corner retail, part two

My earlier post on corner retail was in preparation for talking about an idea that corner retail should be acknowledged, supported, and promoted in the upcoming Sacramento 2020 General Plan. The general plan tentatively promotes higher density by allowing a reasonable floor area ratio for properties throughout the city, while removing development constraints that add nothing to safety or livability. Assuming the plan and the resulting code to support it does significantly increase the number of homes and people able to live in the city, if the city remains as car-centric as it is, the result will just be less parking availability and more congestion (both of which I’m in favor of, but I recognize most people are not). It would go towards solving the housing issue, but do little for livability and climate change issues.

So what is the solution? A place where people can perform most of their daily activities without driving. In other words, corner retail. The jobs issue is a separate one, though corner retail would also increase the number of jobs within walking distance.

Karma Brew, my neighborhood bar, on the corner of P St & 16th St, 2-1/2 blocks from my house

I am not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but I’ll throw out an idea. I don’t think rezoning corner lots from residential to commercial is necessarily the answer, because that might encourage entirely new buildings replacing existing buildings. Obviously many existing buildings would need to be changed to serve as retail, but I don’t think wholesale replacement is good, and it is not respectful of that claim of ‘neighborhood character’ (which is often a cover for concerns not voiced, but is nevertheless a consideration).

Rather, I think a by-right conditional use permit (is that an oxymoron?) is the better solution. That way the building remains similar to what is there now, but becomes functional as a retail location.

Where? I’m partly of mind to say everywhere, every corner. Much of the existing corner retail predates zoning (grandfathered in) or is already under a conditional use permit. But I’m also of mind to limit it to fewer locations, which would be any corner fronted on at least one side by a collector or arterial street. In the lower density parts of Sacramento, I don’t think much corner retail would show up, because it takes a certain density to make retail viable, but there would certainly be more than there is today. Wouldn’t you like to be able to walk to a coffee shop in your neighborhood. Or walk to the market for a few items?

Note that I’m not clearly defining what corner retail is. Does it mean there is only one business present, or allowed, or could it be a few small footprint businesses clustered together? Some of the locations I’ve identified are not on actual corners, but they have the feeling of corner retail. The general plan and the supporting code would have to define corner retail.

Below are two maps of Oak Park, on the left, arterials and collectors, and on the right, GoogleMaps with markets selected. The scales are similar but not identical. As you can see, some corners on arterials or collectors already have corner markets, and there are other corners with retail that is not a market, but there are a number of locations that could have corner retail under my proposal, but do not. I picked Oak Park just because I’d spent time there recently looking for markets and other corner retail (photos below).

The slideshow below shows some of the corner retail, mostly markets, in Oak Park. Note that in general these locations are much more car-oriented than the ones I showed in the central city, because the area is much more car dominated. I will say more about that in the future. It does not include the many, many businesses that are part of commercial zones along Broadway and Martin Luther King. If you zoom in on Google Maps, a commercial area overlay shows up as pale yellow. I am gradually collecting photos of retail in other areas of Sacramento and will eventually post them.

Sac general plan and housing

The City of Sacramento is updating its general plan, and as part of that process considering modification of zoning and development restrictions, with the intent of allowing the creation of more housing. A recent SacBee article, Sacramento has a plan to address its housing crisis. Some neighborhoods are fighting it, covered some of the changes being proposed by city staff, and some opposition to those ideas. The opposition is coming from neighborhood associations in East Sacramento, Elmhurst, and Land Park, at least so far. Though neighborhood associations usually represent only some of the richer and more powerful residents, they are nonetheless very politically powerful, particularly East Sacramento and Land Park, so the views of these will hold some sway with city council. I will address some of the misconceptions represented in the neighborhood association viewpoints.

These neighborhoods, along with Oak Park, were originally streetcar suburbs, developed by and for the profit of the streetcar companies and their associated development interests (greedy developers, no doubt). I recommend Bill Burg’s Sacramento’s Streetcars book (and any writing by Bill), and you can view part of the content at http://sacramentohistory.blogspot.com/2007/08/sacramentos-streetcar-suburbs.html. As such, the development pattern is a relic of times past, which met the needs of that time but do not necessarily meet the needs of this time. East Sacramento and Elmhurst had more businesses than they do now, so they are less livable neighborhoods than once they were. Not sure about Land Park. Yes, most of the housing was single family and duplexes, but there were multi-family homes as well.

The neighborhood associations want to fix their neighborhoods in time, so that they never change. That is not possible. Neighborhoods either change or decline over time. Midtown is a continual example of that, as buildings that no longer serve are either converted or replaced. The reason these three neighborhoods have only experienced some decline is that rich people live in these neighborhoods and have been able to forestall decline by an infusion of money that they’ve made in other parts of the city and region.

Fixing a neighborhood in time, if it is in good condition, will inevitably lead to inflation of home values, which I consider unearned income. Maintaining and updating houses is not what I mean, I mean that the value just goes up and up regardless of any action on the part of the owner. Many of these homes are now unaffordable for middle class people, even though that is primarily who they were built for (with the fabulous 40s and homes right on Land Park park being exceptions). Intentional scarcity makes anything more expensive, and the neighborhood associations like intentional scarcity.

So what do middle class people do? They move out to the sprawling suburbs in an attempt to find affordable housing. Of course this is partly an illusion because the cost of car ownership and the time lost to commuting subtract most or all of that cheaper housing benefit. I attribute the explosion of the sprawling suburbs in large part to the fact that the inner ring suburbs refused to allow intensification of housing to accommodate more people. Many of the people in these old neighborhoods consider themselves to be progressive, yet their resistance to change produced vast sprawl, high speed arterials and the pollution, climate change, death, and un-livability that goes with these outer suburbs, and exurbs. A phrase that has been used by many to highlight this is pretty accurate, “I’ve got mine, screw you”.

Another impact is that in an effort to prevent all change, they actually induce undesirable change. From the article: “Their fear is that investors will tear down single-family homes and replace them with poorly-maintained rental properties, charging high rents to Bay Area transplants to turn a big profit.” What instead happens is that even richer people buy small houses, tear them down, and build large McMansions on the same lot. In many cases these McMansions violate current zoning, but that is no problem is you have enough money or political power. Yes, I know that the neighborhood associations hate that too, but it is in part a result of their resistance to change. Apparently a McMansion is better than multi-family? Not in my worldview.

Bill Burg (@oldcityguardian) recently posted a photo of midtown variety of housing types, below, and a diagram of various floor area ratio scenarios, indicating the FAR of 1.0 for much of Sacramento is probably too low, and the FAR of 2.0 for the central city is too low.

variety of housing forms, midtown Sac (Bill Burg photo)
Floor Area Ratio (FAR) diagram (source unknown, via Bill Burg)

Lastly, I find the frequent assumption by homeowners that renters are somehow less community involved as ridiculous. I have been a renter every day since I left my parent’s house (I’m 68, so that is a lot of years), and I know only a very few homeowners (also friends) that have been more involved in their community.