If anywhere is a poster child for the effects of light rail on economic development, it is downtown Sacramento. Sacramento was one of the first American cities to build a modern light-rail line, opening its original 10-mile line in 1987 just a year after Portland’s. Since then it has extended that line and built two more, all of which go downtown, for a total system that is 45 miles long (compared with 60 miles in Portland).
Downtown Sacramento is mostly low-rise buildings with a few scattered high rises. Flickr photo by Sacramento Real Estate Photography.
As the capital of the nation’s most populous and possibly richest state, Sacramento is no small town. The urban area had 1.8 million people in 2015, slightly less than Portland and slightly more than San Jose. The city itself had half a million people, more than Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis.
Yet when I visited Sacramento a few weeks ago, the downtown area felt more appropriate for a urban area of 200,000, not close to 2 million. I decided I must not have seen the entire downtown. However, a recent column in the Sacramento Bee asks why a particular block in downtown is “the worst block” in the area.
Vacant retail/office building facing the light-rail line on K Street. Photo from Google maps.
As it happens, the block in question is just one block away from a light-rail line that, according to the propaganda, is supposed to generate economic development. The block in the article is 10th and J Street; as this map shows, the light rail goes down K street and has a stop between 10th and 11th. In fact, trains from all three light-rail lines use this particular segment of track. The Google street view photo of 10th and K shows a large, street-level retail/office space for lease. I don’t know if it is still vacant today, but if it isn’t, there are plenty of others that are, as there are numerous contenders for the title of “worst block in downtown.”
The column in the Bee blames the lack of development on J Street at least partly on the property owner. But my visit to downtown, during which I probably walked three miles or more, showed many vacant lots, vacant buildings, and dilapidated buildings in need of renewal.
Jim-Denny’s may be a cute place, but if downtown Sacramento were thriving, it would have been replaced by more valuable developments long ago. Photo from Google maps.
Between trains on a Sunday morning, I was hungry and the only open restaurant was a place called Jim-Denny’s. It was a tiny hamburger stand dating to 1934 and virtually unchanged since then. While I don’t have any objection to the food, if downtown were thriving it would have been replaced by something else long ago. It occupied a small portion of a large lot, next to another vacant lot, across the street from more vacant lots, and around the block from other vacant lots. While eating pancakes, I saw several light-rail trains trundle by the front of the restaurant.
Downtown Portland is a solid mass of high rises. Flickr photo by Eric Prado.
While downtown Portland is a solid mass of high rises up to 40 stories tall, downtown Sacramento is mostly low rise with a few scattered high rises, the tallest of which is about 26 stories. There’s nothing wrong with that; high rises are the symbol of the cities of the early 1900s. But one of the claims for light rail is that it would rebuild downtowns to look like those early 1900 cities. It obviously hasn’t worked in Sacramento.
It didn’t work in Portland either, as most of its high rises, other than government buildings, were built before the light rail opened. The same is true for Seattle. Portland and Seattle have thriving downtowns because of microbrew pubs and restaurants, not light rail. Sacramento has microbrew pubs, but according to Google maps, only one, Rubicon Brewing, is located downtown, and it’s not on a light-rail line. A second downtown brew pub, the Brew It Up Brewery and Grill, is permanently closed.
Light rail has done little for downtown Sacramento. Anyone who visits Portland to see how light rail has supposedly stimulated economic development should make a side trip to Sacramento to get another view.