I attended the State of the City event last week put on by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. It was interesting, and the talk I was primarily there for, Brent Toderian, was good (more about that later). But the boosterism of downtown got way out of hand, in the sense that the picture of economic success that everyone was promoting revolved around the Golden One Center and all the other big projects that were underway or promised. This model of big projects bringing big success is fragile. I will admit that the Golden One Center and DOCO seems to have largely worked. It took a dead mall in the center of a dead part of the city and brought it back to life. But now all city leaders can talk about is the next big project, and the bigger the better. But everyone knows that big projects can fail spectacularly.
It is interesting that Downtown Sacramento Partnership, and city leaders, claim credit for midtown when it is to their advantage, such as the claim that most of the economic productivity is downtown, when it is really more spread out than that, but act as though midtown doesn’t exist in the next breath because it is not downtown. It is true, midtown and downtown are unique from each other. But not in the way DSP would like you to think.
Midtown is full of smaller buildings, old Victorian houses, apartment buildings, businesses. And in particular, for me, coffee shops (I drink tea, but the social benefits of coffee shops apply to tea drinkers too). About half the former empty lots in midtown now have construction on them. ADUs are going in, and lot splits are happening. There are a few larger projects, like the half block of affordable multi-family at S Street and 17th, but most are much smaller. There are a lot of small independent businesses, and only a few chains. There are a few, which is many too many, parking garages and surface parking lots. But midtown is the land of infill. There is a reason all but one of the night life areas in the central city is in midtown and not downtown.
In contrast, downtown is an area of block-size or multi-block developments. A significant percentage of the land area is parking garages, parking garages below offices, or surface parking lots, the very lowest of the low of land uses. Downtown is the land of big projects, and big dreams. But if there isn’t something going on at Golden One Center, downtown is largely dead. There are more closed businesses and boarded up buildings in a few blocks of downtown than in the entire midtown.
Midtown is a model built on people who live there and the services they need. Not perfect, but good. Downtown is a model built on people from elsewhere, who may or may not come and spend their money.
Of course before the 1960s, downtown was not much different from midtown. But the city and the state did not like the people who lived there (poor, people of color), so they tried to erase downtown and replace it with office buildings for the suburban workers. Sadly, they largely succeeded.
My choice is midtown. Yes, I live a short way across the line in downtown, but at least I live in an old apartment complex (CADA) and only 2-1/2 blocks from a great coffee shop. So I still get the best of midtown. When I go walking to the west, all I see are big buildings and empty parking lots, and almost no people. When I go walking to the east, I see people and construction and successful businesses. Downtown is dead. Midtown is alive.