A community garden in Sacramento, CA. Photo by Annie & John via flickr.
Councilmember Steve Hansen has a history of advocating for and working with community members in Sacramento, CA’s historic downtown neighborhoods, serving in recent years on his neighborhood association, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership Board of Directors, and the Sacramento Redistricting Citizens Advisory Committee. Now, just one-and-a-half years into his first term in elected office, Councilmember Hansen is working to promote policies and encourage development that will make Sacramento’s downtown more vibrant for residents.
“We have such an opportunity—particularly in the older parts of the city—to build housing, to bring vitality back, and ultimately to create a vibrant modern city,” says Councilmember Hansen, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “We want to respect historic structures but revitalize them, and to bring communities that were displaced by redevelopment and highway construction back to life.”
Hansen explains that redevelopment projects in Sacramento’s downtown neighborhoods currently face a number of barriers, including policies and standards that make infill development and redevelopment complicated and costly compared to new development in the city’s outer suburbs.
Some of these barriers came to light during Sacramento’s recent La Valentina redevelopment project, the transformation of a former brownfields site in Hansen’s own Alkali Flat neighborhood into a mixed-use, mixed-income apartment building next to a light rail station. The project, which received a 2013 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement from the US Environmental Protection Agency, initially faced hurdles due to the City’s outdated zoning code.
To address these barriers, Hansen and other city leaders have worked to reduce red tape and modify existing standards to make it easier to develop within Sacramento’s downtown core. The City updated its Planning and Development Code in 2013 to provide more flexibility for redeveloping small urban infill lots.
The City also modified its parking requirements in late 2012 to make it easier to do redevelopment downtown and to promote transit-oriented development.
Hansen explains, “we had a suburban parking standard adopted in the 1950s, and it meant that historic buildings couldn’t be adaptively reused because you couldn’t carve out surface parking to meet the standards. It left a lot of buildings fallow. We were able to develop more thoughtful, practical parking standards that acknowledge our regional transit system and walkable and bikable neighborhoods.”
Hansen has also worked to engage community members to build broader support for infill projects in his district. This ongoing outreach is helping to catalyze a culture shift among residents toward what he refers to as a “Yes in my backyard” philosophy. He explains, “it’s about how to empower people to believe that they share in the responsibility for changing growth patterns, and to get them to take leadership roles and help steward projects through the pipeline with their neighbors.”
In an effort to better meet the needs of residents in his district, Hansen has also started to work with other city and state leaders on addressing what he calls Sacramento’s ‘agricultural divide,’ the lack of access to fresh healthy food for many residents, particularly in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
“We’re looking at how we can bring urban agriculture—whether that’s community gardens or urban farms—to those neighborhoods where we can’t get a large grocery store to open or easily bring fresh fruits and vegetables through the traditional commercial market,” says Hansen.
The Sacramento region, which is home to a variety of sustainable fisheries, wineries, organic farms and local craft breweries, has branded itself as the Farm to Fork Capital of America. Hansen explains that, “we’ve put a lot of focus on the gastronomy part, but in the past we’ve largely left out the farm part. I see this urban agriculture work as a way to bring healthier eating habits to communities and to teach people to grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables.”
To further support urban farming, the City is working with farms, community agricultural groups and community development corporations to do a comprehensive update of the City’s urban agriculture policies. “We’re taking lessons from Detroit, from Oakland, from any city in the country,” says Hansen. “We are trying to make a model urban agricultural ordinance for Sacramento.”
These efforts align with a broader state focus on supporting urban agriculture. A new state law passed in 2013 allows cities to provide tax breaks to owners of vacant properties if they permit community members to farm on the land.
To Hansen, these efforts fit in to a vision for a community-driven future for the city. “We need smart growth and infill to knit the community back together, but also so that we can create a vibrant economic future that will grow out of that community energy,” says Hansen. “It’s a no-brainer for Sacramento.”