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Growing Up Versus Growing Out: Sacramento’s Infill Challenges

4 Questions to Consider

Something big is looming in Sacramento. Projected to expand by more than 200,000 residents -- nearly 50 percent of its current population -- by 2030, California’s capital is facing significant growth.

The City of Sacramento is tackling the issue of how best to handle growth while stepping up to meet the challenge of becoming a more sustainable and livable city. Two key elements of its efforts are smart planning and promoting infill development.

The Pros and Cons of Infill

Most city governments and developers would agree that infill makes sense as a smart growth strategy. It utilizes the urban core of a city and enhances existing services rather than adding to sprawl and pushing out growth boundaries. Infill projects place residents closer to jobs and community services, promote more transportation options, utilize existing infrastructure and facilities, and reduce long-term city costs associated with maintaining suburban neighborhoods.

Despite these benefits, challenges often arise that make it difficult to attract developers to infill projects. Land available for infill projects is often constrained, and the existing residents and businesses usually have expectations and concerns about new development in their neighborhood. Infill projects are often more difficult to finance, and state laws (such as the California Environmental Quality Act and state subdivision requirements) don’t really acknowledge the benefits and challenges associated with infill development. The need to upgrade infrastructure also presents a challenge.

For these reasons, it is usually far easier to develop a greenfield site (previously undeveloped land) than an infill project.

New Programs and A New Approach

In 2002, Mayor Heather Fargo and Sacramento City Council members adopted a strategy to promote quality infill development and hired an infill coordinator. Since adopting the infill strategy, the city has established a number of successful programs, including:

  • Pre-approved plans. For a mere $1,500, residents can purchase a set of pre-approved building plans for an infill home. The plans are specific to certain areas of the city that fall within a design review district, and reflect the more traditional bungalow and Craftsman styles that are characteristic of these neighborhoods. This program encourages infill development, which fills vacant lots with attractive homes that complement the local architecture and increases the property values in neighborhoods that need it most.
  • Shovel-ready sites. Sacramento is pursuing the development of "shovel-ready" sites where construction can begin quickly, by ensuring that all the necessary infrastructure and entitlements are in place to facilitate development. This takes the risk out of a developer’s hands and allows for a more timely development process.

In addition to these new programs, the city has overhauled its development review process to promote smart growth. One step was creating a Multidisciplinary Ac tion Team for Responsive and Innovative Execution (MATRIX). The team works to significantly streamline the development process and make it more timely
and predictable for customers.

Through MATRIX, the process fits the project instead of the other way around. This allows for more sensitivity to the sometimes complex issues that surround infill projects. A single point of contact is assigned to each project, with the objective of helping the customer successfully complete their project.

In addition to the city’s efforts to encourage infill development and smart growth, the development community as a whole is embracing this concept. More projects in Sacramento now encourage higher densi ties and urban living. And transit-oriented development is not limited to the central city; it’s now becoming more common in some outlying areas, too.

A number of projects in Sacramento underscore these changes. The Railyards, located on the site of the former Union Pacific Railyards, is perhaps one of the more well-known projects currently in the planning stages. It will transform 240 acres of undeveloped land into a vibrant mixed-use community. Recog nized as one of the largest infill projects in the country, the Railyards is adjacent to Sacramento’s downtown and will extend the city’s urban core.

More Infill Ahead

More than 20 percent of new development in Sacramento is now infill development, up from 10 percent in the previous decade, and that number is expected to increase significantly in the next decade.

To make infill more economically viable, Sacramento has invested substantial re development and housing funds and successfully applied for grants to help finance infrastructure. The city secured $5 million in grant funding for infrastructure im provements during the past few years and is eligible for another $1 million this year. In addition, Sacramento dedicates some of its capital improvement funds to support infill projects, and funding from recent bond measures will also help to complete projects that benefit infill development. As the city identifies ways to make infill more viable for the community, its efforts to ensure that planning and guidelines support infill will also continue.

The city’s General Plan Update -- the first update in 20 years -- includes a much greater focus on infill develop ment. Educating staff and council mem bers by visiting other jurisdictions and reviewing prime infill locations is an on- going priority.

Encouraging infill development isn’t always easy. Many great cities are known for how they’ve reinvested and evolved with infill projects. As California cities face the challenges of meeting a growing population’s needs, it is by growing up -- not out -- that we will build sustainable, livable communities.