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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Visions of Capital's Future Clash

Criticism of state office complex planned near Capitol illustrates the divergent philosophies of urban life.

October 11, 1998|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — For decades, it seemed a powerful magnet was dragging this downtown westward toward the murky waters of the Sacramento River, leaving the Capitol dome on the fringe, its historic park a forgotten backyard.

Then the bureaucrats of state government dreamed up what seemed to them a perfect solution:

Build a giant office complex on the east side of the park, not only pulling government back toward its nucleus, but gathering together three major state departments now scattered like confetti.

But their enthusiastic pitch for the $392-million proposal--the largest state construction project ever in Sacramento--fell flat with a feisty group of local architects who work in the Midtown area abutting the proposed project. Where the bureaucrats see a monument to the future, they see harsh angles and glaring glass standing empty at night.

Why dig a black gash in the urban fabric when you could create a vibrant neighborhood, the seven architects ask?

"They're putting holes in the city [that] people won't travel through to get to a goal on the other side," said architect Kevin Donnelly, whose Ekistics Design Studio occupies a light-bathed former art gallery downtown.

Calling themselves the "community architects," Donnelly and his colleagues drew up their vision for the East End neighborhood: an office building that gives up its first floor to shops and its park side to Capitol-view apartments.

The aesthetic skirmish is a microcosm of state politics, complete with an enduring symbol--the milky-white Capitol and its historic park--legislators and lobbyists, special interests and a grass-roots uprising.

Yet it would remain a typical local struggle were it not for the tremendous importance of state government in its hometown. In Sacramento, the state is landlord and tenant, developer and philanthropist, employer and consumer.

Without state government, some shudder, Sacramento would be Fresno.

Sacramento Mayor Joseph Serna Jr. opened a recent City Council workshop on the East End Project by reminding the audience that the city has long lobbied against efforts to move state government out of the capital city.

While the East End plan may be imperfect, Serna said, "I don't want to be the mayor that lost this thing to some suburb."

In truth, neither the mayor nor the community architects hold much sway over the project anyway; the state does not need local permission to build in Sacramento.

Revved up by the engine of government, Sacramento County, population 1.1 million, is one of California's fastest-growing regions, with suburbs gobbling up surrounding farmland and stretching into the Sierra foothills.

At the figurative center of that government machine is the Capitol, built for $2.6 million in 1869--a political beehive during the week, a museum and backdrop for wedding photos on the weekends.

To the east of the dome is Capitol Park, 10 city blocks of botanical gardens composed of thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers.

Even on weekdays, the park is so underutilized that if a vote were taken, the squirrels would win.

Like many of the nation's cities, Sacramento has long battled to reclaim its downtown from decline. It still perches on a rickety bridge between suburban and urban, dilapidation and gentrification.

Progress in the Midtown neighborhoods--a mix of restored and rundown Victorian homes, thriving and struggling restaurants, nightclubs and shops--is too fragile, the opponents believe, to weather another monolithic office building that is empty at night and on weekends.

Consolidating the seat of government around the park, as the proposed East End Project intends to do, is not a new notion. It was shaped years ago by two famous father-son teams.

A building to complement the Capitol was first envisioned by city pioneer John Sutter. But in the 1850s, with Sutter in bankruptcy, his son John Sutter Jr. scaled the dream back to just the domed building.

In the 1960s, Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown scooped up 42 blocks of land around Capitol Park for a future state office complex. His son, Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., used those land holdings for a more flexible scheme combining office, parking, housing and commercial development.

In the years since, the state has flip-flopped about how best to accommodate its growth.

First, construction was to feature the Capitol as the focal point, but then suburbia beckoned. The state once favored ownership, but then leasing came to dominate. Now, the state leases more than half of its 13.5 million square feet of Sacramento office space.

A wake-up call came in 1995, when state officials invited the nonprofit Urban Land Institute to advise them on the capital's future. The panel of real estate and planning experts scolded their hosts for being too easily lured to the suburbs by private developers, too quickly dazzled by promises of cheaper office rents and room to grow.

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