July 6, 2020

Sacramento, your front porch is a dump. That’s all about to change for this city block

The Sacramento Bee
Marcos Breton

Some disagree, but I think the miserable stretch of J Street between 10th and 11th streets is the worst block in downtown Sacramento.

It’s a collection of blighted buildings, third-world decay, broken windows, graffiti, disrepair and an ever-present scent of urine – all directly adjacent to the stately Citizen Hotel, Cesar Chavez Plaza and City Hall.

This block is a canker sore on the lips of Sacramento. It’s a monument to the hubris and greed of rich property owners with “good reputations” who allowed their buildings to become dangerous eyesores.

As a result, what should be the front porch of Sacramento has looked like a dump for 20 years.

But that’s finally changing now, at least on the south side of the 1000 block of J Street, with the demolition of four buildings directly adjacent to the corner of 11th and J streets. In all, 46,000 square feet of buildings are being demolished. They take up roughly half of the south side of the 1000 block of J Street.

These buildings were purchased by Anthem Properties Group, a dynamic developer based in Vancouver. After months of clearing hazardous materials and making sure demolition was safe while preserving brick walls dating back to the 1860s, the real work toward a intensive upgrade has begun. And not a moment too soon.

This block is so wretched, walking through is is depressing by day, scary at night. Demolished buildings are an improvement.

Out with the old

“It’s an old tinder box,” said Riaan Debeer, vice president of development for Anthem. “That was one of the significant challenges, the fact that these buildings were dangerous. There was a significant problem of people penetrating these buildings, sleeping in them, doing illegal activities in them…Our fear was that someone would set fire to the structures.”

Demolition will continue until late summer and then, by October, Anthem hopes to begin construction on a six-story, 163,000 square-foot apartment building. Plans call for retail shops on the ground floor and 153 market rate rental units around a U-shaped courtyard. Atop the building will be an amenity deck with views of the state Capitol, the Elks Tower and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

“Sacramento understands that urban renewal is a key part of the city’s future,” Debeer said. “And we are very excited to be part of that renewal.”

The plan is for two years of construction, which would mean the building – still unnamed – would open to tenants in late 2022. By late 2023, Debeer expects the building to be filled with tenants.

Presumably, hopefully, we will have a vaccine for COVID-19 by late 2022. Presumably, hopefully, our city will be back on track financially by then and this building will be a catalyst for more renewal on this horrible block.

In with the new

Anthem’s plans for J Street sound fantastic. Anthem has a sterling record for developing quality buildings in North America. Debeer said Anthem wants to be in Sacramento for the long haul.

“We’re in a COVID canyon right now but on the other side is a good market,” Debeer said. “The demand for rentals is going to be there, so, for us, it’s a matter of staying the course.”

But a wood-framed apartment building is not what people had in mind for this block in the early 2000s. Back then, the city had big dreams of a reboot for Sacramento’s stodgy reputation for low, sensible buildings.

“We had these dreams of skyscrapers like we were going to be in the ‘Jetsons’ as a city,” said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, who has worked for years to change the block’s dynamic.

That market has not materialized, as proved by the failures of some who tried and spectacularly failed to build soaring buildings in Sacramento. These were big dreams that went nowhere.

The problem is, Sacramento took years to realize that not building a skyscraper was OK. Downtown housing is needed badly and Anthem stepped in to begin reshaping this worst block in downtown Sacramento.

Hansen, who will leave office in December, sees the Anthem building as a kind of vindication.

“I’ve been working so hard over the last seven years trying to get a project underway so this could return to being an active and important part of downtown,” he said.

Preserving the past

Getting desirable partners to replace obstructionists was hard. But once Anthem was ready to build, they found that the challenges they faced on this block were not over.

Underneath what will become Anthem’s building are walls that date back to the 1860s the city wanted to preserve, DeBeer said. These are walls to buildings from early Sacramento before J Street was elevated generations ago.

Anthem saw no practical purpose for these underground walls but they couldn’t destroy them either. That had to figure out a way to preserve them while building over them.

“The solution was retaining those structures but buried underneath soil,” Debeer said.

“The city didn’t want them demolished or destroyed. It’s a significant historical resource and we had to be very careful,” he said.

Welcoming the future

Generally, the apartments that Anthem will build will start at 750-square foot units on the small end. The largest ones will be about 1,000 square feet, Debeer said. Anthem describes them as mid-range in price for market value units.

They will be built for people who want the option of working from home. Ironically, many of us now work from home because of COVID-19, but Debeer said they saw a market for that type of dwelling before the pandemic.

It turns out, Anthem may have tenants who will arrive as seasoned veterans of working from home.

Either way, the progress here is huge. But progress across the street, on the north side, is still unclear. John Saca, the owner of those buildings was put on a timeline to do something with his properties back in 2017.

Then, Saca had not made many friends and one critic said this:

“We see this as acting in bad faith,” said Louis Mirante of House Sacramento, a group which advocates for more central-city housing. “(Saca) is acting in bad faith.”

In 2007, I stuck up for Saca after he failed to build two 53-story condominium skyscrapers on Capitol Mall. Still, he has refused to answer questions over the years.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has tried to step in and get something done on his properties. Sotiris Kolokotronis, one of the most significant developers in downtown Sacramento, has tried to help as well.

When last I wrote about this block in August of 2019, Kolokotronis was working on a proposal to get something done that Hansen described as similar to what Anthem is building. All I’ve been told is that Kolokotronis is still working on it. What does that mean? What’s the timeline?

Something needs to happen to provide more housing for an urban core that needs it and for Sacramento’s front porch to stop being a dump. In this case, a Canadian developer was able to see the potential of Sacramento.

“We absolutely want to continue to build relationships here, Debeer said. “We will absolutely be looking at doing more projects here.”

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