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.

1 comment:

girlplusdog said...

Fear of listing is so common. You are right, NR designation does not place any kind of restrictions on private property owners but requires federal agencies to go through the Section 106 process.

I work in the office that processes and reviews the nominations (and i have heard some of the issues involved with this nomination).

Unfortunately, there is no pot of money for restoration but the owner will be able to take advantage of the federal rehab tax credits, which will be a huge chunk of money.