New Ideas in Old Buildings: Reusing Sacramento Buildings in an Age of Environmentalism

Urban visionary Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

In Sacramento, old buildings are proving to be fertile ground for new ideas, putting repurposed historic buildings at the forefront of Sacramento’s urban renaissance thanks to the young and creative people who see their beauty and utility beyond the limitations of a banker’s balance sheet.

Repurposed historic buildings contribute to urban vitality in everything from commercial and office use to art centers and urban living, but there are still buildings in our urban core that sit vacant in spite of their possibility. How can downtown developers, hesitant to invest in new construction of urban housing, make better use of the city’s existing urban fabric? How can they catalyze new growth, new ideas, and new places for downtown residents to live?

As Sacramentans transition from disposable to renewable in things as day-to-day as shopping bags, the idea of “reuse” becomes all the more important in a “green” city. Consider the fact that half of America’s landfills consist of construction waste and the wreckage of old buildings. The energy used to construct a building is equal to decades of energy consumption.

Historic preservation is not about having tunnel vision toward the past. It’s about harnessing the weight of the past and using that history to make people care about saving buildings and making them functional for future use.

Although some people might hear the term “historic preservation” and equate it with being stuck in the past, preservation is urban environmentalism. When we choose to protect forests and rivers, we choose to act as the stewards of these valuable and non-renewable resources. We can also choose to recognize that our built environment is a comparable and irreplaceable asset. Historic preservation is not about having tunnel vision toward the past. It’s about harnessing the weight of the past and using that history to make people care about saving buildings and making them functional for future use. Yet for all the intangible benefits of environmentalism, like the beauty of a forest or the sense of history, one feels when walking among historic buildings, but we must also quantify the economic value of historic buildings in real terms.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s report, Older, Smaller, Better, studied how neighborhoods with older buildings measurably contribute to urban vitality. Small-scale buildings of diverse age provide flexible and affordable space for entrepreneurs, diverse housing choices for younger residents, and intimate, accessible places for social interaction. The metrics of this study showed that historic neighborhoods “punch above their weight class” when compared to new construction. For example, factors like the level of cell phone traffic generated on weekend nights were used to indicate the presence of an active nightlife and a younger demographic. Larger, more traditional institutions like banks, hospitals, or even government branches can leverage the economics of big buildings. For younger entrepreneurs, though, old buildings present themselves better choices to start a business, to live in, or to spend their nights out with friends.4-3-16-old-buildings-in-sac-andre7

There are several examples of how Midtown Sacramento embraces “older, smaller, better” buildings being put to new, innovative use. Entrepreneur Mark Otero began KlickNation in the landmark Miller-Skelton Funeral Chapel on 20th Street in the late-2000s. Its 2011 acquisition by Electronic Arts Inc. morphed it into EA’s Sacramento location, Capital Games, all the while keeping the picturesque brick front 20th Street location as home. Across from Memorial Auditorium, the rehabilitated Maydestone Apartments and adapted Elliott Building provide housing for service workers, designers, public employees, and even California governor Jerry Brown (until he relocated to the historic Governor’s Mansion, two blocks away.) New construction fills in the gaps, adding another layer of history to the plots that went from demolition to parking lots back in the decades when downtown blocks were considered only fit for automobiles.

These reuse strategies did not begin via a plan handed down from City Hall. The revitalization of Midtown began with two generations of young residents, businesses, small developers and architects, taking on small projects and bringing life back to a neighborhood that the city took for granted. Using that experience, neighborhood groups like Sacramento Old City Association (known today as Preservation Sacramento) set the groundwork for the R Street Corridor, based on residential and mixed use. Some of the individuals involved in these efforts were architects, well known for urban infill projects, including David Mogavero and Ron Vrilakas, Sacramento Valley Station project manager Greg Taylor. Community activists like Brooks Truitt (whose name will grace the first city park in the R Street Corridor), Kay Knepprath and former Sacramento mayor Heather Fargo used political pressure to change the dialogue on R Street from demolition to restoration.

Their advocacy replaced a city-supported plan for high-rise office towers that eschewed housing and treated existing buildings as obstacles instead of opportunities. Today, the R Street Corridor is defined by its reuse of historic buildings and mixture of uses, including the David Candy Company building (home of Fox & Goose), Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL), and the Perfection Bakery (home of Shady Lady Saloon.) All three combine residential and commercial uses, and their recent success has triggered new reuse and rehab projects along R Street. Some of the buildings being reused are far from anyone’s idea of a historic landmark; even tilt-up 1970s “Buzz Boxes” (the legacy of developer Marvin “Buzz” Oates) are being occupied and reused, often with dramatic redesign and “deep green” features, especially for uses requiring large spaces and low rents, like art galleries.

The lessons of Midtown and R Street can also be applied to downtown Sacramento but at greater altitudes. Recently announced downtown projects include IO Labs, a multi-story tech/coworking space in the Pacific States Bank building at 7th & J Street, with a multi-restaurant “public market” proposal for the D.O. Mills Bank across the street. Construction is underway at the 700 block of K Street, where new apartments constructed on the alley will fit seamlessly with restored historic buildings facing K Street, including restoration of the Tower Records mural on the Burt’s Shoes building. The Mohr & Yoerk/Ransohoff’s building at 11th & K Street, built as apartments but converted to offices, is being transitioned back to residential use by Sutter Capital Group. But nearby, there are equally useful and beautiful historic buildings that sit vacant, waiting for a creative idea that will turn them back into a vital part of the urban fabric—or, if their owners fail to grasp their properties’ potential, for the wrecking ball. The right innovator, with the right idea, is the beginning of a transformation from “useless blighted property” to “dynamic urban destination.”4-3-16-old-buildings-in-sac-andre9 4-3-16-old-buildings-in-sac-andre4 The entire city block between 8th, 9th, K and L Street contains a mixture of historic buildings, vacant for years due to a combination of market speculation and the demise of redevelopment. On the block’s western half is a quarter-block destroyed by a 2006 fire, and a quarter-block containing the city landmark Bel-Vue Apartments (recently also listed in the National Register of Historic Places) and the dilapidated Feldhusen Building (an 1880s building given an unfortunate 1950s re-façade) along 8th Street. Facing L Street is a 1917 vintage garage, and 815 L Street, originally La Rosa, an Italian restaurant, and 1920s speakeasy, with a significant 1950s façade applied by Sam’s Hof Brau owner Sam Gordon for his second downtown location. This half of the block was acquired by the City of Sacramento for a project that fell through with the end of California’s redevelopment agencies in 2010. Vacated by the city and recently put up for sale, the Bel-Vue represents a rare example of downtown apartments built for the upwardly mobile, urban Sacramentan of 1916, who sought more privacy and amenities than a residential hotel but still wanted close proximity to Sacramento’s commercial heart and business center. Currently owned by the City of Sacramento’s redevelopment agency, these properties were put up for sale in 2015. Both received bids, from adaptive reuse/urban infill specialists D&S Development and CFY Development, who brought us the Shady Lady/Perfection Bakery and WAL buildings on R Street. The Sacramento Kings exercised their right of first refusal (an option they retained as part of the 2013 arena deal), but as of this writing, the CFY Development proposal for the Bel-Vue building is poised to move forward, promising affordable downtown apartments and ground floor retail, just in time for this landmark building’s 100th birthday.

The eastern half of that block also includes the Montgomery Ward and Kress department stores. The vertical, multi-story Kress, decorated in Zig-Zag Moderne terra cotta, has the potential for reuse as residential lofts, downtown offices, or both. The 1936 Montgomery Ward building, the first store in the chain to feature air conditioning, has a more formal Colonial Revival look, with tall vertical windows. Behind the Montgomery Ward building is a parking garage and accessory building, connected via a passageway that traverses the alley. Currently, the main use of both buildings, obvious to anyone walking past, is as an ersatz urinal. Both have the potential for adaptive reuse if the building’s owners can be convinced to restore or sell them. This may depend on how quickly the city can take action on the aforementioned western half of the block.

Two blocks to the northeast, the 1000 block of J Street is often described as the ugliest block in downtown Sacramento, characterized by vacant storefronts and suspicious fires, but both ends are vacant primarily because they were entitled to new uses during the building boom of the early 2000s. The property owners still hope their decade-old plans for new high-rises will be practical someday. The prominent northeastern corner of 10th and J Street contains the RCA and Plaza Buildings, located on a lot entitled for the Metropolitan, a 40 story condominium/hotel that appears no closer to construction than it was when first approved in 2007. Before it received an unlovely 1970s re-façade, the RCA was a Streamline Moderne office building with large ground-floor windows, well-suited for a retail use alongside Cesar Chavez Plaza. The Plaza Building, an early 1900s building with a 1920s Art Deco façade, could be converted to compact downtown studios with ground floor retail. Sadly, the 1880s Biltmore Hotel building on J Street, containing the legendary Broiler steakhouse and The Tropics, Sacramento’s first tiki bar, was destroyed by a 2015 fire, but the resulting space (zoned for unlimited heights and high density) could fit a new, narrower building behind the reused RCA and Plaza Buildings.

As so many vacant or underutilized downtown buildings come back to life, the excuses for leaving a block of downtown buildings vacant for another generation become weaker and weaker, as do the claims that downtown Sacramento isn’t ready for the residential market.

The cluster of buildings on the southwestern corner of 11th and J, entitled for a 25-story condominium as part of the early 2000s boom, are architecturally similar to those found on the 700 block of K Street. The mid-block Copenhagen building, burned out in the 1980s and a long-term bat habitat, is almost certainly beyond salvage. But could a reuse of any of these buildings catalyze subsequent reuse plans for the rest of the block? As so many vacant or underutilized downtown buildings come back to life, the excuses for leaving a block of downtown buildings vacant for another generation become weaker and weaker, as do the claims that downtown Sacramento isn’t ready for the residential market.

Sacramento’s central business district already includes abundant office space and an extraordinarily high jobs-to-housing ratio. Some downtown developers are still focused on office uses while decrying the difficulty of residential development, claiming that the best use for historic buildings is “cool” office space. But the creative professionals who would work in these cool offices are generally uninterested in driving from a Natomas suburban home to a cool office space downtown; they want to walk from their cool downtown loft to their cool downtown office, and the shorter the walk, the better. Those new residents of downtown can also walk to any of the multitudes of downtown restaurants along K Street and soon to surround the arena. Downtown residents might even encourage downtown retailers to remain open past their current closing time of 3-5 PM. In the interim, Midtown’s shopping and dining destinations are closer to the heart of K Street downtown than many recent infill developments that market their proximity to Midtown. Downtown is more than ready for housing, in part, because Midtown itself is a downtown amenity.4-3-16-old-buildings-in-sac-andre3 4-3-16-old-buildings-in-sac-andre5People living in a walkable neighborhood tend to spend most of their money in or around that neighborhood, a phenomenon already common in Midtown, but downtown developers remain timid about new housing. Some consider downtown a still-untested market that is not yet ready for housing, but the $1 billion civic investment in the arena and adjoining properties sends an entirely different message. Trying to create a downtown intended solely for visitors and commuting workers was a path to failure that Sacramento took in the 1960s and 1990s. A 21st century downtown cannot succeed without housing. Converting vacant buildings into housing means the area becomes a 24-hour city, not just an 8 or 16-hour city. Residential conversion of old buildings also sends a signal that vacant lots like the quarter-block at 8th and K are an opportunity for new construction, not a liability. While the market for high-rise, steel-frame construction downtown may not yet exist, populating the existing buildings readies the ground for the day when—not if, but when—the demand for new high-rise housing reaches critical mass in downtown Sacramento.

Not all of our city’s underutilized historic buildings are downtown. On the far eastern edge of Sacramento’s original city limits, the Pureta Sausage Factory sits on Alhambra Boulevard between C and D Streets. Most recently used as a bakery, this property sits in the buffer zone between the East Sacramento neighborhood of McKinley Park and Business 80. The industrial character of the building contrasts with the quiet residential neighborhood to the east, aside from the historic American Can Company complex [CLOSED] along Elvas Avenue, another adaptive reuse site repurposed for offices and a recently proposed biotech company. This sturdy brick complex could house a use similar to the Warehouse Artist Lofts, although its location might suggest a lower-intensity version of the energetic environment of R Street, better suited to proximity with East Sacramento, but providing both residential and commercial uses on the northern edge of the Alhambra Corridor. A neighborhood destination on this prominent but quiet corner can also help to mend the long-severed connection between East Sacramento and Midtown, knitting together the urban fabric long torn apart by highway construction.

Regardless of location, Sacramento’s stock of underutilized buildings is a rare and valuable resource. Many are already restored to new uses. But there are still a few vacant historic buildings in prominent, highly visible downtown locations. Some point to these vacancies as a sign of blight and inaction, but they also represent opportunities for the right creative mind, who sees potential, not obstacles, in the built environment.  Today’s innovators are better situated to see that potential and have the creativity to envision new uses for these old buildings, as launch pads for new ventures or a place to call home in the city’s heart.


Photos | Andre Elliott