River Parkway, which will also be home to an expanded zoo and freshwater aquarium, and other attractions.

These are just a few of the things Sacramento has in store in the 21st century as we live up to our vision of being America’s most livable city.

Let me know what you think. I can be reached at 808-7003 or


Anonymous said...

Not a bad idea...

Zwahlen Images said...

I like the open strip down the middle but I would like it more if some colorful low lying plants filled some of the area to make it more interesting. That view down the Capitol Mall is so dramatic as you cross over the Tower Bridge from W. Sac., I can’t imagine blocking it in any way.

That unobstructed view towards the Capitol is so awesome... I hope any proposed plan to block it runs into opposition from others like myself.

Calvary Chapel Sacramento said...

I agree that the view up Capitol Mall is significant. On the other hand, having walked from Capitol Park to Old Sacramento - I can say that the current configuration of the Mall is biased towards those in cars.

I could be wrong, but the Mall is very wide, and I bet you could maintain the view AND create a world-class pedestrian avenue there by carefully moving the vehicular traffic to the middle (along with light rail or trolley) and adding a pedestrian promenade (with Platanus trees, ala SF City Hall) on each side.

In other words - we might be able to eat our visual corridor cake and have our pedestrian promenade too. The Capitol is a tall enough structure to dominate most foreground objects. Anybody want to put some ideas together in SketchUp?

Carl said...

I think this is an absolutely GREAT idea. Regarding the view, the Capitol is actually 70 feet taller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and no one seems to complain about the view there.

Here's the problem: Rebuilding K Street is a good idea, and the city has gotten precisely nothing done. Building lots of residential downtown is a very good idea, and the city has gotten little done. Infill in the railyards is a great idea and the best the city has come up with is a completely inappropriate big box retailer (Bass Pro), while neutering the good parts of the original plan (the canal). Decking I-5 is super idea that's gone nowhere.

I'm not happy to say it, but we're going to add this to the long list of great ideas with no hope of actually happening. Sacramento's local government is long on vision and short on follow through.

I keep hoping Ray Kerridge will bring some of whatever Portland (a city that gets things done) did to Sacramento.

LivingInUrbanSac said...

I'm not happy to say it, but we're going to add this to the long list of great ideas with no hope of actually happening. Sacramento's local government is long on vision and short on follow through.

Sadly, I have to agree and hope we are both wrong in the end.

There is definetly not a good track record of getting the big thing done in this city, you can add the Arena, Community Center Theatre, and Riverfront to the list you mentioned.

Seeing the Crocker expansion happen is giving me hope that we are slowly becoming that city that can get things like that done.

I like Cohn's quote about needing to start thinking bigger, but I have been hearing that for years and years now.

With regard to Railyards, that's the one I'm not sure if the city could have done a whole lot more. With UP owning the land, they were kinda stuck. It sounded like UP was a major pain in this whole thing.

Daniel said...

I think it is a fantastic idea.
I recently took a stroll on Capitol Mall, and it really is odd with all that grass in the middle. Las Ramblas and Champs Élysées are great pictures of what could be. It fits perfectly with the proposed streetcar planned to run on Capitol Mall. Street cafe's (like cafe soleil at Caesar Chavez) and kiosk type retailers wouldn't block the view of the capitol.

I'm reminded again of similarities between Sacramento and St. Louis. They have a wide under-utilized strip down the center of the city in line with the gateway arch and also have a very one-sided and under-developed riverfront.

I also agree with "long on vision and short on follow through".

By the way, I-5 Decking is still moving (though not as cool as it could have been). I think the new layout for the railyards is an improvement to the original - the grid will be more walkable than canals and winding streets. Bass Pro Shops - still a bummer, but I'm kinda over it. I just hope it doesn't have a sea of free surface parking right in front!

Rutherford B. Hayes said...

What is the current state of I-5 Decking?

The final report, from 07-26-01 issues three options, of which only 1 offers any perceived benefit, in my opinion.

Mark Sharp said...

I think Steve should not try his hand at city planning. His vision for Cap Mall is awful. The sidewalks are wide enough. Making them wider would only make the space seem more void of people. Also I think a streetcar down the middle of the street is a terrible idea. (West Sac is now directly our planning?)

The 'mall' is actually two (maybe three) separte spaces with different functions and any redesign should reflect this.

Between 7th and 10th streets it's all about the Capitol. Here the best view of the Capitol should be reserved for those on foot not the car. The two lanes (in each direction)should be reduced to one and the medium redesigned as a promenade: keeping a slightly narrowed grass medium and lining it with "California imagined" trees(such as alternating Date Palms and Oranges), benches, lights, etc.
This would make a drammatic and comfortable approach as people walk up towards the dome.

The traffic/fountain circle should be closed to traffic and the space redesigned as a major public gathering space. This a already the best photo op place and a lot of demos could be moved there to keep them from destroying the grass in front of the Capitol.

Between 7th and 3rd is mostly corporate offices. The medium here could be reduced and on-street parking added to liven up the street and allow easy access to the potential restaurants and shops. The crosswalks need to be improved to make it more ped friendly as well.

Lastly the ped. connections need major improvements. The traffic triangle between 3rd, L Street and Cap. Mall needs to be closed to traffic (they just closed the one across the street) and there needs to be a new ped. bridge built over the freeway so that people can walk easily and pleasantly from Old Sac. to the Cap.Mall.

Mark Sharp said...

I can't stress enough how bad the idea of a completely removing the medium is. If you walk down the mall today you only get to see the Capitol when you cross the street.
Moving all traffic to the middle and expanding the sidewalks will only make this worst.

Also I might add there's no point to expanding the sidewalks between 7th and 10th because the street is is lined with boring insular state office buildings. It's better to draw the attention away from them by creating a true ped. mall down the center of the street so people can get a good view of the Capitol to two or three blocks.

wburg said...


Capitol Mall didn't exist west of Ninth Street on V-E Day. It was still M Street, a mixed-use residential/retail street, occupied largely by Mexican, Black and Japanese Sacramentans. While I'm sure it was busy on V-E Day (the area was heavily populated) but the celebrations, at least according to the people I have interviewed, were on K Street. K Street was the main streetcar corridor, as well as the center of Sacramento's theater, department store and dining district.

Streetcars down the middle of Capitol Mall is a great idea! They ran there until the 1920s, and interurban trains ran down M Street to 8th until 1940. By running the rails through the grass and adding pedestrian walks and shade trees, the area becomes much more walkable. Until the Sixties, there was no center median: the trains ran in the center of the street, similar to the current arrangement on Del Paso Boulevard between Hwy 160 and Arden today.

Why retain the median with a streetcar? Because it gives pedestrains a place to safely detrain. They can step off the streetcar onto the median area, with walkways and crosswalks for safe passage to either side of Capitol and the numbered streets, instead of getting out in the middle of the street.

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Zwahlen Images said...

Last November a winner was choosen for the for the Capitol Mall Design competition.

There is no money to move forward with the idea. We're going to add this to the long list of great ideas with no hope of actually happening.