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From the Design Quarterly: 6 approaches to waterfront revitalization

December 05, 2019

How thoughtful decisions can drive the creation of livable urban places down by the water

By Brian Crilly and Amy Seek

In the 19th century, a city’s waterfront was where industry, commerce, and shipping converged. Rivers were highways for goods, and sometimes they were industrial dumping grounds. In the 21st century, cities around the world are starting to rediscover their riverfronts and shape them into publicly accessible amenities for recreation, culture, and play. Just as many cities seek to tap the potential in languishing historic neighborhoods, civic leaders are realizing that riverfronts have enormous untapped potential for transforming their downtowns and cities. Waterfronts are high-visibility projects with the power to transform a city.

In our work for the City of Sacramento, California, we have the privilege of redesigning the city’s historic district and riverfront. Our team was part of the Sacramento Waterfront Idea Makers Competition in early 2019, and we’re now in the process of realizing elements of our competition proposal in the design.

In our concept, the new river-oriented waterfront in Old Sacramento will feature an amphitheater, outdoor cafe, wetlands, transient berthing, and an “accordion deck” that rises and falls with seasonal river conditions.

Projects like the one for the Sacramento waterfront have further broadened our perspective on what it takes to revitalize an urban waterfront—to make them spaces that serve a wide population of residents and visitors.

Nested between a river and a highway, Old Sacramento is hard to access. Currently, visitors from downtown must either drive over a highway overpass to arrive by car, or trek through a long, dark pedestrian tunnel to reach the district.

View an interactive guide to our design concept for the Sacramento riverfront.

While a popular tourist destination, evoking Sacramento’s history as a gold rush town and the endpoint of the Transcontinental Railroad, the district caters to tourists interested in railway and Old West history. Tourist-oriented shops don’t draw city residents back for repeat visits, and there is little to hold the attention of first-time visitors beyond a few hours. Though Old Sacramento sits on the Sacramento River, ramshackle gangways descending as many as 25 feet from the embarcadero at low water make getting to the river difficult. With big change and redevelopment in reenergizing the urban core, the City of Sacramento has decided it is high time for a modernization of Old Sacramento and its riverfront.

The big ideas driving the design for Old Sacramento are applicable elsewhere, in cities with historic neighborhoods and waterfronts that need attention and strategic investment to create vital urban places.

A vision for the Sacramento Waterfront with easy access to the river.

1. Provide amenities for residents

Very few (only about 90) people live in Old Sacramento. Residents leave the district for their basic needs, and those who work nearby leave when the workday is done. There’s little pedestrian traffic or commercial activity before 11 a.m. or after 6 p.m. Residential density is needed to sustain a diverse array of markets, cafes, clothiers, and work spaces—and shops are needed to attract residential density.

But what if current residents could move into new mixed-use apartment buildings near the water? What if there were coffee shops and restaurants that drew local as well as tourist traffic? What if visitors could stay in hotels in the oldest part of the city? What if Old Sacramento was an all-day, year-round destination?

Our vision for Old Sacramento is to create a place that will support a broad range of events and activities, where people choose to spend their spend time and, in doing so, support retail, dining, public transportation, recreation, and tourism.

That vision begins with creation of a large open space right on the water. Public open space attracts private investment, increases real estate value, and draws visitors. By removing underutilized and non-historic buildings that obstruct access to the water, we create flexible open spaces sizable enough to host large-scale events and activities that will expand the ways visitors and residents can experience the waterfront.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 07 | Adapting to Change

2. Provide for diverse programming

The city would like Old Sacramento to become a site for large events and festivals. Our competition team consulted with Unseen Heroes—a local nonprofit that specializes in transforming places through events and activities. Our direction? Make Old Sacramento a food destination—with restaurants, markets, and shops for provisions, and a place for regular food-oriented events and festivals.

While our team doesn’t control future programming, we’re designing open spaces that are broad enough to allow for large audience-oriented events that will draw hundreds of people at once. The park will be able to shift scales—movable furniture will help make this shift from large event to daily use. Our competition design proposed a modern rocking chair as the “Old Sacramento seat,” a unique piece of furniture that is easily moved throughout the district and unmistakably identified with it.

The big ideas driving the design for Old Sacramento are applicable elsewhere, in cities with historic neighborhoods and waterfronts that need attention and strategic investment to create vital urban places.

3. Connect to history, with room for modern interpretations

Rather than attempt to recreate history, our open-space concept allows visitors to imagine the Old West while also inviting new meanings, new experiences, and entirely modern interpretations of the open space.

A competition concept invited visitors to hop on a pump car to ride down Front Street on narrow gauge track—a quirky interactive opportunity that plays up the railway history of this area. The playful take on rail history extends to rail food cars, a mobile rail-mounted version of the urban food truck. And park visitors will stroll on a surface of decomposed granite—which evokes significant parks of Europe or the dusty streets of the Western frontier, depending on who you ask.

4. Connect people to the water

Despite Old Sacramento’s waterfront location, the local community can’t get to the water. Water level fluctuates by 25 feet annually, and in summer there is a 25-foot drop to the water from the embarcadero. To get to the water a visitor must navigate numerous unfriendly gangways, and once on the water the visitor is disconnected from everything happening above on Front Street. The experience feels illicit and uncomfortable, unshaded, and brutally hot in the summer. In winter, the water rises to the elevation of the embarcadero. Our competition design was driven by this problem: we analyzed what kind of mechanism might make an amenity from the change in elevation and its seasonal fluctuations.

Our competition design provides diversified programmatic uses along the river in a dynamic and innovative design we call “the accordion.” The accordion floats up or down with the seasonal water height, providing a continually changing experience. In summer, the accordion becomes a series of stepped terraces that cascade down to the waterside, offering games, people-watching, and sunset seating along the way. At the bottom, a floating café provides waterside dining. In the winter when the water level is higher, it flattens to become an extended waterside plaza.

A floating wetland masks the underside of the embarcadero, benefiting local marine habitat, and offers a research opportunity for nearby students from University of California Davis. Our riverfront design includes transient berths for boats and allows visitors a variety of vantage and access points to the river itself.

Food-focused programming will make the Old Sacramento Waterfront an everyday destination.

5. Use data to better understand the market

To understand where and when people were visiting the area, we turned to data on pedestrian movement and parking garage use near Old Sacramento. Through a relationship with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, we looked at pedestrian numbers on the four major streets of Sacramento to analyze the flows. Combining this data, we could see where people were going and at what time of day and week they visited.

6. Make it multimodal

The design for Old Sacramento doesn’t ignore the automobile—it attempts to right-size vehicular infrastructure and prioritizes pedestrian and cyclist experience, an approach that is beneficial not only for quality of life in the city, but also for store owners and real estate value.

Research shows that cyclists spend more money than drivers, and places that have safe cycling accommodations maintain higher retail sales. Our local data demonstrated that parking rarely reaches capacity in the district, and it takes away from valuable public space along Front Street. Optimizing multimodal circulation in Sacramento means reducing parking to one side of the street, making use of diagonal parking, reducing driving lanes, and adding safe cycling infrastructure. In addition, we’ll plan for occasional closure of Front Street for festivals and events and allow for the parking lane to be utilized for pop-up activities throughout the year.

The future of waterfronts

Underutilized city waterfronts have the potential to shine. With careful consideration for context and application of the fundamentals of placemaking and landscape design, we can transform waterfronts into destinations for recreation, culture, food, sport, history and more.

These interventions are not reserved for large cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco alone. Cities (and capital districts!) like Sacramento are poised to recapture their waterfronts and yield immediate returns on their investments.

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