Part One: The Dream of Gold Rush Park

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two part series .

The Richards Boulevard neighborhood is a big area – bigger than Cal Expo and Sacramento State University, combined. It’s not a garden spot. Right now, the area features a lot of warehouses – some of them vacant – as well as some motels and restaurants around Jiboom Street, a few residential pockets containing small homes, and many of the city’s homeless services, including Loaves and Fishes. A crowd gathers daily inside the Loaves and Fishes dining room, which provides a free noontime meal, 365 days a year.     

Tim Brown, executive director of Loaves and Fishes, knows that he’s in an area the city has long contemplated for redevelopment. "There’s no question, this neighborhood is undergoing massive change. I mean, two blocks from here, the railyards are going to be developed. Right next to that is the old Globe Mills, and that’s already about to be under construction, and be turned into housing. You know, there’s a lot going to be happening in the next ten years in this neighborhood.”

Those changes could involve the haphazard development north of Loaves and Fishes, and the railyards.  When lawyer Joe Genshlea and a group of citizens look at the area, they envision something big and green.

I met Genshlea on a levee, overlooking the cool waters of the American River, where he outlined the possibilities of the idea known as Gold Rush Park.  “We want to see a park like Golden Gate Park, like Central Park, Sacramento would create a great zoo in the park, that we could put a horticultural garden in the park, that there could be a water feature. You’d have the big museums, perhaps the Indian museum, perhaps the state historical museum in the old printing plant. You’d have a place like the Great Meadow in Central Park. All those kinds of things.”

Genshlea and others envision a great urban park that would rival Balboa Park in San Diego, home of a famous zoo, a park that would ultimately draw millions of visitors, the way Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in New York do. It would be a huge transformation. In fact, when Genshlea first described the idea to Robert Waste, former city planning commissioner and professor at Sac State, Waste’s initial reaction was that a 900-acre park wasn’t practical. “I thought that this was a wonderful idea, but absolutely impossible," says Waste. "He told me on a Friday, and I thought about it over the weekend, and I phoned him up on Sunday, and said ‘You know, I have a different take on that.’ This is exactly the sort of thing that cities should be talking about. Not whether we should have buses and trains at the rail station. But ‘What should we look like in 20 years?’ I think what we should look like is exactly what Joe’s suggested. We should have the fourth largest park in the United States, and be a really, genuinely world class place to live.”

Acquiring the land in the Richards Boulevard area would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Waste feels certain that the business opportunities and jobs generated by a new Gold Rush Park would more than compensate.  "As somebody that’s actually chaired the City of Sacramento’s  planning commission, I’ve seen a lot of projects over the years. This is a large number, but our estimates are that it pencils out.  What would it cost to buy this land? Around $500 million. That’s a large figure, but it’s a doable figure. We’re currently talking about an arena in Sacramento, which is $400. This is $100 million in addition to that, for a jobs generator that’s tremendous.”

For Waste, the bottom line is that Gold Rush Park, replete with museums and gardens and river access, would bring many millions of dollars of business to the area, and transform the way the world looks at Sacramento, and Sacramento looks at itself.  “It would change Sacramento from a pass-through city to a go-to city on the West Coast.”

 For Genslea, it’s a question of vision. Back in the 1800s, Sacramento was transformed from a sleepy settlement into a state capital because of the Gold Rush. Genshlea thinks another big transformation is now in order, and he thinks the support is there for the idea. “The people who are helping develop this park, which is a long list of people, believe that great things can still happen in Sacramento. That the spirit of America, and the spirit that built Sacramento is still here, and alive, and that developing a great park like this is an achievable goal.”

Gold Rush Park supporters are now preparing a feasibility study for the park, which should be finished in the fall. At that point, they plan to press ahead with a more formal proposal that could be considered by city government.   

Coming tomorrow -

Part Two: The Reality. Is a thousand acres of open space in an urban area the best use for valuable real estate? The land is now home to industrial buildings and some low income housing. Opponents of the proposed Gold Rush Park say the land could better be used for urban infill housing and businesses.