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

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why Build Streetcars To Nowhere?

While I couldn't quite explain myself on the radio show, lacking time, I realized today that I have a blog and can spend more time grouching about it.

The plan for the Sacramento/West Sacramento streetcar line isn't too dissimilar, in some ways, to the historic use of streetcars as a stimulus for development. In the late 19th and early 20th century, development companies would either pay a streetcar line (or start their own streetcar line) to run to their not-yet-constructed subdivisions, and encourage home buyers to come on out and buy a plot of land. This was done in all directions from downtown Sacramento: north to North Sacramento, south to Colonial Heights and Colonial Acres, and across the river to West Sacramento. (I actually just wrote an article for the Midtown Monthly on the history of the West Sacramento streetcar.) Operating deficits are paid by the land development company. This was done because the potential buyer and subdivision builders felt more confident about the future of the area: the spot may have been way out of walking distance from work, but they could just take the streetcar.

The problem arose when the neighborhood got built out, more often than not with single-family homes on large lots. A suburban-style development doesn't generate enough trips to fulfill operating revenue, especially considering the restrictions streetcar lines operated under (they were responsible for street maintenance near their right-of-way, and raising fares was almost impossible.) So, rather than operate the streetcar line at a loss, the line would be closed down. Lines to North Sacramento and Swanston, Rio Linda and Elverta, and West Sacramento only ran for a decade or so before their subsidies ended and the trains stopped. The tracks for these systems didn't go out of service, because interurban trains ran on them too (the M Street Bridge and Tower Bridge were the mainline for the Sacramento Northern trains from Oakland to Chico) but local service simply couldn't pay for itself.

This wasn't initially a problem in the central city--the PG&E cars operated mostly in downtown and midtown, which had much denser populations. There were also other things to see on the PG&E streetcar, like downtown shops, offices and workplaces, and recreational destinations like East Park, Joyland the Riverside Baths, and especially the State Fairgrounds.

Eventually, though, the PG&E lines ran into trouble. The problem with a streetcar system is that it has to expand like spokes from a central hub, and the farther you get from the hub, the farther apart the spokes are. Most streetcar systems didn't make enough money to provide connecting routes between these spokes, which meant that areas in between the "spokes" didn't get streetcar service, and were therefore cheaper. In the 1920s, automobiles were starting to become accessible, and a potential homeowner had a choice between a more expensive home near the streetcar line or a cheaper one with a car--and more and more started choosing the latter.

This move towards suburbanization, and depopulation of downtown, had started as early as the early 19th century, but streetcars made them more possible and automobiles accelerated the process. Eventually, even in central city neighborhoods there wasn't enough traffic left to pay operating expenses. While many blame National City Lines for the demise of many streetcar systems, including Sacramento's, they were more of the straw that broke the camel's back: when NCL took over operations in 1943, PG&E was only operating four of its original streetcar lines--one of which was only brought back into service (#3) due to wartime gas shortages. The rest had already been replaced by buses, and the SN and CCT streetcar lines were being run at a loss as a condition of their continued freight trackage rights through the central city.

What does this mean today? Building a streetcar from already dense and trip-attracting midtown/downtown Sacramento, and relatively dispersed West Sacramento, means that West Sac had better not repeat its mistake of a century ago, and build at a higher density. If they can go dense enough (and affordable enough that moderate-income folks can afford it, not just executives, empty-nesters and DINKs) they will get enough traffic to justify it and then some. It also means that it wouldn't hurt to have more of the sort of dense development we're starting to see in downtown Sacramento--as long as it is mixed-income as well. It's kind of silly to have high-level execs who can take the streetcar to work but people who work at a coffee shop have to drive in from Orangevale.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Sacramento's streetcars on Capital Public Radio

Today on Capital Public Radio (KXJZ/KXPR) there will be a program about Sacramento's streetcars, the 20th anniversary of Light Rail, and upcoming plans for a streetcar line between Sacramento and West Sacramento. Guests will include West Sacramento mayor Chris Cabaldon, Mike Wiley from Sacramento Regional Transit, Jason DeJong from UC Davis, and some guy who wrote the Arcadia "Sacramento's Streetcars" book. Tune in at 2:00-3:00 PM, on 88.9 or 90.9 FM, or listen online: