Sacramento Neighborhood Rejoins the City

Del Paso Heights is a neighborhood frozen in time. With its large lots and streets without sidewalks or storm drains, the 1,500-acre neighborhood has a kind of shabby charm that recalls its former role as the suburban fringe of the long-gone City of North Sacramento. The neighborhood seems suspended at the moment just before a rural or quasi-rural area undergoes urbanization that is, when large lots get subdivided for single-family housing, when streets get paved and the casual "house here, house there" of farm-oriented land use gives way to a regular system of streets and structures. The problem is that Del Paso Heights is no longer a suburban fringe. Since Sacramento annexed North Sacramento in the 1960s, Del Paso Heights has found itself encased in the larger city. The area's lack of urban design became a drawback. Moreover, the lack of a coherent street system combined with lots as large as two acres made development difficult. As a result, Del Paso Heights is both rundown and underdeveloped. Many of the existing houses date from the early 1940s, when the area was a neighborhood of working-class people who were employed at McClellan Air Force Base a few miles to the northeast. Currently, many Del Paso Heights homes and apartment buildings are dilapidated or poorly maintained, and the area has a high level of absentee ownership. Both crime and unemployment rates are well above average. In 1973, the city designated Del Paso Heights a redevelopment area and spent the next two decades improving some streets, and sponsoring small infill housing projects, including many apartment buildings. In 1996, the city won a $10.5 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to redesign the community as a "home ownership zone." The HUD grant, which funded land acquisition and new infrastructure, also specified a "neo-traditional" style for the community. In 1997, the city hired the Sacramento office Carter & Burgess, a national planning firm, to create a master plan for a 150-area within Del Paso Heights to be called Del Paso Nuevo. The project was nothing less than a complete remake of the entire area, including streets, sewers, parks and several flood detention basins for unchannelized Arcade Creek. To promote homebuilding and commercial development, the city is currently assembling about 60 of the 200 parcels in the area, while trying to minimize the use of eminent domain. The goal is to build 300 new homes, while promoting programs to fix up existing houses. A private homebuilder has just finished 54 single-family homes and plans to build 23 more. A third of the new homebuyers are existing Del Paso Heights residents, which testifies to the effectiveness of a policy to prevent the wholesale displacement of local residents. The master plan for Del Paso Nuevo is straightforward, even though there are subtleties in the plan that are not visible at first glance. The planners have established a more or less regular street grid, bordered by Arcade Creek to the south. The Sacramento Northern Parkway, a landscaped bike path fashioned from an old rail easement, lines the eastern boundary. The high-density and community-oriented uses are concentrated on the west, where we find neighborhood retail, civic buildings, churches and multi-family buildings, with a maximum density of 15 dwelling units per acre. In the single-family areas, homebuilders are now constructing familiar, neo-trad housing with front porches and recessed garages. Street trees including sycamores, California oak and Eastern oaks outline the streets, which is common practice in Sacramento. The most dramatic form in the site plan, perhaps, is the seven-acre Nuevo Park, which intrudes into the civic area, both to provide a pleasant green backdrop and to slow traffic through this potentially crowded area. Not shown in the master plan, although almost as important, are the linkages to the city at large. The main north-south linkage is Norwood Avenue on the western edge of Del Paso Nuevo, connecting the new neighborhood to Interstate 80 on the north and the emerging Uptown Arts District to the south. The major east-west connection is Silver Eagle Road, which links to the South Natomas area via the East Main Canal bridge. An existing light-rail station is three-quarters of a mile away. Beyond the automobile, the area also has bike paths, including the north-south links along the Northern Parkway, and east-west along Arcade Creek, from which bicyclists can eventually access the heavily used regional bike paths along the American River. The most ingenious part of the plan, arguably, is the dual role played by the two parks as both recreational areas and detention basins. The more active park in the center of the plan provides a public amphitheater that steps down to a bandstand. Less formal is the northeastern portion of the same park, which is a slope planted with native species and described officially as "maintenance free," (although Jeff Townsend, managing principal of Carter & Burgess, is quick to add that there is no such thing as a maintenance-free park). This slope provides a diagram of Sacramento plant life, ranging from wetlands species at the base to the dry, grassy, drought resistant plants on the upper slope. A path of broken concrete winds its way down this slope, and does double duty as a pathway and as a kind of dam that captures sediment during flooding. If the urbanization of Del Paso Nuevo has brought about the loss of a certain nostalgic landscape of formless suburbia, there have been some positive returns. A neighborhood that was an isolated island within Sacramento is being integrated into the circulation, and presumably the social life, of the city as a whole. It is particularly gratifying to see the way that urban development and environmental repair activities that are often at loggerheads have been brought together in the design and planning process. Beyond unbinding a trapped neighborhood, Del Paso Nuevo is a welcome example of multi-purpose design in an urban area that is enlarging its range of possibilities.