the future of downtown

The Belote Lecture: “The Future of Downtowns: Developing a New Vision for America’s Urban Core” occurred on Tuesday at the Citizen Hotel, sponsored by McGeorge School of Law. Chris Morfas alerted me to the lecture by re-tweeting Greg Shill, who I’ve always wanted to meet.

Brian Schoenfisch of the City of San Diego talked about how they had activated public space downtown by closing streets, liberal implementation of temporary and permanent use for dining and recreation, and new parks. Almost all development in downtown is by-right, which was accomplished by removing regulations and doing a categorical CEQA approval for downtown infill.

Noah Arroyo of the SF Chronicle said that a lot of the homeless issue in SF was more perception that reality. He also said that the many, many layers of development review in SF make it nearly impossible to build affordable housing, or any housing.

Greg Shill of University of Iowa Law School said we need to change cities so people can walk/bike to destinations, that cities actually have a lot of control over what happens there, and that transit is going to be in crisis for at least ten years.

Cornelius Burke of California Building Industry Association said that we need housing of all types and for all income levels.

Questions from the audience largely focused on how we make up for past mistakes like urban renewal and redlining, and how citizens can ensure movement towards building cities people want. Everyone agreed that creating a more successful Downtown Sacramento requires housing, housing, housing, to replace and grow beyond that which the city and state removed during urban renewal.

I had interesting discussions with Greg Shill before and after, and with Brian Schoenfisch after. I think the real benefit of these presentations is the opportunity to bounce ideas and perspectives off of people who have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues.

As I was listening to the lecture and questions, I was also looking out over downtown from the 7th floor Metropolitan Terrace, I came back even more strongly to a key difference between successful midtown and struggling downtown. Almost all of the existing developments and opportunities downtown are quarter block, half blocks, and full blocks. The fine-grained parcels of midtown, which allow and encourage infill development, were erased by the city when they acquired the small parcels and aggregated them into large parcels. So now there are only opportunities for big developments, and big developments are even harder now than they were before. If the city really wanted to promote infill, they would break up the large parcels that are empty or hold surface parking lots into smaller parcels. Infill developers would be asking for these opportunities. Almost no one is asking for the large parcels.

Unlike many events I go to sponsored by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, at this one I did not know anyone else. That is actually fun, meeting new people.

One thought on “the future of downtown

  1. Sounds like a great event. I’m not sure about your conclusion that lots are too large in downtown to spur development – I think it is lack of vibrancy, which makes downtown less attractive. Midtown is where it’s happening so people want to live there. Often developers are trying to assemble multiple lots for larger projects to make more $, and now that wood framed buildings can go up 5 stories these should be increasingly cost effective. A real suck on vibrancy are the vacant lots and surface parking lots riddling the city. One idea to increase vibrancy is to charge owners of vacant lots an additional fee since they aren’t contributing to our city. Oakland did this recently – I think it’s the least we could do to disencentivize owners from just sitting on vacant property that detracts from our quality of life. Of course there should be exemptions if the owner allows a community garden, park, or homeless safe ground to occupy the site.


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