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[With Video] Envisioning the revitalized design of the Old Sacramento urban riverfront

July 01, 2019

By Dalton LaVoie

Design competition inspires interdisciplinary team to craft a vision to transform an underutilized district into a vibrant community

Across the globe, urban waterfronts are being revitalized. The path each community takes is full of opportunities and challenges. The place I call home, Sacramento, California, is taking big steps forward on a journey that has seen its share of starts and stops over time. It’s not always easy to embrace the “old” and simultaneously develop the “new”—but we love a challenge and we have big ideas to make it happen.

The City of Sacramento’s innovative Waterfront Idea Makers Program is reimagining Old Sacramento, a site where journeys began during the California Gold Rush and where the Transcontinental Railroad started eastward to Promontory Point 150 years ago. The Waterfront Idea Makers design competition attracted professional design teams—and residents—to share their visions of what the City’s waterfront of the future might look like.

What I find fascinating is how this process was both hyper-local and globally inclusive. Hyper-local because Sacramento is that unique place where the American and Sacramento rivers converge, the launch point for the 1849 California Gold Rush, and the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. Residents and local designers shared their visions with the City. It’s global because waterfronts—no matter the size or location of the community—are a drawing card for critical and creative thinkers.

A video presentation of Stantec’s entry in the Waterfront Idea Makers design competition.

Start with ‘Why’

When our Stantec team first gathered to discuss the design competition we asked “Why?”

Why did we want to take on the challenge? We knew it was an opportunity that would test our admiration for our community, our professions, and our team. That’s the nature of design competitions—you’re not necessarily working on a single project, you’re working on something more nebulous, yet grander.

Opportunity isn’t a spectator sport, and we wanted to have a role in shaping a place where we live, work, and play.

We saw the competition and our effort as an important investment for the future of Sacramento. The City requested ideas to help set the stage for its waterfront and future. Opportunity isn’t a spectator sport, and we wanted to have a role in shaping a place where we live, work, and play.

We crafted a vision that captured the site’s rich past and inspired its promising future. Through the lens of time, we realized that we saw today the same potential that the indigenous peoples, explorers, settlers, and countless entrepreneurs have seen—a place of abundance with the promise of a new beginning. We see this place as The Landing and it is an invitation to all those whose journey leads them to Sacramento—“Start here.” The waterfront is where our City began, and it is where we want your next story to begin, too.

The Stantec design team crafted five big ideas for the Waterfront Idea Makers design competition: the arrival, the place, the embrace, the stay, and the experience.

Goals and ideas

The City of Sacramento provided five project goals to participants in the competition. They asked that designs respond to these principles: activate, reconnect, create an iconic riverfront destination, improve visitor experience, and enhance interpretive value. We had our framework. This was our launching point.

Working with local and international experts within Stantec—urban designers, architects, fellow landscape architects, engineers, historians, scientists, and other specialists—we crafted a vision for the future of our Waterfront. Embracing the City’s vision, we defined five big ideas, each framed in the context of an individual’s experience.

  • The arrival: Our goal is to reconnect and redefine your experience of getting to and through the district. It feels easy and engaging.
  • The place: An area with both history and promise that is as welcoming as one’s own front yard. There is a sense of welcome and comfort.
  • The embrace: The Sacramento River gave life to our city and it’s important we celebrate that story. There is a sense of connection to both nature and history.
  • The stay: People—residents and guests—bring a community to life. This is a place you want to stay, whether it’s to play, work, or live.
  • The experience: Ultimately, The Landing is a canvas to paint Sacramento’s story—a mixed-use district with opportunity for all to engage and enjoy. This is a place to see and be seen.

The way I see it, we don’t build projects, we build community. This is our community.

Global issues, local perspectives

What we discovered—by engaging with our designers in New York, New York; Calgary, Alberta; and Reno, Nevada—is that reimaging Sacramento’s waterfront is a unique challenge. As an interdisciplinary and global team, we can learn from our experiences elsewhere and create a waterfront experience you just can’t get anywhere else.

Our Sacramento office gathered weekly for “Waterfront Wednesdays.” We invited our entire staff to join the charette and develop ideas and designs. It was like an in-house public-engagement meeting. We had photos, drawings, and workshops on topics ranging from storytelling to technical feasibility. Those who came together all had a hand in shaping our vision. It was truly a diversity of minds and perspectives.

It was an amazing experience that helped develop a compelling storyline with character, depth, and authenticity. Following, I elaborate further on our five big ideas.

The Stantec team’s vision for the Old Sacramento Waterfront. The Landing is an invitation to all those whose journey leads them to Sacramento to “start here.”  

The Arrival: Getting there and getting around

An exciting destination is less so if you can’t get there. Picture Manhattan without any bridges, ferries, or subways—not the same, right? For Old Sacramento’s waterfront to thrive, it needs better connections, which means overcoming some major barriers, including (in order of complexity): freeways, railroads, and buildings.

I’ll tackle the simplest of the three—the buildings—for brevity’s sake. Sacramento has several signature destinations on its southern end, including Tower Bridge, with its Streamline Moderne architectural style, and the Capitol Mall, which runs from the river to the California State Capitol Building. But it also has a meaningful connection to the waterfront from the south is lacking.

Our vision removes a parking garage on south side of the district which opens the waterfront to Capitol Mall and the Tower Bridge. It creates a pleasant experience for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike. Parking options aren’t eliminated, they are simply evenly redistributed throughout the district.

This key move allows for generous pathways that encourage bicycling and walking, which is enhanced through clear wayfinding.

Once people arrive, they are ready to explore the place.

Whether it’s autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, cycling, public transit, or walking, urban residents are looking at transportation differently. They want choices.

The Place: Making it a “front yard”

Globally, vehicular culture is changing to one focused on diversified mobility. Whether it’s autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, cycling, public transit, or walking, urban residents are looking at transportation differently. They want choices. It’s important to integrate the changing culture into the waterfront.

We transform Front Street into the community’s “front yard,” like the Champs-Elysees in Paris or New York’s Bryant Park. Reducing the road footprint and expanding sidewalks creates spill-out space for cafés, sidewalk seating for retail, pop-up space and street furniture. Parking is limited to certain days and hours, allowing for a balance of event adaptability and daily convenience.

Great cities celebrate their outdoor space. Think Las Ramblas in Barcelona or the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas. In Old Sacramento, we propose transforming K Street from a vehicle artery to a car-free pedestrian walkway, all of it with a view toward the waterfront.

Our vision also includes a Gold Rush playground that encourages digging, splashing in the water, climbing and exploring. Mobile food truck vendors—or, more correctly, rail food cars—roll in to celebrate the district’s history and feed hungry guests and locals.

We know that after people taste this place, they will embrace it.

The Accordion Deck makes an asset of the variation in water levels at the riverfront, folding and unfolding with the changes in water elevation.

The Embrace: Connecting with nature in creative ways

The Sacramento River provided the city life. To properly celebrate the river’s importance to the community—past, present, and future—we need to enhance how we interact with it. People are typically drawn to water, and it’s exciting to see industrial waterfronts around the world evolving into inviting open spaces.

In Sacramento, it’s not an industrial past that challenges us, it’s the variation in water levels at the riverfront that has made the river hard to reach. The underworld of piers makes being at water level in the summer feel detached from the city itself.

Our solution is what we call the Accordion Deck, which makes an asset of the variation in water levels at the riverfront, folding and unfolding with the changes in water elevation. At low water in summer, the deck unfurls to reveal terraces programmed for multiple activities at once, each with views of the other, all alongside our river. At high water, it flattens out and transitions to a large plaza for events and movies.

Floating wetlands serve as a living laboratory to study the river. We envision the wetlands as a study area for University of California Davis researchers to evaluate habitat value and ecosystems benefits. Ultimately, we want those floating wetlands to improve the habitat throughout the watershed and to serve as a prototype for other communities. They can also be beautiful attractions.

People will embrace what Old Sacramento offers, and they will want to stay.

The Stay: Enlivened by people who come to stay or play

To evolve into a truly authentic and inviting district, Old Sacramento must be densified with mixed-use retail, hospitality and residences. That will draw people who will call the waterfront home—whether it’s to play or live.

That means redevelopment to attract permanent residents with multifamily residential opportunities. New hotels invite temporary residents to make this their home base during their stay.

Developing office spaces and maker spaces for creatives and entrepreneurs encourages innovation and invites people to make the community their home. Creating a vibrant, local, farm-to-fork market celebrates the bounty of the region, which guests and residents embrace.

Currently, Old Sacramento has a low population base. As that base increases, the community will see improved long-term retail performance.

Now that people have decided to stay, they are ready to experience all that the waterfront offers.

The Landing is envisioned to include seasonal markets and a vibrant activity calendar.

The Experience: Activated as the community’s stage

Old Sacramento shouldn’t feel static, it should feel alive and vibrant—the it place. It should invite people of all ages, backgrounds, and perspectives to come and experience its past and live in its present.

That present includes a vibrant activity calendar overflowing with celebrations of place and culture.

We sought out a prominent local event planning firm, Unseen Heroes, to join our team and help plan a calendar full of exciting experiences for The Landing. The waterfront becomes a welcoming public space with food venues, markets, and events that form the foundation of a redefined waterfront experience. There are seasonal markets, cultural festivals, and events celebrating food, beer, coffee, wine, and music.

It’s a calendar that embraces all that Sacramento offers, a diverse and inclusive place that allows people of all ages and interests to forge unforgettable memories.

The first steps to an amazing future

The invitation to participate in City of Sacramento’s Waterfront Idea Makers initiative led me—and dozens of my colleagues—on a fantastic journey. It was countless hours of hard work, but our final vision is something I’m incredibly proud of and something that could truly change my hometown for the better.

As I sit here today, I can see myself walking down the new embarcadero watching parents with theirs kids joyfully jumping about in the playground, waving to couples strolling down the car-less K Street Plaza, and staff busy at work prepping for movie night on the Accordion Deck. It’s all possible. All it takes is an idea to get it started.

This is the vision we see for our community at Stantec. We are committed to this journey to improve our waterfront together, and we are just getting started. We see this place as The Landing and we invite all those whose journey leads them to Sacramento to start here.

  • Dalton LaVoie

    As a landscape architect, Dalton’s passion is to synergize the built and natural environments. By creating thoughtful, cooperative designs, Dalton hopes to create a world where communities and the natural world flourish together.

    Contact Dalton
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