Pride 2017: Gay mayor reshapes West Sacto
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Headed to the Bay Area one weekend in 1993, Christopher Cabaldon realized he needed to return to his Sacramento home to retrieve a forgotten item. Exiting off the Tower Bridge in West Sacramento, he found himself lost in the former industrial hub along the banks of the Sacramento River.
Driving around the small town, unable to figure out how to cross the waterway to get back to the state capital, Cabaldon discovered well-kept homes dating from the 1950s built on cul-de-sacs.
"At that time none of the roads connected. I was lost here thinking, 'What is this place?'" recalled Cabaldon, employed then as a legislative staffer. "I had no idea this was on the other side of the tracks."
Impressed with what he found, and the price of housing in downtown Sacramento out of reach, Cabaldon opted to purchase a home in the Westmore Oaks section of West Sacramento. Three years later he won a seat on the City Council, having fallen short during his first bid in 1994, and served four yearlong terms as mayor while a council member.
"When I bought my house here, I could see the potential," said Cabaldon, 51, who in 2004 was the first mayor to be directly elected by West Sacramento voters. He came out as gay during his State of the City address the following year and has won re-election ever since.
The possibilities Cabaldon envisioned two dozen years ago for his new hometown are now coming to fruition, drawing worldwide attention to West Sacramento for how it is reshaping itself into a regional hub with urban-style housing, locally-owned businesses, and new riverfront recreational access. In late May Cabaldon flew overseas to speak at conferences in Seoul, South Korea and Barcelona, Spain about his political philosophy as a small-town mayor.
"Government should stop overregulating and overthinking and instead try to be a platform for people who want to do great things and let them happen," said Cabaldon as he showed off the new developments reshaping his city a few days prior to his trip.
When a group that wanted to build an urban farm ran into zoning issues, the city revised the rules and now is seen as a leader in the farm-to-table movement. It took the same action when a craft brewery's plan to open in West Sacramento was stymied by zoning rules; now there are five breweries in town with more on the way.
"It is one of our most prominent sectors of our city," said Cabaldon. "Ten years ago the city wasn't saying, 'Let's be the craft brew capital of the region,' but it just happened."
Verna Sulpizio, who last summer was hired as president and CEO of the West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, credited Cabaldon for embracing entrepreneurs with a "crazy idea" and working to help them realize it.
"West Sacramento is where a crazy idea can come to life," said Sulpizio, 35, who grew up in the city and moved back last year after living in Sacramento for the last decade. "Our goal as a city and a chamber is to give you the infrastructure and the ability to take your crazy idea and make it come to life."
Baseball field catalyst for riverfront changes
The catalyst for the changes Cabaldon has promoted during his 20-year tenure as an elected leader of West Sacramento was Raley Field, the home of the Sacramento River Cats minor league baseball team situated near the riverbank with views of downtown Sacramento's skyline. The ballpark for the Pacific Coast League team, which since 2015 has been an AAA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, opened in May 2000.
The project, however, came close to being shelved when the town's leaders rejected the baseball team owner's request that they help finance the new $46.5 million stadium. The financial ask, Cabaldon remembered, totaled nearly half of the city's $18 million budget.
Instead, the city agreed to issue government bonds to cover the construction costs. In order to do so, it teamed with Sacramento and Yolo counties to form a joint-powers agency that became the stadium financing authority.
"We got it done and the whole region was rooting for us. It was a big underdog story," recalled Cabaldon. "We pulled this big project off because other people were willing to help. It made it easier for me to say, 'Let's work on regional things.' It was like an OK to believe again. We used the baseball field to say we can do anything else. It worked and people's thinking changed. It completely changed the social psychology of the town."
The next project he and the City Council tackled was rebuilding the town's governmental center featuring a refurbished City Hall, and across the street, a rebuilt and expanded main library. There is also a new satellite campus for Sacramento City College, part of the Los Rios Community College District, which fulfilled a campaign promise Cabaldon made when he first ran for public office.
Adjacent to the college building, which opened in 2010, is the city's community center. At the urging of the mayor, it combined under one roof various amenities proposed by civic groups that had limited funding for their individual projects. It houses a cafe, black box theater, art gallery, historical society exhibit, senior center, and a children's preschool. Outside is a transit center for local bus routes and where a proposed trolley line that will connect the city to Sacramento should have a stop by 2021.
In May the city saw its first bike share pods installed â€" one is now part of the transit center â€" seven years after regional leaders first began working on the transportation amenity.
"This area is now our downtown," noted Cabaldon. "There never was a downtown."
A new hub is now forming in the city's 188-acre Bridge District, which includes Raley Field and the Rivermark project by Bridge Housing, which offers 70 affordable apartments for families. Where concrete silos, a salmon cannery, and rice mill once sat are new housing developments, including the sold-out Park Moderns whose layout mirrors San Francisco's South Park neighborhood with homes circling an oval-shaped park. Cabaldon moved there in late 2014, allowing him to easily commute by bike to his City Hall office.
"I love this place. There was no urban housing of any kind when I got elected," said Cabaldon, whose neighbors include millennials, empty nesters who have downsized from their suburban homes, and a state judge.
At the end of his block is a wood structure known as the Barn, which abuts a walking and biking path that runs along the city's riverfront. A joint project between the city and developer Mark Friedman, the unique structure serves as a community gathering space and hosts a weekly farmers market. The San Leandro-based Drakes Brewery Company has plans to open a beer hall and eatery inside the building.
The vacant fields surrounding the Barn are all slated for mixed-used developments, with housing above ground floor retail. When complete, the Bridge District will include five to seven million square feet of commercial office space, a hotel, new storefronts, and 4,500 residences.
"The whole Bridge District will be another regional waterfront downtown," said Cabaldon.
One of his neighbors is Andrea Lepore, 47, a lesbian restaurateur who serves on the city's planning commission. She was drawn to the development for its modern design features and its affordability compared to housing prices in the rest of the region.
"It is probably one of the best decisions I made in a long time," said Lepore, a co-owner of pizza restaurant Hot Italian, which has a location in Emeryville. "When I told people I was moving there four years ago, because I bought pre-construction, people thought I was crazy. Now it is the hottest neighborhood in town."
As the planning oversight panel and city officials review new projects, Lepore said they are guided by a desire to see sustainable development that will result in not only resilient neighborhoods but also a resilient city.
"We are planning not just for tomorrow but 20, 30, 100 years from now," said Lepore, noting that the city had moved in that direction long before she joined the planning commission. "That work doesn't happen overnight. Now you are seeing the result of the work Christopher was involved in 20 years ago. He is amazing; I always thought he should be mayor of the region, if there was such a position."
River trail development
All of the new development throughout the city has increased its population from 28,000 to 54,000. It is expected to double in size within a decade, said Cabaldon, who worked for lesbian former state lawmaker Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) as her chief of staff during her first term in the Assembly.
Fifteen years ago Cabaldon first focused on bringing high-density housing to the Washington neighborhood west of the Bridge District. Longtime residents objected to the plans, however, arguing the city should instead focus on attracting businesses to the area, which also abuts the city's River Walk Trail.
The mayor argued more customers were needed first and pushed forward with the development plans. Today, a coffeehouse and a brewpub with jazz lounge in a renovated historic firehouse, which had been slated for demolition, can be found at the entrance to the area. A vacant lot at the intersection, now used for parking, is slated for new housing and storefronts.
"There is a lot of excitingness, if that is even a word, coming from all the new river development," said Sulpizio, who had been living in the Bridge District and is in the process of relocating to a different part of town.
Despite the fact West Sacramento is basically an island, protected by levees from the Sacramento River and the Yolo Bypass, a flood control plain, it has few places where the public can access its riverfront. Plans call for someday connecting the city's riverfront trail with the Great California Delta Trail, a proposed continuous recreational corridor trail network through all five Delta counties that someday will link to the San Francisco Bay Trail system.
For now, the recreational path ends at the Mill Street Pier a few feet east of the Barn. The towering structure juts out over the river and reopened earlier this year after a $1 million rehab project overseen by the city.
"We'd given up most of our waterfront to industry. A big part of what I've been trying to do is take this back," said Cabaldon as he took in the view from the pier.
Cabaldon, who is Filipino and grew up in southern California, is a principal co-owner of Sacramento-based education consulting firm Capitol Impact LLC. One of the state's longest serving gay elected officials, he no longer harbors ambitions to seek higher office, having lost a bid for a state Assembly seat in 2008.
He will likely seek a seventh two-year term as mayor next year. He just announced plans to offer universal pre-school and college accounts to his city's youth and is overseeing a $1.5 billion levee improvement project. Also on his agenda: building two new bridges, one of which will provide a new connection between West Sacramento and Sacramento.
"As mayor I am allowed to work on state and federal issues. I can help lead the national resistance and, at the same time, make sure there is a crosswalk so that kids are safe," said Cabaldon.