For four decades, North Natomas — a low-lying area just north of Interstate 80 — has represented what could be in Sacramento. Today, North Natomas is the state capital’s primary growth area. Whether North Natomas is cutting edge or a lost opportunity, however, depends on one’s viewpoint.

Although houses are new in North Natomas, the area has a long planning history. During the early 1960s, public officials and developers envisioned a giant regional shopping mall surrounded by miles of single-family houses. But North Natomas remained a growth area only for rice and sheep. In the mid-1980s, the vision was of a sports complex featuring a basketball arena and multi-use stadium, vast tracts of industrial office parks and, of course, new housing. The arena got built (two arenas, actually) but the stadium project was abandoned and other development remained sparse, partly because the city insisted on seeing the stadium built first, and partly because the real estate market crashed (see CP&DR, June 1991).

Despite the early-1990s market nosedive, growth pressure was increasing. North Natomas lies between the airport to the north and downtown Sacramento, only four miles to the south. Interstates 5 and 80 and Highway 99 provide access. Additionally, because of a hardpan layer, the soil is good for water-intensive rice farming but not much other agriculture.

The slow market provided a window in which to plan. In 1992, a working group of about 30 people — developers, landowners, environmentalists, Natomas residents and city staff members — began work on a new plan. Using a collaborative approach that gave any interest group veto power, the working group met for a year before it settled on a set of principals for growth on about 9,000 acres in North Natomas (see CP&DR, December 1992). In 1994, a unanimous City Council adopted the a community plan based on those principals.

Although former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening had not yet invented the term “smart growth,” the 1994 North Natomas Community Plan surely would have qualified for the description. Land use was organized around 14 neighborhoods connected not only by roads but by pedestrian and cycling routes. Eighty percent of housing units were to be within 880 feet of a park, open space or school yard. A light rail line from downtown was to run through the heart of North Natomas, making six stops before heading to the airport. High-density, mixed-use projects with a great number of jobs were to be located next to the transit stops. An urban growth boundary bordered the north and west sides to prevent sprawl. Complementing the community plan was infrastructure financing plan (see CP&DR, September 1994) and, three years later, a habitat conservation plan.

The city issued the first building permit based on the North Natomas community plan in February 1997, and today about 30,000 people call half-built-out North Natomas home. But whether North Natomas has fulfilled its “smart growth” potential is unclear. Light rail appears to be at least a decade away, possibly much longer. The predominance of wide, high-speed boulevards discourages walking. Development of job centers lags behind residential and retail growth. The urban growth boundary appears unlikely to hold.

At the same time, North Natomas does offer a wide variety of housing types and price ranges, and at an average density of 10 units per acre, well above the regional average. A new high school and community college campus are in place, with a library coming soon. Parks are opening at the pace of one a month.

“I see compromise. I see some success and some failure,” said Brent Thrams, an architect and UC Davis instructor who helped represent the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS) on the North Natomas working group. “I see progress in the planning sense.”

“I think most of the big-picture planning ideas have been implemented,” said Mike Winn, another working group member and now a vice president for Reynen & Bardis, which has developed about 8,000 housing units in North Natomas. “I would say on the whole, the plan has held up pretty well.”

But longtime Sierra Club activist Vicki Lee, also a former working group member, is not so positive.

“The backbone idea was light rail going through there, and transit-oriented development,” Lee said. “But that was just a dream. The whole thing is auto-dependent and there is very little transit.”

A New Process

While opinions vary about present-day North Natomas, seemingly everyone has positive memories of the process for the community plan. Prior to that process, Sacramento’s growth battles were just that — battles. For the working group, consensus was essential.

“It helped break the old-school approach to land use planning where people pitted their positions in extremes and waited for an elected official to decide,” Winn recalled.

Thrams said the nearly two-year process started off predictably, with environmentalists and developers at odds and city officials serving as facilitators. As time passed, though, the sides began to blur, he said. Working group members found they could agree on the vast majority of principals, such as preserving the environment, and providing social and economic equity.

“As time passed, the level of trust between the environmental community and the development community became much greater,” Thrams said.

Tom Whitney, an ECOS representative who has since moved out of state, recalled the process being exhausting, educational and worthwhile.

“The planning was very intricate and unprecedented in detail,” Whitney wrote in a recent memoir. “It involved a fundamental thinking-through by all parties involved of every aspect of infrastructure and exploring the multiple ramifications of each for air quality, community livability, non-car orientation to facilitate transit, walking and bicycling, safety, open space, drainage, minimizing noise, parks, access to neighborhood centers, housing mix, the jobs-housing balance and habitat protection, among other issues.”

Sticking With The Plan

“A plan is not a plan unless you get it in the ground and build it,” Carol Shearly says. Now the manager of the Sacramento Planning and Building Department’s New Growth Division, Shearly wrote the North Natomas community plan based on the working group’s principals, and she has been defending the plan ever since.

“It hasn’t been without its challenges,” she acknowledged.

“I was naïve about this when I started my involvement,” added ECOS’s Whitney. “I thought that once we got the elected bodies to adopt the Natomas plan and the county general plan, we could relax. Not so.”

Before the city even started issuing building permits, the City Council amended the community plan, changing an area that had been designated for a mix of offices and residences to permit development of Natomas Marketplace, a big-box power center. For environmentalists, Natomas Marketplace represents what North Natomas was not supposed to be: an automobile-dominated, retail-only giant next to the freeway.

Winn, who was not involved in Natomas Marketplace development, conceded that the project has bad internal circulation and causes traffic congestion. But, he quickly noted, many people shop there.

Power centers were relatively unknown during the early 1990s, so the North Natomas plan did not account for them. By the time plan implementation came around, power centers were becoming a retail trend — and the sales tax that Natomas Marketplace would generate was too much for the city to turn down.

The site of Natomas Marketplace was supposed to be a mixed-use “employment center.” So was land across the street. But interest in building job centers has been light. Four years ago, the city did reject a 1.2-million-square-foot power center adjacent to Natomas Marketplace. However, the city eventually approved a project called Promenade at Natomas — 600,000 square feet of retail, plus an office building and two hotels.

Detractors believe that approving the Marketplace and Promenade projects next to a planned light rail stop was a mistake because light rail serves residents and office workers, not people shopping at Wal-Mart.

But, as it turns out, there is no guarantee a light rail train will ever stop in front of the shopping centers. Initially, light rail was scheduled to be running by 2010. Now, the date is 2012, but even Shearly, a light rail defender, doubts that schedule. Work on an environmental impact report has only begun, and not all of the right-of-way for the preferred alignment between North Natomas and downtown has been acquired.

In the meantime, advocates see opportunities slipping away. Lee said environmentalists had envisioned very high-density apartments next to transit stops, but there is no political will for such projects.

“ What’s going on out there is largely a wasted opportunity to build smart,” said ECOS President Andy Sawyer. “There has been a very noticeable failure in implementing the plan in a way that is smart for transit.”

“Transit-oriented development is a chicken and egg,” Shearly responded. “You’ve got to have the density to get transit, but you need the transit to get density.”

Marni Leger, former head of the Natomas Community Association’s planning committee who now publishes a magazine about Natomas, said the city and Regional Transit have not provided the transit that was promised to North Natomas, either in the form of adequate bus service or light rail. Instead, light rail has been extended elsewhere.

“What’s lacking is the whole transportation element,” Leger said. “A lot of apartment dwellers don’t have the option that was envisioned.”

Simply getting the density necessary to support transit has been difficult in a region long committed to suburban-style, single-family houses. Randy Pestor, another former member of the Natomas Community Association’s planning committee, lamented developers’ reluctance to build something other than suburban projects.

“It’s been a real effort to get developers to build at a higher density,” Pestor said. “They come in with proposals at densities well below the community plan, and we have had to consistently push for higher densities.”

For environmentalists and certain planning advocates, high densities and transit are efficient uses of land and infrastructure. But to suburban homebuyers, density and transit are unwanted aspects of big-city lifestyles. Some of these homebuyers have fought plans to bring light rail down Truxel Road, a primary north-south route, arguing that public transit belongs next to I-5 instead.

“Everything that was seen as an amenity by the planning team is seen as a negative by the residents,” lamented Winn, citing the light rail line and undeveloped open space that has proven difficult to maintain. “I’m a little bit shell-shocked with some of the negative comments that I hear.”

The light rail alignment fight eased when planners guaranteed that no homes would be taken for the project. Still, the underlying tension remains.

Shearly said there is more transit than some people realize. A transportation management agency funded by parcel taxes pays for shuttles to downtown and within North Natomas, carpools and bicycle facilities.

Providing public services, be they transit or libraries, as new residents fill up growth areas is always a challenge. In North Natomas the challenge has been magnified by the pace of development. The city expected to see about 1,500 new housing units a year in North Natomas. Instead, the hot market has resulted in as many as 2,800 new housing units in one year, Shearly said. “We sort of released a pressure cooker,” she said. “You just don’t do that easily.”

What About The Critters?

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of North Natomas growth has been the habitat conservation plan (HCP). The greater Natomas Basin stretches over 53,000 acres in Sacramento and Sutter counties. In 1997, Sacramento and federal and state agencies adopted the Natomas Basin HCP to mitigate development’s impact on about two dozen species, including the protected Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake.

Environmental groups, including ECOS, sued and a federal district court judge in 2000 threw out the HCP because not all of the parties required to implement the HCP — such as Sutter and Sacramento counties — had agreed to participate (see CP&DR Environment Watch, June 2001). The ruling temporarily halted North Natomas development. In 2003, all of the necessary government entities adopted an HCP that was essentially the same as the original plan.

Environmentalists continued their litigation, but both state and federal courts have upheld the habitat plan this year. The document calls for the Natomas Basin Conservancy to acquire 8,750 acres, equal to one-half acre for every acre planned for development. Although the plan permits acquisition over 50 years, the Conservancy already owns 4,105 acres, said Executive Director John Roberts.

Development impact fees are the sole source of Conservancy funding. But what sets the Conservancy apart is its requirement that a developer dedicate fee title to habitat land before development may occur. The Conservancy does not accept easements, Roberts said, because the agency must do too much to build and monitor habitat to rely on anything less than full ownership.

The litigation has moved to the appeals stage. Sawyer, of ECOS, said the HCP falsely assumes that growth will not spread beyond the current city limits. Yet the city, the county and landowners have been talking about growth beyond the current boundaries for three years.

Going Above And Beyond

Shearly conceded “there is considerable pressure” to build outside the current urban services boundary. The city and county have been involved in a “joint vision” process for areas closer to the airport and the Sutter County line, and the city is studying a potential 9,000-acre annexation. So much, say environmentalists, for North Natomas’s urban edge. Yet development may not wait even for the city’s comprehensive annexation. The city is processing a 580-acre project outside the current city limits and next to a long-planned airport industrial center. City officials say the Greenbriar project — proposed by Sacramento’s most prominent developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos, in partnership with Woodside Homes — would be beneficial because it would provide houses near the planned airport light rail line.

The city’s willingness to move on Greenbriar has also spurred an application for annexation by the Ose family, which owns 1,300 acres outside the growth boundary.

Environmentalists are outraged at what they call “leapfrog development” and the betrayal of both the community plan and the HCP. And only three miles beyond the current growth boundary lies Sutter County, where voters last year approved an advisory measure designating 7,500 acres abutting Sacramento County for extensive urban growth.

If the Sacramento urban region is going to reach halfway to Yuba City, then what was the point of the North Natomas planning effort? Shearly said North Natomas has increased density’s acceptance by developers and the market. “I think in some ways we’ve challenged the region. You see fewer ‘snout houses.’ We’ve seen huge strides in median-density housing,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of what I would characterize as horizontal mixed-use.”
Over the next several years, she expects the 200-acre town center, which is still developing, to become an important focal point.

Others are skeptical. Many working group members see North Natomas’s gated subdivisions, big-box power centers and squishy urban boundaries as antithetical to the original principals adopted by consensus.

“I think that plan was fabulous when we did it,” the Sierra Club’s Lee said. “It’s just unfortunate that it didn’t get built out like we wanted. When I’m out there, I always feel like I’m in Orange County.”

Carol Shearly, Sacramento Planning and Building Department, (916) 808-8368.
Mike Winn, Reynen & Bardis, (916) 366-3665.
Brent Thrams, Acanthus Studio, (916) 444-9020.
Andy Sawyer, Environmental Council of Sacramento, (916) 492-5657.
Marni Leger, N Magazine, (916) 359-7411.
John Roberts, Natomas Basin Conservancy, (916) 649-3331.

Levees Keep Low-Lying Growth Area Dry

No one would ever confuse Natomas Town Center with Bourbon Street. Yet North Natomas and New Orleans share a common trait: Both rely entirely on levees for flood protection.

In New Orleans, the threat of flooding was realized in late August when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,000 people and causing a levee failure that inundated the crescent city and neighboring parishes.

The reliance on levees for protection from high water is standard in Sacramento, which lies at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. Although dams control the flows in both rivers, the waterways pose major flood threats. Improving levee stability has been a priority for the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for years.

North Natomas is essentially a bowl between the two rivers. A levee breach could flood the entire area, much of it by 10 to 20 feet. For years, environmentalists and slow growth activists fought North Natomas development based on the flood threat. But by the early 90s, they could see that growth was inevitable and they dropped the cry over flooding.

“Without question, building in a place like this is the wrong thing to do,” said Brent Thrams, an architect and hydrologist who represented the Environmental Council of Sacramento on the North Natomas working group. The community plan relies heavily on parks, playgrounds and open spaces — most of which are in low spots — to slow the rush of high water. Thrams likes that approach, but his doubts remain.

“In the long run, it’s going to fail, and it’s going to flood,” Thrams said. “I said that up front. I still believe that today.”

Over the years, public agencies have spent tens of millions of dollars to raise and strengthen the levees that keep North Natomas dry. The Federal Emergency Management Agency rates the levees adequate for 100-year flood protection, and property owners are not required to carry flood insurance. Sacramento planners consider North Natomas better protected than most parts of the city.

Flood experts, though, worry about a false sense of security. North Natomas residents who live several miles from any river would likely be surprised to know that their safety rests on levees holding back swollen rivers.

In a speech to the Central Valley Flood Control Association last year, Army Corps of Engineers Col. Michael Conrad issued a blunt assessment:

“Once you start developing in the flood plain, it is hard to stop. Once you have 10,000 people at risk, you can’t walk away. But does packing in another 50,000 somehow make it better? And even in deep flood plains behind 15- and 20-foot-tall levees, often times the requirement for flood insurance goes away because a flood protection project has reduced the odds of flooding. But those areas will likely flood someday, and, tragically, people will lose their lives.”