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From the Treetops #2: Sacramento Riverfront Development Brings New Life to an Overlooked Part of River City

There is a laundry-list of possibilities for creating those oh-so important physical and the more elusive perceived connections to our urban waterfront. Critical to the success of riverfront development: access, activation, and awareness.

By Jason A. Silva, AIA, LEED AP
November 2, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the second in a new ANN series penned by Jason A. Silva, AIA, LEED AP, principal of Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture. The series title comes from a reference to Sacramento, California’s fame as one of the most tree-populated cities in the world.



Decades of proposals and master plans have attempted to allay one of the Sacramento region’s biggest challenges – the rivers. From an outsider’s perspective, The River City earned its moniker from great aerial imagery, with views of the Tower Bridge and the historic Old Sacramento waterfront. But for many residents, simply engaging with the rivers is difficult unless you know where to gain access and are willing to hike through un-marked areas.


Many cities have successfully capitalized on riverfront access and Sacramento is now poised to take some major steps in this direction. Recently, I met with Richard Rich, Sacramento’s Riverfront Development Coordinator. We talked about the laundry-list of possibilities we have before us, from getting the Powerhouse Science Center underway, to creating those oh-so important physical connections and the more elusive perceived connections. In my mind, there are three parts critical to the success of riverfront development in Sacramento: access, activation, and awareness.


First, Sacramento must create clear access to the rivers. This can range from adding good signage, to building a better urban levee that allows for access without reducing flood protection. There are hurdles; especially the NIMBYs. But thankfully, with the influx of Bay Area ex-pats, we are seeing lots of YIMBYs welcoming change. Challenging the status quo brings into focus the fact that some residents would prefer the homeless build shelters along the river banks, rather than increase public use through better access. This old guard is slowly being replaced, though, and a new generation is willing to have more people enjoying the river in their neighborhood.


Second, the river needs to be activated. A friend and local developer, Andrea Lepore, told me her key to creating a successful project in a challenging area is to bring the people first. Concerts, bike tours, public art installations, and other community activations bring people into an area many people may never have visited. Years before luring potential restaurateurs to a neighborhood, Andrea would host regular events like an outdoor film festival, where people ride bikes from downtown, watch a film in a park, and then ride back, en-mass. Our rivers need this kind of activation – and more importantly, they need the permission and ease of facilitation.


Lastly, and I believe most importantly, is awareness. Everyone in Sacramento, visitor or resident, should be more aware of the rivers, how to get to them, and what they can do once they get there. With the world’s focus on strengthening our environmental resources and building great cities, we have a tremendous resource here – times two – with the confluence of two major rivers.


From the Sacramento River to the American, and where they meet on the fringes of the city, we are on the edge of something great. Not something new, just an incredible resource Sacramento is finally ready to celebrate and share with the world.



Jason A. Silva, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner and design principal with Sacramento-based Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture. His work is predominantly performance driven, advanced by technologies in design and fabrication. Both a builder and an artist with public art commissions, Silva brings design and architecture into the public realm.


Also by Silva:


From the Treetops #1: Sacramento: Unheralded City of the Future?
Sacramento is on the cusp of something big, building the city's economy around innovation and creativity. But innovation is only worthwhile if put to use.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(c) Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture

From the treetops

Jason A. Silva

Bridges over Sacramento River provide connection from Sacramento downtown to West Sacramento. More bridges are planned, increasing connectivity

Jason A. Silva

Downtown is separated from the river by a large levee wall – requiring major infrastructure for access

Jason A. Silva

From downtown to the south, the Sacramento riverfront has great development opportunities

Jason A. Silva

The land around the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers is ripe for activation – except when the rivers flood it every winter.

Jason A. Silva

Interstate 5 cuts through downtown, dividing the river from the city.

Jason A. Silva

The natural beauty and density of the American River is an untapped resource adjacent to downtown