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Pursuing nonsprawling city growth with major brownfield redevelopment: the Sacramento Railyards

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 19, 2012

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     Sacramento Railyards before (courtesy of ULI)

     conceptual rendering of the site after development (by: The Jerde Partnership, courtesy of Inland American)

For nearly a hundred years, the downtown Sacramento Railyard was a lively, prosperous place.  At its height, the yard is said to have employed 10,000 workers, providing mechanical support for the entire western rail system.  But by the 1970s the site had become a forgotten, neglected eyesore in the heart of California’s capital city.

That is going to change.  Sacramento has initiated what must be one of the nation’s largest brownfield redevelopment projects, transforming 244 acres into a new train and bus station, thousands of new homes, stores, a public market, parks, and a rail technology museum.  There was also a plan for a new arena to house the Sacramento Kings of the NBA, but according to press reports that part of the initiative is now in serious doubt.

  Sacramento Railyards context map (from Google Maps via Shengnan An)

  Sacramento Railyards conceptual site plan (courtesy of Inland American)

The apparent loss of the arena may slow the concept somewhat but will not stop it; projects of this scale take years to finance and fully realize in any event.  Infrastructure work has already begun.  Tony Bizjak of the Sacramento Bee interviewed Jared Ficker of Inland American Real Estate Trust, the Illinois investment company that owns the bulk of the railyard:

“Ficker said company officials were excited about the possibility of an NBA arena next door, but that they still think their 200-plus-acre property remains highly marketable for housing, offices, restaurants, stores and other projects.  He said the most important step toward developing the railyard already is well under way.  The city and Inland have built two bridges to extend Fifth and Sixth streets over the tracks into the core of the railyard.  Those road extensions will be completed next year, connecting the landlocked site to downtown.

“A major on-site road, Railyards Boulevard, will be built as well, connecting Bercut Drive on the west with Seventh Street on the east, and linking to extensions of Fifth and Sixth streets from downtown.  That will allow the long-empty railyard to ‘go vertical’ as early as next year, Ficker said.  He acknowledged last week for the first time that the company is looking for a master developer, and is taking calls from builders interested in buying railyard parcels.”

Bizjak’s story was published in April and updated late last month.

            land use allocation (courtesy of ULI)

This is exactly the kind of nonsprawling development that can help fulfill the considerable promise of Sacramento’s sustainable communities strategy, which my colleagues in the Natural Resources Defense Council praised in a report last month.  The plan was adopted pursuant to SB375, the state’s smart growth planning law.

The city of Sacramento agrees.  From its website on the project:

"Identifying infrastructure funding mechanisms for the redevelopment of this major urban infill site provides the City an unprecedented opportunity to move away from the patterns of decentralization and suburban sprawl.  Regionally, the project represents a significant opportunity to minimize growth pressures in the outlying areas slated for resource conservation, habitat protection, agricultural productions, and provide air quality and congestion relief."

The Urban Land Institute developed a detailed set of recommendations, many of which have been incorporated into the planning.

  proposal for green space distribution and design (by: Shengnan An, courtesy of UC Davis)

In addition, a particularly interesting set of concepts for the site's parks and green space (see site plan above) was developed last year by then-student Shengnan An as a senior project for the landscape architecture program of UC Davis.  While generally consistent with the site plans developed by the city, Inland American and ULI, An's recommendations are more specific and, to my eyes, somewhat more sophisticated with respect to green infrastructure.  They look worthy of serious consideration when the project moves into the appropriate phases.

Here are three of the images from An's plan:

  landscape architecture plan for the 'North Park' portion of the site (by: Shengnan An, courtesy of UC Davis) 

  Site plan for park on the project's north site

  rendering of the 'North Park' portion of the site (by: Shengnan An, courtesy of UC Davis)

  Conceptual rendering of park on the north side

  section rendering of green infrastructure (by: Shengnan An, courtesy of UC Davis)

  Section rendering of stormwater management in greenways

The Center for Creative Land Recycling has produced a terrific short video on the railyards project.  Enjoy:


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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Joe JacksonOct 19 2012 10:37 AM

Kaid...this is great news. What a bold and exciting project for the people of Sacramento.

Form the Sacramento Blueprint to the Sacramento Region Sustainable Community Strategy shows a delightful commitment to the continuous improvement process. These folks get it.

I will be visiting Sacramento in a few weeks and while there, I hope to have an opportunity to appreciate this vision.

Its MeOct 19 2012 11:52 PM

I am hoping that they are some visionary, not just get along yes men (and Woman) that will build a place that not an artistic on just line and curves. Look at old down Sacramento, look at the soft lines of the old Victorians, in other words, get out of the office, take some long walks with a camera and visit the charm of the older building, make a place to walk with broad sidewalk, with cover areas, bike paths that wide enough people of my age to ride a adult tricycle in safety. Beer garden style eatery, and place that local bands can come and people can dance the night away. Remember its was Theodore Dehone Judah who vision made this place possible, please use it wisely.

Dan StaleyOct 23 2012 10:58 PM

It is Sacto. Don't start trumpeting victory until the last brick is laid, the last shrub planted and the last space occupied. It will change 400 times according to what the Greek Club wants. Drawings mean nothing.

Alan KandelOct 24 2012 05:58 PM

Finally, someone recognizes a good thing when he sees it. I hope the fervor catches on in the central San Joaquin Valley, even before the coming of the high-speed rail project.

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