Finding a Unified Vision for the Future of the Sacramento Waterfront

The Sacramento River acts as a natural barrier between the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento, but members of the local district council are exploring how to transform the waterfront so the river serves as a destination that connects rather than divides the metro area.

Though the two cities have a history of working together, jurisdictional silos have led to an uncoordinated approach to development and the lack of a unified vision for the Sacramento riverfront. The cities are also in two different counties—Sacramento in Sacramento County and West Sacramento in Yolo County—and ownership of riverfront parcels is distributed among a patchwork of public and private landowners. A comprehensive master plan for the riverfront was developed in 2003, but its implementation was stalled and it is likely now out of date.

Nearly $1 billion in infrastructure and public improvements have been made along the river by both Sacramento and West Sacramento in the past decade, yet the riverfront has yet to emerge as a distinctive place or as a true economic engine for the region.

ULI Sacramento has long been engaged with the issue of revitalizing the riverfront. In March, it held an intensive, two-day program on strategies for turning more than a decade of planning into action. The program began with an open forum for the public to gain an understanding of the history and current context of riverfront development, and concluded with a private, invitation-only workshop where public, private, and nonprofit stakeholders from both sides of the river could engage in candid conversations about next steps.

During both portions of the program, strategies for success and lessons learned were shared by representatives from four U.S. cities that have created coherent waterfront development programs—Chattanooga, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Spokane.

A main recommendation from the workshop was to create a single, independent, nonprofit entity whose sole focus would be the Sacramento riverfront and balancing public benefits such as parks and bike/pedestrian infrastructure with private sector development opportunities. This entity would take on multiple roles and responsibilities, including fundraising from private donors, applying for state and federal grants, developing new infrastructure, maintaining and operating public facilities, and overseeing cultural programming.

“Part of the problem is that the two jurisdictions—Sacramento and West Sacramento—have approached the revitalization of the riverfront independently and with varying degrees of public sector leadership and private sector initiation,” said workshop cochair Allen Folks, member of the ULI Sacramento riverfront development committee and director of design and planning at Ascent Environmental. “The result has yielded some success, but falls short of what other cities have created in both region-serving public attractions, trail and promenade activity, and large gathering event spaces that ultimately attract private sector investment.

“Having a single entity would also result in a more consistent user experience of the riverfront along both sides and greater consensus-building among competing interests,” Folks added.

Indeed, several catalytic projects have been built on either side of the Sacramento River during the past decade. The Railyards development and the Golden 1 Center arena in downtown Sacramento, as well as the Barn, a music and entertainment venue in West Sacramento’s Bridge District, are considered major successes, but each has been pursued in an ad hoc fashion rather than as part of a coordinated strategy. In addition, stronger pedestrian connectivity is needed between the two downtowns, as well as better pedestrian access to the river on each side.

“Because there isn’t a common governance structure between the two cities, you get a lot of individual action that doesn’t have the muscularity needed to pursue long-term change,” said Richard Rich, Railyards project manager for Sacramento. “There are so many different stakeholders with so many different missions, it has been hard to get a coherent plan that everyone can get behind.”

“There has been a kind of fragmentation of leadership along the river,” he added. “As a result, the riverfront has been left behind as different neighborhoods along each side have been redeveloped.”

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