The City of Sacramento has finally realized that the tired adage “if you build it they will come” does not necessarily apply to light rail. A full three decades after the opening of the city’s first light rail line, the city council recently passed an ordinance banning certain types of businesses from opening within a quarter-mile of a rail station.
The ban is designed to push out uses deemed incompatible with light rail and, instead, promote more pedestrian-oriented development that both encourages transit ridership and creates attractive places. The ban includes such pedestrian-unfriendly and auto-oriented uses as fast food restaurants, auto repair shops, drive-through stories, storage facilities, and warehouses, among others.
The ordinance, authored by Council Member Jay Shenirer, also requires other types of uses—including cannabis cultivators, plant nurseries, and factories — to obtain conditional use permits to operate within a half-mile of a transit stop. Existing nonconforming uses are grandfathered.
It is one of the first, if not the first, regulations in California that promotes transit-oriented development by targeting certain types of businesses.
A citywide ordinance, the ban affects 40-plus stations along the city’s three rail lines. Some lines extend into other cities and unincorporated county territory that are not subject to the ban.
The citywide ban is a more widespread and straightforward version of plans and restrictions that the city has been implementing around individual stations.
“That ordinance and the work that went into preparing it had already identified a list of preferred and discouraged uses,” said Sacramento Planning Director Tom Pace. “We found that after many years we had only applied the ordinance to a few areas, and it would take many years to do individual plans for every station. We felt it was more efficient to come up with a citywide policy.”
While the ban does not explicitly promote other types of development, the city hopes that, by banning uses that often gobble up transit-adjacent parcels, the ban will make way for the development of more housing and mixed-used developments that the city ultimately seeks. The ordinance implementing the ban also includes the elimination of parking minimums for residential developments near transit, as an enticement for developers and a nod towards car-free lifestyles.
“I think the sky's the limit for what you can see around any of these stops,” said Khaim Morton, vice president of Public Policy and Economic Development at the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. “Going forward, we want to make sure that if we're helping the city fulfill this goal of more transit oriented development.”
Though the ban targets only a few types of businesses, pedestrian advocates say that just those few uses can significantly depress walkability.
“There’s a real triple-whammy when you get something like a fast food restaurant with a drive-through right near a transit station,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of transit advocacy group TransForm. “It will produce close to no transit trips whatsoever; it generates a lot of cars for very modest use; it really breaks up the pedestrian environment.”
Pace said the ban was necessary in part because Sacramento’s rail lines were not necessarily built in transit-oriented neighborhoods in the first place. Rather, for the sake of expediency, they were built along heavy-rail rights of way through neighborhoods that are not necessarily walkable (much like many light rail lines in the Los Angeles area).
“Sacramento’s transit legacy is that our light rail system was built around existing heavy rail corridors,” said Pace. "That was to save money. The pattern of land use in these areas wasn't transit-supportive when the light rail was built.”
Though the city council approved the ordnance unanimously, Pace said that some property owners opposed the ban for its potential to restrain their trade.
“We heard a lot of concern from property-owners about a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Pace.
Otherwise, the city’s business community has supported the ban and the city’s promotion of transit oriented development.
“Any time the government wants to restrict what businesses can or can't do and we look at it very seriously, but we also realize that you need to be partners again on how to grow the vibrant community,” said Morton. “This was one of those examples where we could do that.”
Sacramento’s move points to — and tries to solve — a common shortcoming in regions that that have developed light rail. Typically, the rail is developed by a transit authority while cities maintain control over land use. There is frequently little coordination, leading to places that fail to promote ridership and rail lines that don’t go anywhere attractive.
“When we say transit isn't working, a lot of what we're honestly saying is, ‘cities aren't dong their part to put the kind of land uses that make transit worthwhile,’” said Cohen. “It’s a chicken-or-egg cycle.”
Contacts & Resources
Sacramento TOD Ordinance
Stuart Cohen, Executive Director, TransForm, firstname.lastname@example.org
Khaim Morton, Vice President of Public Policy and Economic Development, Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, email@example.com
Tom Pace, Planning Director, City of Sacramento, TPace@cityofsacramento.org