Sunday, December 9, 2007

Railyards update

The latest news on the Railyards in the Sacramento Bee is that Thomas Enterprises has agreed to trade two of the seven Shops buildings to the state of California for use as the Railroad Technology Museum:

There is also an editorial on the costs of the project:

The Bee characterizes the land transfer as a "donation," but it is actually a trade. In return for the land for the RTM, Thomas Enterprises receives two parcels of land. One is at the northern edge of the railyards, in the area where the American River once ran, intended for the Bass Pro Shop and a park. The other is along the waterfront, where Thomas Enterprises wants to build a pair of hotel towers.

There are strings attached: the Boiler Shop will be transferred immediately, and thus restoration and repair of that building can start very quickly, but the Erecting Shop won't come into possession for three years, by which time the museum has to show they have money for restoration and 25% of the funds for exhibits. Considering that the RTM is currently 85% funded, and they have many of their intended exhibits sitting out behind the Boiler Shop, that shouldn't be much of a problem at all.

This Tuesday will be the final City Council meeting about this issue, and the Council will vote on whether to adopt the Railyards EIR, and approve other various measures that boil down to a big "go" flag for the Railyards project.

There are other issues, of course. The National Register of Historic Places Historic District has not yet been established. National Register designation will be an important factor in soliciting grants, loans, tax credits and other funds for historic preservation and restoration of all of the Shops buildings. Issues like access, infrastructure and the remaining million other details still have to be worked out, and then of course there's the big question of whether the state is willing to cough up the hundreds of millions of dollars that Thomas Enterprises wants to bankroll infrastructure.

But we're one step closer.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Some preservation items

Instead of another giant rant, here's an announcement about a couple of local history and preservation events:

This Saturday, December 8:


Date: Saturday, Dec. 8th ­ 9:00am to Noon
Place: YOUNG LADIES INSTITUTE; 1400 27th Street
Continental Breakfast provided; * $5 entrance donation
12/8/07 AGENDA:

9:00 Welcome
9:05 Hollow Sidewalks PowerPoint Presentation---Bill Burg
9:10 Preservation Issues & Update:
­ City Preservation Office Update---Roberta Deering
­ Meet the New Director of SAMCC (Sacramento Archives and
Museum Collection Center)---Marcia Eymann
­ Sacramento Heritage, Inc Update---Red Banes
­ State Parks Railroad Museum; Governors Mansion;
Sutter's Fort, and Stanford Mansion Museums---Pati Brown
­ Railyards Development Historic Nomination Update---Linda Whitney

10:45 Oak Park Proposed Historic Districts -PowerPoint
Presentation---Paula Boghosian and Don Cox
11:30 Announcements
Next Preservation Roundtable meeting ­ Sat., March 8, 2008

And this Sunday, December 9:

(from the Sacramento Old City Association website)


The Southside Park Neighborhood Association is inviting everyone to their
monthly meeting to learn more about who was here before the gold seekers, the downtown merchants and what we see every day.

UC Davis Professor Sheri Tatsch, PhD, will tell about Sama, a Nisenan town of perhaps 1200 to 1500 inhabitants that was on the site of the current Old City Cemetery.

Sunday evening, December 9
5:15 to 5:45
Southside Park Clubhouse
6th & U Streets

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Zazz in the Railyards

I noticed this article in today's Sacramento Bee, and it got me thinking about what sort of things are planned for the Railroad Technology Museum that would fit the requirements put forth in the article and some of the comments after the article.

The gist of the article is, how do you draw people with a railroad museum? In my mind, you do it by making the story modern as well as historical, by varying exhibits, and by giving people things to do.

The RTM plan, despite at least one Bee commenter's comment and the rather sketchy outline described by the Bee, is very much a developed plan. The original Railroad Technology Museum was supposed to be built in the mid-1980s before state budget crises delayed its construction at Front and R Street. The current RTM plan was started in 1999, when the plans to move it from Front and R Street to the Shops buildings was first put forth, and backed by the recommendation of the Sacramento City Council. There is not only a full, feasible proposal, it is also fully funded and ready to begin as soon as title to the buildings can be obtained (unlike Thomas Enterprises, who are depending on the city and the state for the vast majority of their funding.)

The two-building plan is based on a fairly simple concept: the Boiler Shop (the tin building nearest the freeway) would retain its current use as a restoration shop, while the Erecting Shop (the building next to the Boiler Shop) becomes the display area, with the transfer table in the middle to move equipment easily.

The boiler shop is a gigantic, working garage where railroad cars, locomotives, and other railroad equipment would be transformed from rusting hulks into museum pieces. This not only serves the purposes of historic preservation, it also continues the tradtion of the Shops as a site for locomotive repair, and provides educational opportunities for vocational training in fields from mechanical engineering to welding to woodworking to painting. By making the restoration operations part of a visitable museum, the public can come in and see the work in process. Instead of seeing static museum pieces or seemingly abandoned hulks, the public can see machines being worked on and specialists at work.

The erecting shop is far better suited for the formal museum than the boiler shop: made of brick, it can more easily be heated and cooled, and is aesthetically a lot prettier building. Displays planned for the erecting shop include cutaways of locomotives, a locomotive boiler (weighing tens of thousands of pounds) suspended in mid-air on one of the shop's heavy cranes, a high-speed rail locomotive (to point at where the future of railroading is going, assuming our government gets its act together) and other modern equipment (maybe things like the Green Goat, a hybrid diesel-electric locomotive that is more fuel-efficient than some large pickup trucks.) Interactive displays include locomotive cab simulators, where visitors can do more than just look at stuff: they can try out things firsthand.

The transfer table, in between the shops, has a very important role. It is used to move equipment between the bays of the shops. Having the transfer table means that the Railroad Technology Museum can do something that the existing CSRM can't do: it means that exhibits can very easily be swapped in and out, to add variety and interest. In the main Railroad Museum, most of the locomotives are fixed in place. Engines like the Gov. Stanford, CP Huntington, Sonoma and Empire were put inside the building before the floors were built, and the track taken up behind them. The million-pound Cab-Forward locomotive certainly can't be moved. The Roundhouse area has some movable exhibits, and several of the center stalls are occupied largely by equipment that can be changed out easily, but cars like the dining car and mail car can only be moved with great difficulty and extensive preparation, and the Pullman sleeper car, with its piston assembly (that simulates car motion), can't be moved at all.

But the RTM, with the transfer table, won't have that problem. A fully functioning restoration shop means that equipment rehab and exhibit preparation can be done constantly. The transfer table and track within the Erecting Shop means that moving and re-locating exhibits is as easy as pulling them out of one stall and moving them into another. More variety equals more interest.

Modern railroad companies have a vested interest in promoting railroad museums: with railroad freight traffic at an all-time high, and many cities turning to rail to relieve freeway congestion, railroads need employees. And most of those employees (and I know many) started out as kids that fell in love with trains and just never fell out when they grew up. I know not many people believe it, but railroads are in our future. Those who claim it is "19th century technology" somehow fail to understand that cars are 19th century technology too, and the way things are going, cars may not be as ubiquitous as they were in the last century. Many folks who commented remarked that we have a long way to go to catch up with railroading in the rest of the world: a railroad technology museum, which teaches how railroads affect our lives and where the technology is going (as well as where others have led) can help prompt us to catch up! At least one manufacturer of high-speed railroad locomotives has already pledged their support to provide a HSR locomotive for the RTM.

Feasibly, thanks to the planned rail reorientation, there will be a direct rail connection between the Sacramento Southern (CSRM's tourist railroad) and the Shops, and there's no reason why either a rail shuttle or actual trains couldn't be used to go between them. How cool would it be to take (for example) a gas motor car or other lightweight rail equipment from the Shops to Old Sac?

Oh yeah, about the "one building" idea: Because the Boiler Shop is made of tin, it is not feasible to add air conditioning or heating. Effectively, you'd have to strip off the tin, build an internal structure inside the building, then put the tin back on. In the process, you'd lose a lot of the building's chunky, industrial aesthetic appeal (a look that could be restored, despite how run-down the building is now) and dramatic views of the internal building frame. Worse, they would lose the Boiler Shop as a restoration shop space. Restoration operations would have to be set up at State Parks' property on Front and R Street.

One thing I think people forget is that trains are BIG. The Shops buildings are massive buildings because they were intended to construct entire locomotives. A railroad museum is not intended to hold little things, or pictures. Railroad museums hold BIG things, like the last Cab-Forward locomotive left on the planet, or the massive Santa Fe 5000-series freight locomotives. Equipment for whom the term "it weighs a million pounds" is not an exaggeration, but, in some cases, an understatement. The RTM needs two buildings because this equipment just doesn't fit in a small space--and because the two buildings will fill very different roles.

Sacramento has the potential here to become the home of the finest railroad museum in the world. We are already home to one of the finest railroad museums in the country. Adding the RTM would make us the home of a museum in the class of the Field Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, or the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. Why a railroad museum, some might ask? Because Sacramento is an enormously important place in the history of railroading--and thus the history of California, the history of the United States, and, yes, world history. And we're still an important economic place for railroads--and thus the economy of California, the economy of the United States, and, yes, the world economy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When do condos work? When they're historic!

Speaking of D&S Development (same people planning on building on the Alhambra & T gas station lot, mentioned in my last post) their Old Sacramento historic-building rehab project is just about sold out, as reported in the Bee:

The Mechanics' Exchange building is a century-old structure with some very nice condo lofts inside. I got a chance to tour them while I was writing a story on Old Sacramento for Midtown Monthly a while back, and they really went all-out, not only to make the building comfortable but to restore its historic appearance and physical integrity. The windows were restored, not replaced, although they re-did the panes with dual-pane glass (for insulation and soundproofing) using the original 100 year old wooden frames, restored so they'll last another century.

How do you sell fairly expensive condos in a "down" housing market--ones that come without parking spaces? By putting them in an absolutely unique building in a great location. These units sold for the same reason why midtown properties are still selling as new-home sales are stagnant: people will pay extra to live in beautiful old buildings, especially if they're fixed up to modern standards, and especially if they're in urban settings where people want to live. I just hope that more vacant downtown buildings get the same treatment. My own first choice for a "next project" of that sort would be the Bel-Vue on 8th and L Street; the Berry across the street is due for a rehab, and the Bel-Vue is currently owned by SHRA. Considering its location and the beauty of its architecture, the Bel-Vue would sell as rapidly as the Mechanics' Exchange project, and probably at similar price points. It would also help preserve a currently vacant and at-risk structure.

It's nice to see a small, local developer do well. D&S are the real deal: their office is in this great Italianate mansion, and they already have a good track record of central city infill and historic rehab projects. In a weird market like this one, locals who can offer a unique product will do better than the big behemoths who assume that the only way to make money is to build the same crud in greater quantities.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

New plans for Alhambra & T

The aforementioned project at Alhambra and T has been revised. The original art deco look of the project, intended to reflect the appearance of the original gas station, has been replaced by a "Craftsman-ish" brick structure that is more oriented towards the corner. It's still four stories tall, 12 units with 13 parking spaces.

Here's a note from Mike Malinowski, the architect who designed the building:

"Attached are rough concept sketches of our current design direction for 3030 T Street. I hope this new tack addresses all the concerns that have been raised to date. This design has 12 units with 13 parking spaces, and is 3 story at the street frontages, with the fourth level reduced in footprint so it pulls back from the fa├žade for significantly reduced massing. Materials and style are ‘neo craftsman’ which is in concert with both existing surrounding homes, and the newly approved development at Alhambra and S, as well as nearby structures in brick such as the cannery and the natural foods coop. The elevator was relocated to allow the rounded corner to be softened and opened up with a continuous balcony treatment, with brick columns and perforated metal railings (so that view of potential occupant balcony clutter is obscured). The unit design, site parking and circulation layout, and internal circulation have all been improved. Note that the elevations and fourth floor are not yet worked out in any detail - pending an approval of this direction, and the drawings are rough sketches consistent with the developers need to either find common ground to proceed in earnest, or stop.

Please also note that the attached rendering has been revised since the meeting late today with staff and it incorporates the suggestions for brick pilaster/column treatment, metal balcony railing vs glass, floor lines expressed at balconies, as well as a more ‘red brick’ coloration as is consistent with brick use in Alhambra projects noted above.

It is my hope that this new direction is a project that can be supported at all levels so that it can proceed. What is needed is a clear ‘yeah or nay’ – so that the developer can devote their resources to their other projects that have a clear path to success. After such considerable work and investment, it is easy to understand their position.

We will be meeting with Councilperson Fong on the 19th. at 11 am. Perhaps staff might circulate these electronic files to the neighborhood as appropriate prior to that.


Michael F. Malinowski AIA"

While I liked the original design, I think this sketch was done as a way to make the building blend a bit better with the existing buildings, and personally, I would rather have seen something a bit bolder, that acknowledged the gas station. But I also kind of like this too. And the approval of development on this lot means that the gas station structure can be disassembled and restored, and given to the Towe for future use.

And often, when it comes to infill development, the winner becomes the project that leaves all parties equally dissatisfied.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Historic Architecture Liberation Front

I picked up a copy of American Bungalow Magazine at Newsbeat today, and was fairly inspired by an article by Jane Powell, entitled "Confessions of a Radical Preservationist." She proposed the creation of an organization called HALF: Historic Architecture Liberation Front, founded on the following principles:

1. All historic buildings are created equal, and endowed by their creators with the inalienable right to remain standing, be properly maintained and not be sacrificed on a whim, be that the whim of an individual, a government, an institution, or a corporation.

2. To paraphrase a Buddhist motto: No matter how innumerable historic buildings are, we vow to save them all.

3. Historic buildings should not be sacrificed in the name of "economic development," which is almost always code for "profit" or "power."

4. "Smart growth" that demolishes historic buildings and replaces them with inappropriately dense "infill" is not smart at all and will eventually be as discredited as the "urban renewal" of the 1960s.

5. There is no essential difference whatsoever between building more density in urban cores (at the expense of historic buildigns) and paving farmland. Both are driven solely by the pursuit of profit.

6. Historic buildings are not to blame for whatever social ills may be associated with them. The building did not choose to become a drug house or to have irresponsible owners.

7. 99% of contemporary architecture sucks.

8. There is no bigger scam than window replacement.

9. NIMBY really stands for Not Intimidated Much By Yelling.

Spotted on Alhambra and T

Just some evidence that preservation seems to be sinking in...for a long time someone had a hanging sign that said "EYESORE" on the fence in front of this long-abandoned gas station. More recently, someone else added two more signs with different interpretations of the structure.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What is...and isn't...a trolley?

This article in Monday's Bee on the ongoing plans to build a streetcar line between Sacramento and West Sacramento prompted quite a few comments. One thing I notice is that, for many people, it isn't at all what a streetcar, or a trolley, is.

The term "streetcar" refers to fixed-rail transit that is run on city streets, rather than on separated grades like a railroad. The term was originally used to describe horse-drawn cars operating on rails, but can also cover cable cars, steam dummies (small steam locomotives intended to pull cars on city streets) and electric trolleys. Because horse cars, cable cars and steam dummies were all supplanted by electric trolley cars, the terms "streetcar" and "trolley" are pretty much identical.

The term "trolley" comes from the pole used to connect an elevated high-voltage power line to an electric vehicle. One of the earliest prototype electric streetcars had a four-wheel device that hung from the overhead wire, connected via a cable to the car, referred to as a "troller," is probably the origin of the term. Trolley poles came in various forms, using either a wheel or a shoe at the end of the pole to ensure good connection to the wire.

Trolley vehicles normally run between 24 to 50 feet: about the size of a modern bus, but generally wider. Speeds vary, but for the most part trolleys run at 20-40 miles per hour.

That being said, what ISN'T a trolley?

This is not a trolley. This is a bus. People have frequently suggested a "test run" of a trolley system by trotting out one of these instead, or they argue that a trolley system won't work because the RT bus-that-looks-like-a-trolley is seldom crowded.

The problem is, this ISN'T A TROLLEY. It is intended to look like a certan type of trolley, if you kind of squint, but it fails for several reasons. For starters, it's still a smoky, noisy bus. Second, it runs on wheels instead of rails, and therefore doesn't run as smoothly. Third, because it has no fixed path, its schedule and route can change at the whim of the operating company, thus it gives little security to land developers who want to encourage transit-oriented growth that the transit won't vanish in the next fiscal wind.

Finally, this isn't a trolley because "quaintness" is not a required feature of a streetcar. Modern streetcars (and even some historic ones) aren't necessarily long on charm, wood paneling or quaint design (even though many of them are.) They're a vehicle built for a purpose, and the purpose isn't to look cute (even though many of them do): they exist to move people.

However, in the other direction:

This isn't a trolley either. This is a light rail vehicle. Many people assume that LRVs were the modern version of trolleys/streetcars. They are wrong. LRVs are intended to run primarily on private right-of-way rather than city streets, are typically 60-80 feet long and intended to run as multi-unit vehicles, are capable of higher speeds (up to 50-70 mph) and are intended for inter-city and suburban service. They are the historical replacement for the interurban, which is a type of transportation virtually unknown in modern society. Interurbans operated like LRVs do now: they run on streets in cities, but their real strength is in open country and private ROW where their larger size and faster speeds aid commuters. But a city trolley isn't intended to do that.

The classic example people think of when you refer to trolleys is the Pacific Electric (aka the "Red Car") of Los Angeles and Orange County, but that was an interurban system. Streetcar service in Los Angeles was covered by the Los Angeles Railway (aka the "Yellow Car"), a physically separate system (originally a cable car system, they operated on 3'6" cable car gauge instead of standard 4'8/5" gauge) owned by the same person (Henry Huntington.) Why would Huntington, a financial wizard on a par with his uncle Collis P., operate two "redundant" electric railroad systems in the same area? Because he realized that they served two distinct and separate roles! LARY streetcars moved people around in downtown Los Angeles and adjacent neighborhoods: PE interurbans moved people around throughout the greater Los Angeles area, in between cities.

Incidentally, this is what an interurban looks like:

(The SN's COMET with parlor car in Marysville, on its way between Chico and Sacramento and then on to Oakland.)

So, some of you might be asking: What DOES a streetcar look like?

Well, they can look like this:

Or like this:

Or like this:

Or even like this:

But this....

...just ain't a trolley.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Et in Arcadia ego

The book signing for Sacramento's Southside Park at the Avid Reader is this Sunday, and unlike the ones I did at Barnes & Noble, this one will be a little different: instead of just signing books, Paul Trudeau (who helped a great deal with the book) suggested that we invite the people I interviewed (and some who contributed photos) to come join us at the signing. The idea, I suppose, is to make it more of a neighborhood event than just a book signing, and to hear from more people than just me.

The signing is this Sunday, October 28, 1:00 PM at The Avid Reader on Broadway and 16th (the old Tower Books.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Railyards, reality and rhetoric

I posted this over on the Heckasac blog ( today, regarding development at the railyards:
I'm of two minds on this. When it comes to the railyards, "leave things the way they are" really isn't an option: leaving the buildings alone just means they will fall down or burn down. They need to be restored.

The thing that concerns me is opposition to a proposed National Register historic district designation for the Railyards and environs. Despite the fears of development fans like Marcos Breton, a National Register designation does not mean that the site has to be left as-is, nor does it mean that only faux-antique buildings can be built there, nor does it mean that building signage has to have an Old West font.

In fact, there are NO federal restrictions on what property owners can do with a National Register property. From their website (

"Under Federal law, private property owners can do anything they wish with their National Register-listed property, provided that no Federal license, permit, or funding is involved.
Owners have no obligation to open their properties to the public, to restore them, or even to maintain them, if they choose not to do so."

So, why create a National Register district?

Because such a district is eligible for MILLIONS in federal funds, grants, matching funds, and other monies available for restoration of historic buildings that are ONLY available to that sort of district. Once such funds are accepted, of course, you can't just knock over the buildings anymore, but if the whole point (and according to Thomas Enterprises, it is) is to open the Shops buildings to the public, restore and preserve them, then National Register listing is a way to bring in some of that desperately needed money everyone keeps going on about.

So, I went to a presentation at City Hall about the upcoming Railroad Technology Museum. There were a lot of Railroad Museum supporters present, and most of the presentation talked about how the RTM is intended as a technology museum, while the current CSRM is a history museum, and what that means in terms of how the museum is laid out. The RTM was originally specified as part of the Railroad Musuem plan back in 1981, but due to budget cuts it was deferred for decades. A plan was developed for a Museum of Railroad Technology on Front and R Street, current site of the Docks project, and State Parks owns a plot of land in that area that was intended for this plan. At the time, the Shops were still in use by Southern Pacific, although they allowed CSRM to store equipment on spare track and restoration work to be done in the old Unit Shop. All this changed in the 1990s when Union Pacific bought Southern Pacific, and decided to close the Shops for good. The idea for an RTM in the Shops was then born. The city of Sacramento, hoping to spur redevelopment along Front Street (in a project now known as the Docks Project,) formally asked that the MORT be moved to the Shops area.

The RTM plan is designed around two of the seven Shops buildings, the Boiler Shop and the Erecting Shop, and based on this plan, a transfer table (costing about $500,000 in materials, with all volunteer labor) was installed between the two buildings in 2003 to move cars and locomotives between the shop buildings' bays. A letter of intent was included with the sale of the property from UP to Thomas Enterprises, specifying that those two buildings were to be transferred to State Parks for the RTM. Since the sale went through, Thomas Enterprises has decided that the letter of intent doesn't apply, and are now claiming that they want the Erecting Shop, the larger, more intact, and more historic of the two buildings.

Without the Erecting Shop, the museum won't happen and they'll have to switch back to the 1980s plan site on Front and R Street.

Anyhow, plenty of people came out to speak in support, and even more emailed. At the end of public comment Mayor Fargo held up a stack of paper about the size of a ream, indicating emails supporting the RTM from the public, and then another stack of maybe a dozen sheets, indicating emails opposing the RTM.

The truth of the matter is that the Thomas Enterprises redevelopment of the railyards is profoundly important to the execution and success of the RTM. The RTM will become a fantastic anchor tenant, giving Sacramento a cultural destination equal to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Combined with the planned arts center, Yee Fow museum, science museum in the old PG&E building, and the other museums already downtown, we would have a serious critical mass of cultural/historical destinations. Thomas Enterprises' plan to build retail, restaurants, nightlife, etcetera, in the remaining Shops buildings, plus new construction throughout the rest of the Railyards area, give the RTM city context and nearby amenities for museum visitors. And, personally, I'm just fine with development in the remaining Railyards to a density that Thomas sees fit: they have already planned a transition zone that effectively is identical to a Sacramento historic preservation district in regulatory intensity, with height limits.

The two projects need each other. Historic preservation and economic development work TOGETHER, not at odds, and Sacramento can be a beacon for this principle. This is a site which is significant not just to Sacramento history, but to American history, from many, many perspectives (from the Pacific railroad to the Pullman strike to immigrant and cultural and womens' and labor and social history) and it can still be part of our future without giving up its roots in our past.

This is now way longer than a blog post has any right to be. But more needs to be said.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sic transit gloria

My spot on "Insight" was moved to Friday, October 12 instead of yesterday: here's the link for anyone who might be interested in hearing me pontificate about Southside Park.

Riding the bus and light rail is still pretty fun. I haven't gotten caught in the rain yet. After hearing some other folks' less positive experiences from riding public transit, I wonder how much my past experience on transit affects how I view it now.

As I mentioned a while back, I didn't have a car in high school, or in college. For me, getting around on my own outside walking/biking radius meant taking the bus. The first time I did this a lot was when I was 14-15 years old, taking summer classes at Sac State. For me, the bus represented escape and independence, and being able to daydream and read and stare out the window while I enjoyed that island of reverie. The same bus took me downtown to visit my aunt (who lived in midtown and inspired me to move down here) and let me explore a place that was far unlike Citrus Heights. On the return trip, I could pore over whatever weird swag (typically comic books or records, or used SF novel from one of downtown's many used bookstores) I had picked up on my brief transit-based adventure. So that association with freedom is still there.

Cars, on the other hand, don't give me that feeling. It's work. Other drivers piss me off almost immediately. I may rankle at some other bus rider's behaviors, but somehow it's less infuriating than the people who don't use turn signals while they cut me off, burn through red lights, talk on their cell phone, eat pizza, have bumper stickers I don't agree with, etcetera. People on the bus are encountered at the human scale, and the tendency is to treat other people like humans. When you're driving, you're dealing with other cars, not with people, and interacting with machines is necessarily less civil than with people.

For many people that's a bad thing. I suppose I am fortunate in that I guess I look kind of intimidating, or have some subconscious "I could kill you at any time" vibe, because nobody ever messes with me on the bus. I hear fearful tales of the threatening glares of gangster thugs and the unwanted advances of the homeless all the time, but somehow they're not on my car. I suppose I'm a little more used to interacting with street folks than most, and I imagine that can be unnerving if you're not used to it.

So while the cynical part of myself still awaits that moment when my transit honeymoon ends, the 14 year old part of me that really dug the freedom and independence of taking the bus gets to have his good time, and maybe enjoy a comic book.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A brief transitarian pause

For the past month or so I have been inspired by a few different sources to drive my car less, and either walk or take public transit more.

The background: I live in midtown and work downtown. Both work and home are within two blocks of light rail and bus routes, and about a half-hour walk from each other. Since I moved there I have walked a lot more in the evenings and days off, but aside from a couple of days when my car was in the shop I still drove to work. The main reason I drive to work is because I use the car as part of my job sometimes, running errands and transporting people.

The inspiration: The writings of RT Rider provided some encouragement in the efforts of someone who lived a lot farther from work than I do to take public transit. The argument to decouple cars as a requirement for transportation, while leaving them as an option, was encouraging. The other inspiration was my first day as a graduate student at Sacramento State, wending my way around the parking lot.

Y'see, parking at Sac State is $5 a day now. A semester permit costs $108. But if you have a current semester sticker, you can ride bus and light rail for free. And, in my experience, you get wetter walking in the rain from your car through the parking lot to the CSUS campus than you do walking from the bus drop-off point.

So I figured, with the free ride incentive, I'd give it a try.

The practice: In the interest of leaving my options open, I have spent the last few weeks trying a variety of transit modes. Typically, there are three basic scenarios for transportation:
#1 is on school days. I have my choice of walking or taking light rail to work, but from work it's an easy shot to CSUS via buses 30, 31 or others. Home is either bus or light rail--I find bus is a little easier and doesn't require a transfer.
#2 is on non-school days. That's a maximum choice kind of day: Walking, bus, or light rail? Possibly my favorite is the half & half: walk to L Street and catch the next bus that comes by. It's a good middle ground between exercise and speed.
#3 is the car. I still need to drive in on days when I will need it for work--typically one or two days a week. If something comes up on a day when I didn't drive in, I can hop on the light rail and be back with my car in 20 minutes.

Now, I'm no newcomer to transit use. I grew up in a household that was often one-car, and one of my strongest childhood memories was riding downtown with my mom in RT's old GMC fishbowl buses. When I was 14, I took summer classes for gifted kids at Sacramento State, and took the bus to CSUS--in many ways, taking the bus to the Sac State transit center is a trip down memory lane. When Light Rail opened in 1987, I used to skip school and take the bus & train downtown to hang out at Java City or shop at the record and comic shops.

After college I got around by bike and public transit: it takes a special kind of girl to date a guy who suggests taking the bus downtown for a date, but somehow I did it. I didn't even know how to drive until a bit before my 26th birthday, when I finally got a job that allowed me to afford a car, and also required me to drive it for work.

The intervening decade or so included unlearning a lot of transit habits. While I never stopped walking around midtown, taking the car to work was a job requirement. I'd still take transit for other trips, usually with the regularity of a "regular church-goer" who goes in every Christmas and Easter.

But this past month has been an opportunity to bring back some old transit habits. The nice weather this time of years certainly makes it easier, and the acid test will be how much I use transit when the weather is less friendly.

What this has to do with Sacramento History: One of the nicest things about walking or taking transit vs. driving is being able to focus on things besides traffic. Sacramento's grid pattern streets also allows many different walking paths, which means I can stroll by a different set of my favorite historic buildings each time I take the walk. On the bus, the slightly higher vantage point offers a look at some of the Queen Anne cottages hidden behind "retail blisters" along downtown streets, ones that are often missed at street level. And, of course, there's the opportunity for reading on the bus if I don't want to admire the view.

Monday, October 1, 2007

A bit of self-promotion

Today marks the official release date of my new book, Sacramento's Southside Park. It is part of the Arcadia Publishing "Images of America" series, like my earlier book Sacramento's Streetcars.

A link to Arcadia's page on the book

This book represents a very different approach from the streetcar book, and, in my mind, something of a different approach than most of the Images of America series done on Sacramento neighborhoods.

While I made much use of sources like SAMCC and the Sacramento Room for this book, most of the information was gathered in a series of oral history interviews with neighborhood residents. I interviewed people from many walks of life, but mainly working people: people who worked in canneries and vegetable distribution, clerks and florists, truckers and bartenders. I tried to represent as clearly as I know how the incredible ethnic diversity of Southside Park, including its Mexican, Japanese, Portuguese and Italian neighborhoods. Many of the photos came from family collections rather than archives, although there are plenty of historic archive photographs.

The interviews and personal photos helped make this book more of an exploration of the lives of people in the neighborhood, rather than simply a collection of photos of buildings and unidentified people. While writing the book, I got a great sense of the level of civic pride and community that is present in Southside, and hopefully some of that comes through in the book's text.

I will also be doing a series of signings:
Thursday, October 4, 6:30 PM at Barnes & Noble, 1725 Arden Way, Sacramento
Saturday, October 6, 1:00 PM at Barnes & Noble, 6111 Sunrise Blvd, Citrus Heights
Sunday, October 28, 1:00 PM at The Avid Reader on Broadway and 16th (old Tower Books)

Finally, I will be on the KXJZ Radio program INSIGHT next Wednesday, October 10, at 2:00 PM:

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sacramento's Streetcar Suburbs, Part 5: Land Park

The line extending down on the lower left is the Land Park streetcar line. Originally, streetcar service on Tenth Street started in the horsecar era, primarily serving the Old City cemetery. It was maintained and expanded after electrification to serve a wide variety of needs.

This line featured several different things that encouraged transit visits. Across Riverside from the cemetery was a baseball field, originally known as Buffalo Park, built in 1911. Down Riverside, at the other end of the neighborhood, was the Riverside Baths, located approximately where the Sacramento Southern Railroad crosses Riverside Boulevard. That dropping off point also proved a convenient connection to William Land Park, established later. The Baths were an enclosed structure with both cold and heated pools, private bathing areas, and slides. The structure was later rebuilt as the Riverside Plunge and was destroyed to make way for Interstate 5.

The land in between the baseball field and the public baths, originally hop fields, became a new neighborhood of homes, originally known as Riverside (and at other times as Homeland) but now known as Land Park. Like other perimeter streetcar suburbs, the streetcar route (Riverside Boulevard) became the main commercial corridor, and the residential neighborhoods connected to this primary artery. Many of the older commercial structures along Riverside, as well as along Tenth Street, are artifacts of this period.

The construction of this neighborhood would later illustrate two of the weaknesses of streetcar networks as the 20th century progressed.

During the initial period of streetcar expansion, car lines are typically installed through potential high-traffic areas. As cities grow geographically, they extend their own borders. As seen in earlier examples, streetcars are a common mechanism for encouraging development in new areas. This creates two potential problems: traffic density and proximity to the rail line.

In order for a streetcar to run at a profit, it must have sufficient customers. This is less of a problem in a dense central city area with high population, but the density of suburbs dropped gradually as the 20th century progressed. Residential areas like midtown and Oak Park might have 12-20 dwellings per acre in parts dominated by single-family homes and duplexes on 40x80 lots, or go potentially much higher if two and three story apartment buildings were constructed. In neighborhoods like Land Park, single-family homes on large lots were the rule, with only scattered apartments. The result was a density more like 4-8 units per acre, which means fewer transit customers per mile of track, and thus lower potential revenues.

The second problem of proximity occurs in any growing transit system. As a city expands, streetcar lines extend from the center like spokes from a wheel. As distance from the center increases, so does the distance between the spokes. The only way to solve this problem is to build more spokes or add intersecting transit lines to fill in the gaps, which was expensive and typically beyond most streetcar companies' fiscal abilities.

The Sacramento map above shows the lines extending from the central city: the areas adjacent to streetcar lines were most attractive and commanded the highest prices. Thus, the lots in between were cheaper. Up until the early 20th century, these areas would have remained remote, but the introduction of the automobile created a way to make these areas useful. Potentially, a cheaper plot of land far from public transit meant that the owner could far more easily afford a car. This solved two problems at once. It also meant that residents on the outer edge of transit proximity would see their neighbors with cars, riding to work in comfort while they trudged to the streetcar line, and often bought cars of their own--resulting in fewer transit riders. Over time, even the ones who lived closer to Riverside purchased the cars that they saw their neighbors enjoying.

Streetcar companies, including PG&E, tried to fill in the gaps using buses, starting in 1929, to serve areas where streetcars did not yet run. However, streetcar business began a decline in that decade, and within ten years, the Land Park streetcar line was replaced by a bus route.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Sacramento's Streetcar Suburbs, Part 4: East Sacramento and Elmhurst

The above map, from about 1900, shows the Sacramento Electric, Gas & Railway Company system in Sacramento. Most of the streetcar lines stuck fairly close to the central city's grid, but there were several satellite lines that diverged from the main line.

The original line was the old Highland Park Railway line, which traveled through Highland Park (now part of Curtis Park) and Oak Park. This line was extended when the State Fairgrounds moved to Stockton and Broadway: the State Fair streetcar line can be seen in the lower right corner of the map.

The line on the upper right was an extension of the J Street line, extending into newly developing neighborhoods in East Sacramento. At this time, the area was not yet part of the city of Sacramento, but still in the unincorporated county. This area, originally farmland, was subdivided into tract homes by Wright & Kimbrough. The line started at the Southern Pacific station at Second and H and traveled all the way through the business district on J Street, through midtown, and out into the new suburbs. The line turned south on 46th Street and ran all the way through the East Lawn Cemetery.

A word on cemeteries: Cemeteries were an important streetcar destination. Even during the horsecar era, a car line ran to the Old City Cemetery at Tenth and Y Street, and the original J Street line was convenient for the old New Helvetia cemetery at 31st and J. The Highland Park line ran down Twenty-first Street past the Catholic cemetery behind Christian Brothers school on 21st south of Y. Some streetcar and interurban lines, like the Pacific Electric, actually had special "funeral cars" like the PE's Descano with open spaces for a coffin, but so far as I can tell no such equivalent existed in Sacramento. Streetcars could be chartered to carry groups of mourners to cemeteries.

Eventually, the J Street line was renamed the "E-L" line, and later the #3 line. It was extended south down 46th Street, south across the Southern Pacific mainline at 46th and R, and did a brief "dog leg" on T Street, coming to a terminus at 48th and V Streets. This extension served two purposes: it provided streetcar service to the back entrance to the State Fairgrounds, and it also served the new suburb of Elmhurst. There were plans to construct a streetcar line to connect the E-L line to the terminus of the T Street line at 28th and T. The line was registered with the state as the "Elmhurst Railway" and in 1910 a ground-breaking ceremony in Elmhurst was held, but for some reason (and believe me, I'd love to know why) the line was never constructed. The large parkway down the center of T Street, from about 39th Street to 48th, was probably originally intended as the right-of-way for the streetcar line that was never built.

Next time: The Land Park streetcar line.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Sacramento's Streetcar Suburbs, Part 3: PG&E and its predecessors

Albert Gallatin and his projects left a strong mark in Sacramento's streetcar history. His home at 1526 H Street was built along the old City Street Railway horsecar line in the heyday of Mansion Flat. As the manager of Huntington-Hopkins Hardware, main hardware supplier to the Pacific railway and the growing railroad empire of Central Pacific, Gallatin spent lavishly on the building that would later serve as the California governor's mansion. In 1887, he sold his home to Lincoln Steffens and relocated to San Francisco when Huntington & Hopkins moved their headquarters from Sacramento to San Francisco.

However, Gallatin's days in Sacramento were not over. In 1892, he and his partner H.P. Livermore applied for a franchise to operate a street railway in Sacramento. This system would be powered by a new hydroelectric plant, then under construction in Folsom. The new company was called the Sacramento Electric Power and Light Company, and it purchased and consolidated the Central Street Railway into its new system.

In 1895, an Electric Carnival celebrated the completion of the first long-range power transmission lines in California, from Folsom to Sacramento. The carnival showcased the various uses of electricity, including electric light and electric streetcars. The new hydroelectric system was far cheaper than coal-fired steam boilers to generate electrical power, and a streetcar system provided an excellent and steady customer. Owning both the electrical utility and the streetcar system provided a winning combination. Gallatin's new company was able to deliver cheap electric power to Sacramento homes, and transport Sacramentans on his electric cars. Electricity also played a role in the Oak Park suburb, as a new electric amusement park, Joyland, was built to draw riders, showcase electric power, and bring more suburban growth to Oak Park. By 1895, Gallatin's company was consolidated again and renamed the Sacramento Electric, Gas & Railway Company. In that year, there were seven operating lines in Sacramento: two to East Park, four at Oak Park, and one at the city cemetery. In 1906, SEG&R was made part of Pacific Gas & Electric.

Gallatin, like earlier streetcar operators Alsip and Carey, followed the same basic rule seen in other streetcar systems: Streetcar systems are great ways to make one's other business investments more profitable.

Other California capitalists learned this lesson, and expressed it in even more successful ways in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Henry Huntington, nephew of Central Pacific/Southern Pacific's president Collis P. Huntington, learned the business building streetcar lines for Southern Pacific in San Francisco, and applied what he had learned in Los Angeles. He consolidated the multitude of streetcar and small interurban lines in Los Angeles and Orange County into the Los Angeles Railway and the Pacific Electric, the largest interurban network in the United States. Huntington also perfected a "triangle trade" of development which produced great results: In addition to operating the streetcar system, Huntington also owned a real estate company, and he also owned a power company. Thus, Huntington streetcars were powered by Huntington electricity, and ran to Huntington suburbs.

It was common practice for Huntington's streetcar or interurban lines to build out to open fields, where there were not yet customers, and advertise lots for sale. Potential purchasers of suburban homes, who might otherwise be unwilling to move out to the suburbs far from their jobs, liked the idea of easy streetcar transit from home to work. Because the neighborhoods were mostly vacant land, the streetcar lines operated at a loss.

Francis "Borax" Smith followed much the same model in the Bay Area with his Key System interurban trains and in-city streetcars. Smith's system sold real estate throughout the East Bay, and built attractions like the Claremont Hotel and Idora Park (an electric amusement park, similar to Joyland) to attract ridership. Key System had its own powerhouse as well, constructed in Emeryville. From its completion in 1939 until 1958, Key System interurban trains carried passengers over the lower level of the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

In Sacramento, population growth was slower than that seen in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but many businessmen saw the potential for suburban growth surrounding the central city, all operating on streetcar lines. Next time: The suburbs leapfrog Sacramento's city limits--with PG&E streetcars leading the way.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sacramento's Streetcar Suburbs, Part 2: Central Street Railway

Central Street Railway was founded by real estate investor Edwin K. Alsip and plumbing & tinware seller Leonidas Lee Lewis. Operating from the new 1879 Central Pacific depot at Second and H Street, which replaced the older depot at Front Street, Central Street Railway ran down J Street, a block from the City Street Railway tracks on K, and turned south at 28th Street. The line continued south past their horsecar barn at 28th and M, and eventually went outside the city limits, into the new suburbs of Highland Park and Oak Park. The eastern terminus was a public park, then known as Oak Park, on 35th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The Central Street Railway's headquarters were at 1015 K Street. This office was also the center for Alsip's real estate sales, selling land in Oak Park and Highland Park. At the time, both neighborhoods were outside of Sacramento city limits, and there were tax advantages to building suburban homes outside of those limits.

One important development that allowed Central Street Railway to reach Oak Park in reasonable time was the introduction of electric cars. The first electrics were battery-powered cars, introduced in 1888. These were not very successful, due to the era's primitive batteries, which ran down after only a few runs. These cars were taken out of service and the older horsecars reintroduced. The idea of using cable cars, like those found in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities of the era, was considered, and at least one promotional poster for Oak Park real estate indicates the use of cable cars to Oak Park, but cable cars were made obsolete by the development of the overhead trolley.

Central Street Railway introduced the first electric trolley cars to Sacramento in 1891. Generating power from their own coal-fired dynamo, they strung overhead wire along their routes and added electric motors and overhead poles to their cars. Electric cars were faster than horse-drawn cars, making the longer runs to Oak Park practical and economical, and solved many of the problems involved with horsecars, such as horse dung on the streets (which simplified street sprinkling and grading, an obligation of the streetcar company) and the short (and therefore expensive) service life of horses in streetcar service. Also in 1891, the Central Street Railway bought out Carey's City Street Railway.

A probable side effect of the Central Street Railway's car lines is the spurring of development in midtown Sacramento. Anywhere the streetcar ran became an ideal location for retail business, offices, or restaurants. J and K Street still shows much evidence of this, as does 28th Street. Later streetcar lines also became retail corridors: Third, Seventh, Tenth, Fifteenth, Twenty-first (numbered streets) as well as M, P and T Streets (lettered streets) gained retail attention and higher land value largely due to close proximity to transit. Land along streetcar corridors was always more valuable than land farther away, so more intensive use was made of streetcar-adjacent property. Because it was easy to walk to the streetcar line, the streets within several blocks of the car line became attractive as residential neighborhoods. So, while its primary purpose was to motivate people to move to Oak Park and Highland Park, the streetcar had a beneficial effect on the intervening neighborhoods where it ran. Because riders could get on and off at will (you could simply flag down a car to get on, or jump off to exit) every point along the line became an equally convenient destination.

Next: Albert Gallatin and the coming of Pacific Gas & Electric

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sacramento's Streetcar Suburbs

Since I really haven't used this weblog too much so far, I figured I would give myself a project that would need regular updating. Thus, I present the first of a series of weblog posts discussing the development of streetcar suburbs in Sacramento. This isn't intended to be an exhaustive history, just a brief overview with some discussion of how streetcar suburbs work.

Gallatin Mansion, with horsecar running in front of it

Sacramento's Streetcar Suburbs, Part 1: Alkali Flat and Mansion Flat

Despite the contemporary image of public transportation as primarily a means for the working class and poor to get around, streetcars (along with other early public transit methods like steamboats, steam railroads and omnibuses) were originally intended for the middle class. While the wealthy were able to afford carriages, horses and stables, middle-class households typically did not, especially in cities. While a nickel for a ride seems ridiculously cheap now, that added up to fifty cents a week. For a 19th century laborer, that 50 cents represented food for their family that they might not otherwise be able to afford, and typically the denser, less expensive housing of working people was located closer to downtown.

Omnibuses, the horse-drawn predecessor to the city bus, were common in Sacramento in the 1860s. They did have limitations, though, as they could not carry very many people and they were generally slow in Sacramento's unpaved streets. The coming of horse-drawn streetcars represented an improvement in speed and capacity, as rail-supported cars had less friction to overcome and wouldn't sink into a muddy street.

Sacramento's first suburban streetcar line was the City Street Railway, inaugurated on August 20, 1870. It ran from the Central Pacific depot on Front Street, down K Street, to the California state fairgrounds at 20th and H Streets. R.S. Carey was also a president of the State Agricultural Society, which organized the State Fair. This meant that his streetcar line served several purposes: in addition to providing public transporation for commuters, the line was an easy way for visitors to get from the train station to the state fair. This connection appears again and again in the history of streetcars: typically the owner of a streetcar line also owned something else which made the line money. In addition to the line to the fairgrounds, there was also a line to the State Fair Pavilion, which was located on what is now the grounds of Capitol Park.

The homes along the City Street Railway were the homes of the middle class or the wealthy, in the neighborhoods now known as Alkali Flat, Mansion Flat, and New Era Park. Once the state fairgrounds were moved to the corner of Stockton and Broadway, the old fairgrounds area became Boulevard Park. While the area has changed much, the streetcar line ran directly in front of homes like the Gallatin Mansion, better known as the former Governor's Mansion. While Gallatin had a carriage-house and stables, many of his slightly less wealthy neighbors took the convenient streetcar.

Within a year, Carey's streetcar line had run all the way to the eastern edge of town, Thirty-first Street, and a privately-owned park known as East Park (known today as McKinley Park.) This provided another neighborhood amenity that was convenient to visit via horsecar, including a pond, gardens, a small zoo, and a bandstand and dance area.

Next time: The Central Street Railway's lines to Highland Park and Oak Park, and the coming of the electric trolley.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Preservation Roundtable announcement



Saturday, September 8, 2007
9:00 a.m. to 12 noon
at the YWCA
Northwest Corner of 17th & L Streets

9/8/07 AGENDA

9:00 Welcome – Information about the YWCA BUILDING

9:10 City’s General Plan update - Tom Pace, City Staff

9:20 The Preservation of the Hollow Sidewalks in the
Downtown – Bruce Booher, Preservation

9:45 Yee Fow Museum - Steve Yee & Vicki Beaton

10:00 Break

10:20 Preservation Organizations 5 to 10 min
Information presentations; accomplishments, their goals and
current issues:

-Sacramento Old City Association – SOCA –
Linda Whitney

-Sacramento Art Deco Society – Leslie Douglas

-Sacramento Bungalow Heritage Association - Beth Hendrickson

-Capitol City Preservation Trust- Allen Owen

-Sacramento Heritage, Inc. – Kay Knepprath & Red Banes

-Sacramento County Historical Society – Susan Ballew

-Florin Historical Society – John Newman/representative

-West Sacramento Historical Association- Lana Paulhumas

-FOSMA -Friends of Memorial Auditorium – Bob Rakela

Note: Questions are welcome

11:55 Announcements

Next Preservation Roundtable in December at the American Youth Hostel (Williams
Mansion) at 10th & H Streets

12:00 Adjournment

The Preservation Roundtable is sponsored by SOCA & refreshment
provided by Friends of Memorial Auditorium (FOSMA)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Urban Pioneers

At the dawn of the 21st Century, marketing forces appeared in Sacramento that wanted to draw Bay Arean dot-com failures to Sacramento. The Sacramento Regional Marketing Campaign came up with a pair of mutated action figures, "Take-No-Prisoners Randy" and "Take Command Pam," to represent the target market of plastic-formed trendoids that they wanted to draw to Sacramento.

Shortly after that, a bold little newspaper called Sacramento Comment posted a parody of that campaign. The Comment was the product of Scott Soriano, local smart guy and troublemaker, and this is his product:

The Uber Pioneers are here, and they're out to remake the city in their own image: basically, the suburbs plus tall buildings.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

An urban history primer

While not related specifically to Sacramento, there are a few books out there that identify some important trends in city development that apply to Sacramento and other cities. They make for interesting reading:

Fogelson, Robert, Downtown: its rise and fall, 1880-1950. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001

A close look at how urban downtowns went from the place where all the action was to the place nobody wanted to be anymore, and downtown's varied responses to those changes. Excellent chapter on urban redevelopment called "Inventing Blight" which explains that "blight," a term one hears constantly when people want to knock down old buildings, is an economic problem, not a social one.

Jackson, Keneth, Crabgrass Frontier: The suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985

Worthwhile for its discussion of why Americans got so enamored of the idea of suburbs. Turns out the idea goes back to the 1830s. Explains the process of "redlining," a racially-driven land practice that encouraged suburban growth at the expense of inner-city neighborhoods.

Monkkonen, Eric, America Becomes Urban: The Development Of U.S. Cities And Towns, 1780-1980 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990)

Includes a good historiography of urban history, and provides insight into why American cities are so different physically from European cities. Also points out how, in many ways, city population densities rose shortly after the automobile replaced the streetcar.

Warner, Sam Bass Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900) (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1978)

I'm still reading this one but it provides an excellent specific case history of how streetcars and commuter railroads created suburbs around Boston, and the building forms that worked well with rail-borne public transit. The author's interest in the region is apparent, and his attention to detail parallels my own ongoing obsession with Sacramento's old neighborhoods.

Bottles, Scott L., Los Angeles And The Automobile: The Making of the Modern City.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press Ltd., 1987.

Another case study, this time of Los Angeles, which goes into some detail about how the development of Pacific Electric, not the automobile, was the seed of southern California's legendary sprawl. The lessons of Los Angeles were applied all over California--by "Borax" Smith and others in the Bay Area, and by the owners of Northern Electric in the Sacramento region.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tooting my own horn, or ringing my own trolley bell

Tonight at 7:30 on Channel 6, the locally-produced Sacramento history show Street Signs will feature a segment on the streetcar system, including an interview with yours truly. Other broadcast times include:

ViewFinder : Street Signs IV

Wednesday, June 27, 7:30pm

Saturday, June 30, 1:30am

Sunday, July 1, 6:00pm

Monday, July 2, 3:00am

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Putting preservation on the map

Part of the Sacramento General Plan Update went before City Council on Tuesday--the map for the land-use element. This map included proposed maximum building heights, densities, preferred uses and other land-use designations, but the initial drafts (produced just a couple weeks ago) included things like a land-use designation that would have allowed silly things like 24-story buildings in Boulevard Park. Since this map becomes the central guide to the rest of the General Plan, many in the preservation community considered it very important to ensure that the land use map reflected Sacramento's preservation districts.

After a multitude of meetings, including Planning Commission, Preservation Commission, a couple of meetings with city planning staff, and last night's City Council meeting, the map has changed dramatically: a new set of designations, including "urban corridor high" (2-7 stories) west of 19th Street and "urban corridor low" (2-4 stories) east of 19th, explicit delineation of historic preservation districts on the land-use map, and, as of last night, instructions to staff to pursue policies that will preserve the historic character of neighborhoods on the General Plan land-use map. The next phase is an EIR based on the current map, so there are still changes due down the pike, but it's a valuable step. One recommendation by Preservation Board was to explore the establishment of Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, used in cities like Los Angeles. I'm still learning about these, but it seems like a combination of Sacramento's current mode of "historic preservation districts" and a neighborhood association, with just a dash of tax incentive to encourage preservation. I'm eager to learn more...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

SOCA Preservation Roundtable: UPDATE

Tour of Railyards Paint Shop by Sacramento Preservation Roundtable
Saturday, June 9, 2007
9:00am to 12 noon
Meeting Agenda
Jibboom Street Gate of Railyards
See map (PDF - 171 KB)

You are invited to attend the ROUNDTABLE to discuss the current & future state of Historic Preservation in Sacramento. This is a rare opportunity to see these historic shops bldgs! BRING YOUR CAMERAS. A thanks to Thomas Enterprises, Inc.

Parking available - see map w/Agenda for directions. Carpooling strongly preferred. Walking or Biking is not permitted because of terrain, fences, & tracks (liability issues).

$5.00 Donation Fee, payable at the door. Complimentary coffee, juices, and pastries will be provided.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Required reading

Why Historic Preseration Is Smart Growth by Donovan Rypkema, who is my new hero. Some outstanding points in why historic preservation and smart growth/urban development are not only not mutually exclusive but are natural partners.

It's neat seeing some of this sort of thing put into action: for example, folks like LJ Urbanjust got their project at 27th & V approved. Instead of simply knocking down the one building (a Craftsman bungalow in need of some serious restoration) they went out and found a new home for the bungalow. And when one deal fell through, instead of giving up they went and found another home. The owner of the land had originally planned on building a duplex on the site, but moving and re-siting the building (and the needed restoration) will cost less. Thus, we get multiple wins: a historic home gets preserved and re-utilized, land is consolidated for an infill housing project, and the landfill remains free of a house-sized pile of old-growth timber.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Raising the trolley pole

The feasibility study for the Riverfront Streetcar project is up, along with the draft for the route. It's looking all right--this is supposed to be the first phase of a multi-phase project that will eventually send out feeder routes into residential areas of Midtown and West Sacramento. Cost is about $50 million, timeline is still about 5 years, and they're still weighing reproduction historic streetcars vs. modern cars--apparently the repro models are cheapest.

I'm a big advocate of restoring at least one more Sacramento car for use on this system, for obvious reasons and because I think it would benefit the system. While there are obvious limitations to historic cars, including ADA accessibility and air conditioning, they add greatly to the character and context of the system in the same way that old buildings in a modern downtown do. The historic cars in San Francisco are a good model for this: they preserve history AND DO PRACTICAL WORK. By putting them in the mix with modern vehicles with the modern conveniences, the needs and interests of more people are provided.

Part of the strength of this modular system is that they can make changes and additions later--maybe start with repro cars for cost-effectiveness, and add modern and restored cars as proof of concept is established.

I suppose I just really, really want to ride one of the old single-truck Birneys over the Tower Bridge.

Friday, May 4, 2007

SAMCC Open House May 11

From the Sacramento Archives & Museum Collection Center Web site:

The Mayor of Sacramento, Heather Fargo, and
The Sacramento County Historical Society
Invite you to
The Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center's
Hearing Our History
2007 Open House & History Fair
Friday, May 11th, 2007
5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
551 Sequoia Pacific Blvd
Sacramento, CA 95814

Experience the Sounds of Sacramento as you wander through displays documenting local icons like Tower Records, Bill Rase Studios, Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, Charlie Brandt Studios, and KFBK. Enjoy recordings from early wax cylinders and wire recorders to modern day audio tapes and compact discs. Stop and listen to early television and radio programming, and hear oral histories and sports broadcasts.

View SAMCC's recent acquisitions including:
Bion Gregory Collection - toys and games from the 1950s
Michael Himovitz Collection - artifacts and images from a pioneering art gallery
Joey D Collection - music, ephemera, and photographs of 1960s local rock bands
Joe Sun Collection - artifacts from the K Street clothier
George G. Gudie Collection - early twentieth century photography
Discover the diversity of Sacramento's neighborhoods as you meander through the History Fair and mingle with members of historical societies and history-related associations. Exhibits, publications, and brochures will be available for your enjoyment.

Participate in a silent auction on everything from gift baskets to performance tickets.

For your entertainment, DJ's JOEY D of Frantic Records and ALEC PALAO of Ace Records, will be spinning Sacramento tunes from the 1960s! Enjoy a special live appearance by Sacramento's own, THE SHRUGGS, at 8 p.m. These hip-cats will be grinding out goodies from an era when garage-bands ruled the scene, covering original tunes from Sacramento's rock-n-roll past.

Remember to bring your invitation and redeem it for a special gift sure to be a hit amongst collectors - an exclusive four-song vinyl EP, "Sound of Young Sacramento." This 45 rpm record includes the first rock-n-roll song recorded in the River City! This offer is only valid during the Open House. A real vinyl gem, the four-song vinyl EP is available that evening for $5 to anyone requesting a copy.

Light refreshments will be served, and food vendors will be on-hand. No RSVP is needed.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

R Street Historic Tour

The Sacramento Old City Association presents:

SOCA's R Street Historic Sites Tour
Saturday, May 12
10:00 AM to 1:00 PM

Admission free to SOCA members, $10 for non-members
Studio Theater, 1028 R Street, Sacramento

The tour will explore R Street's history as a railroad and industrial corridor, including a PowerPoint presentation and walking tour of R Street's remaining historic structures.. The tour will conclude inside the Crystal Ice building at 16th and R Streets, with a look at the interior courtesy of Fulcrum Properties, the developer who is planning an adaptive reuse project of the site.

For more information visit the SOCA website.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Updated railyards plan

The City of Sacramento sent out this early notification about the latest revision of the Railyards plan. Along with this map, they sent along a list of bullet points, including:

* A mix of housing types and affordability ranges--between 10,000-12,000 units, 25 du/ac to 300 du/ac.

* About 1.4 million square feet of mixed use retail, 2.5 million sf of office space, about 500,000 sf of cultural/entertainment, 1100 hotel rooms and the Railroad Technology Museum. In addition, a school, 40 acres of open space, pedestrian/bike linkages, and some kind of national monument along the riverfront. All this, plus a solar co-generation plant.

* Extension of downtown grid pattern for walkability and seamless transition

* Intermodal facility and transit hub

* Light rail extensions, both Sacramento Valley Station and the south end of what will eventually be the DNA line

* Public infrastructure funding mechanisms

I'm most curious about the last bullet point, as it seems like it would be the driving force behind the rest of the bullet points. One semi-troubling thing about the new map is that it doesn't clearly delineate which of the historic Shops buildings, if any, are explicitly part of the Railroad Technology Museum--one of the more interesting upcoming discussions will be how State Parks and Thomas Enterprises come to terms over what will belong to Parks (ideally, the majority of the Shops buildings, if not all of them) and what will be restored by Thomas (hopefully at least a small part like the Paint Shop, for use as a public-accessible market building.)

They got rid of the silly canals idea. Not sure how I feel about the parkway--if they're just green strips they will wind up being dead space like Capitol Mall. If they can make those parks usable (with shade, walk/bike paths and recreation facilities)they could be pretty cool. They're keeping the Fifth Street "armature" and the Seventh Street underpass, although it isn't clear how light rail will run.

They're still keeping their options open, arena-wise. Apparently they're sticking to the story they gave me this winter--if they can do an arena, cool, if not, still cool, but in a different direction.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Commuter Economics

While it doesn't really have anything to do with history, reading more silly comments in the Sacramento Bee's online edition led me to do a little math regarding the costs of commuting.

A comment I hear a lot is, "Why should I spend $100,000 more for a house downtown than one in the suburbs?" I'll consider lifestyle considerations an intangible but a given--as my last rant indicates, people who think that there is no nightlife, culture, etcetera in downtown Sacramento are simply wrong. But I just want to talk economics.

Let's take the example of two people: Susie Suburb and Mona Midtown. Both earn fairly median salaries of $50,000 a year, and drive cars that get 25 miles per gallon, and both work downtown.

Susie Suburb lives in Elk Grove, about 15 miles from her job downtown. Commuting takes about 45 minutes each way, which means 90 minutes a day or 7.5 hours a week. 50 weeks a year (assuming 2 weeks vacation) means about 375 hours per years spent commuting. Her time is worth about $25 an hour, based on salary, and so those hours represent a cost of about $9375. She also uses 300 gallons of gas a year to commute, at $3 a gallon means another $900.

Mona Midtown lives in Newton Booth, the chunk of midtown farthest from downtown, about 2 miles from her job. Her weekly commute time is about 10 minutes, which means 1 hour 40 minutes a week or 83-1/3 hours a year, costing $2083. Gas, for a trip of two miles each way, adds up to 40 gallons, or $120.

This means a difference, merely in time and gasoline, of about $8000. Assuming a 30-year mortgage, Mona would have gotten back that $100,000 in twelve years. This figure does not include parking, child care (Susie would need to pay for an additional 190 hours of child care), extra wear & tear on cars, fast-food breakfasts (Mona has an extra half-hour to fix breakfast at home) and overall stress levels. It also fails to take into account that Mona could spend $2 a day to take light rail or bus downtown, spending $500 on transit, instead of driving, and saving $1500 (plus not having to worry about parking.)

So, even ignoring that a suburbanite will be extra burnt out from the added stress of driving to and from work in rush-hour traffic, has to go to bed earlier to wake up earlier and beat the rush, and has to spend more time driving to cultural amenities after work (assuming they have the time and energy to do so,) the downtownie gets back the difference in home expenses within a decade--and they'd have more equity and a bigger home-interest tax deduction to boot.

So yeah, it really is worth it. Unless the suburbs are really your bag, in which case I'd recommend staying there and getting in some quality time on the Xbox.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Invisible Culture?

Reading the Bee online is a comical experience sometimes, especially when people talk about downtown Sacramento. The online Bee's comments section provides some of the best evidence yet that the Internet provides a forum for people who have no idea what they're talking about (of course, blogs provide some pretty strong evidence for that too.)

Anyhow, in the Bee's comments section and elsewhere, I hear a lot about how Sacramento has no culture. Maybe they're just not looking for it--just haven't bothered or don't know where to look--but I see it all over the place. Downtown Sacramento has a very distinct vibe and culture, and always has--it was here in the 1970s when I was a little kid and could already sense it, it was here in the 1980s when I used to skip school to ride the bus (and later light rail) downtown, it was here in mighty quantities in the 1990s when I moved downtown to be a part of it, and it's here now, in some ways bigger than ever before despite the detractors, the people who claim it doesn't exist, and frequent efforts by the city and certain business elements to suppress it because they don't seem to recognize it for what it is.

News flash for all of you who say that there's no nightlife in this town: my main problem on weekends is figuring out which of several interesting activities I'd like to attend. And I'm no ear-to-the-ground full-time club crawler: I'm a late-thirties nerd with a day job who gets most of his info from picking up flyers and checking three or four websites. Sacramento definitely has a gap when it comes to medium-sized venues: we've got the Crest and Empire and not much else, which is why a lot of touring bands end up clear out in Orangevale at the Boardwalk. But we've got plenty of small clubs, and the ones I see tend to be pretty full. We've got a rich mix of great local bands that are worth checking out, a double handful of DJ-driven clubs, and we have *always* had quite a few places to get coffee that weren't Starbuck's.

The other focus of my ire are people who claim downtown is some kind of wasteland, generally people who have never seen any portion of downtown other than the K Street Mall. My advice: GET THE HELL OFF OF THE K STREET MALL. K Street, like much of Downtown's redevelopment zones, has been the victim of a half-century of cockamamie ideas about how urban planners think cities should look, instead of how people actually live and work. K Street used to be a pretty neat place until the term "blight" was invented to describe a neighborhood with relatively low property tax revenues and frequent non-white inhabitants. The assumption was that if you took people's homes and replaced them with more expensive commercial structures, the neighborhood's inhabitants would simply wither and die like an unwatered plant. Instead, a legacy of deliberate homelessness, barren streetscapes, and urban failure was created--and the latest attempts simply continue this cycle. People see a block of vacated stores and assume that they closed because the market was so bad--not that THEY WERE CLOSED BECAUSE THE CITY FORCED THEM OUT, or some skyscraper-crazed developer deliberately ended their leases. In this case the homeless become a useful target of blame: that historic structure that burned down was some homeless guy's fault, not the product of an arsonist with a pocketful of developer's cash, and questions about preservation and adaptive reuse turn, like the buildings themselves, to ash and rubble.

For those who think downtown lacks culture: You probably live in the suburbs, and you probably don't know what an urban culture is. Urban culture is based on neighbors and neighborhoods--on urban inhabitants who know each other because they can't miss each other when we walk down the street. You don't know us because you don't see us, you spend an hour driving home to a neighborhood where your neighbors are invisible and you are equally invisible. You probably don't go to local businesses because you don't recognize them. You walked past No Jive and New Helvetia and Greta's and Cambire and claimed there were no coffee shops because there wasn't a Starbuck's. You walked past Big Mama's and B-Bop and Prevues and claimed there was no place to shop because there wasn't an Urban Outfitters. You walked past Americo's and Luis's and Camellia Cafe' and claimed there was no place to eat because you couldn't find a McDonald's. You walked past the shows at Bojangles and Capitol Garage and Old Ironsides and claimed there was no music because Sacramento doesn't have a House of Blues. Sacramento has it all, you just have to go find it--it's not quite as easy as walking through the mall and recognizing every store because they're the same stores as you find in every other mall in the country.

And, worst and most damning of all, it galls me when the neo-urbanites claim an area as "crime-ridden" or "blighted" when what they mean is that they saw non-whites there. There seems to be a lot of language going on to separate the urban experience from nonwhites: "urbane", "urbanite", anything but the term "urban" which became an euphemism for "black." (I suppose that an "urbanite" is short for "urban white"?) Downtown, it is true, has many inhabitants that are non-white. Their presence seems to be distressing to suburbanites, as is the presence of poor people, young people, old people, people with too many piercings, tattoos, or funny hair color, and, well, anyone who isn't white, of a certain age bracket, and a certain style of clothing. This diversity, this mix, is what gives a city its culture. New urbanism has to embrace diversity of incomes, lifestyles, and ethnicities or it is nothing more than new suburbanism in taller buildings.

Okay, this post has officially degenerated from talking about Sacramento's culture to grouching about people who seem to be physiologically incapable of seeing things that I see all around me. I suppose they shouldn't gall me so much: they're the ones who are apparently bored and have to stay home playing Xbox on Saturday nights while I'm out seeing some great band.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Coolness in Crystal Ice

I went to a presentation/tour last night inside Crystal Ice on R Street. The new owner is the same person who did the Loftworks project on J and 16th, and he has a similar sort of adaptive reuse plan for Crystal Ice. One of the structures is not really stable enough to remain (the one closest to 17th) but the original brick structure and the newer concrete structure on 16th are planned for adaptive reuse. He wants to build up on top of the 16th Street side to about 90 feet, and open up the walls. A new structure on the 17th Street end will go up about as high. A second set of structures will replace the existing buildings between 17th and 18th, again about 90 feet high.

While inside, I took some photos with my cheesy cellphone camera (curse me for not bringing my digital camera!!)

I got a chance to talk with the developer. He expressed a serious commitment, as evidenced by his earlier projects, to adaptive reuse and the importance of historic architecture in placemaking. Of course, this all has to meet up with the realities of the bottom line--which means a tall building, expensive rents, and other compromises. But the ideal is there, and the folks involved have a pretty good track record. I wouldn't mind if 16th and R were as bouncy as 16th and J on the weekends, as long as there was a place I could get a cheeseburger for under eight bucks.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sacramento Preservation Roundtable




---SPRING 2007---

You are invited to attend the resurrection of the ROUNDTABLE to discuss the current & future state of Historic Preservation in Sacramento!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

9:00am to 12 noon



111 I Street (West of Museum entrance)

Parking available in Garage across from the Museum-fee charged

(We suggest carpooling or light-rail to RR Depot & walk to Museum)

$5.00 Donation Fee, payable at the door –

Complimentary coffee, juices, pastries & fruit

Mailing Address: 2515 Capitol Ave., Sacramento, CA 95816

Event Contracts: Linda Whitney - E-mail:
owcathouse@aol. com
Kathleen Green – 442-1117 E-mail:
kdgreenone@yahoo. com

Sacramento Old City Association



9:00 Resurrecting the Sacramento Preservation Roundtable and its purpose – Linda Whitney and Kathleen Green

9:05 Introductions and representations all around

9:20 Cathy Taylor, Superintendent of Capitol District of CA State Parks & Kyle Wyatt, Curator of History & Technology for CA State Railroad Museum.

Topic: Power-point presentation on the Update of the Railroad Technology Museum

9:50 Questions & Answer session

10:05 Break

10:20 Introduction of William Crouch, AIA, FRAIA, NCARB, Urban Design Manager, City of Sacramento
• Creation of the City’s new Urban Design Team, including Preservation Office, Design Review Office, and new Urban Design functions.
• New Urban Design Team Monthly Newsletter

10:35 Questions & Answer session

10:45 Introduction of Roberta Deering, Senior Planner for Historic Preservation, City of Sacramento
New Preservation Chapter of the City Code New Preservation Commissioners and meeting schedule & Preservation Director Hearing schedules New Preservation Project Review Thresholds & Citywide MATRIX Program Status Reports: Historic Districts Infill & New Construction Standards; Historic Resources Surveys

11:20 Questions & Answer session

11:40 Announcements of upcoming events of interest to all

11:55 Next planned Preservation Roundtable date and topics of discussion: Updates from Sac.Heritage, Inc; Capitol City Preservation Trust (CCPT); Sac. Art Deco Society; Bungalow Heritage; SOCA; others. Meet the members of the Preservaton Commission & discuss their objectives. Do’s & Don’t’s of old window repair. Form Based Zoning update.

12:00 Adjournment

The Preservation Roundtable sponsored by & refreshments provided by Sacramento Old City Association