SACRAMENTO — One hundred forty years after businessmen drove the first spike of the Transcontinental Railroad here and marked a famous chapter in America's push to expand, California developers plan to build at the same site one of the nation's biggest and most innovative downtown projects.
On a littered, rusty, 240-acre landscape where laborers built trains for a railroad that opened the nation, designers of Minnesota's Mall of America and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas plan a flashy swath of housing, shopping and entertainment to pump fresh urban pizazz into this stately, quiet capital city of 418,000 people.
"What we will be building doesn't exist today in Sacramento," said Jon Jerde, owner of the Venice-based Jerde Partnership and Millennia Associates, which are seeking to develop the site. "We're introducing a very vibrant real-life urban core for the capital."
Real estate brokers and Sacramento city officials call the development one of the largest "infill" projects -- filling in a blighted, vacant part of a central city -- in the United States.
Jerde's specialty of reinventing down-and-out places with "entertainment retail" that attracts crowds and new housing, includes Universal CityWalk in Universal City, Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego and Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan.
Most recently, the firm opened a similar but smaller rail yard project called the Gateway in Salt Lake City.
Plans for the Sacramento rail yard include 3,000 multi-story residences, acres of new shopping, a large transit station, an expanded railroad museum and possibly a new arena for the National Basketball Assn.'s Sacramento Kings.
Jerde's firm also is designing a gradually sloping shopping avenue that would carry walkers above working Union Pacific and Amtrak railroad tracks, much as the store-lined Ponte Vecchio steers pedestrians across the Arno River in Florence, Italy.
The Jerde Partnership is in the final weeks of negotiations to buy the site.
"It seems like the stars are all starting to line up with this thing," Sacramento Deputy City Manager Thomas Lee said. "It's not a pie-in-the-sky story. They've done it in other cities."
The Sacramento development would occupy a site opened in 1867 by the Central Pacific Railroad, two years before the Transcontinental Railroad linked the nation by connecting Sacramento with Omaha.
For 132 years, the site, once considered the West's biggest industrial center, turned out thousands of cars and locomotives for the cross-country railroad. The facility closed in 1999.
"This is a complex of incredible rarity in the United States," Richard O'Connor, a historian with the National Park Service, recently told the Sacramento City Council.
Noting the buildings' survival and the historic role of the Transcontinental Railroad, O'Connor compared their significance to the Civil War battlefields in Gettysburg, Pa.
The Jerde Partnership aims to break ground in 2006 and finish within 10 years.
The Sacramento rail yard's leading anchor will be the California State Railroad Museum, which attracts 500,000 visitors yearly and aims to double that with a $25-million expansion.
"In terms of facilities and exhibits we would be unrivaled anywhere in North America," museum Director Catherine Taylor said.