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Sutter Street Revitalization comes to life

WHERE TO GO? Visitors study the temporary directory displayed on Sutter Street. Photo by Roberta Long
WHERE TO GO? Visitors study the temporary directory displayed on Sutter Street. Photo by Roberta Long

Courtesy photos

The new old Folsom Historic District springs to life as winter dies down and heavy equipment clears Sutter Street.

“People are coming back and they like what they see,” said Jim Snook, owner of Snook’s Chocolate Factory in the heart of Sutter Street.

Folsom Lake Bank President Bob Flautt stepped out onto Sutter Street and paused. “It’s really looking good. You can see how it will look when it’s finished,” he said. “I thought it would look nice, but I didn’t think it would look this nice. It’s all the little touches.”

155-year history

Sutter Street has a long and fascinating history. It was first laid out as the city’s main street in 1855 when Capt. Joseph Folsom hired Theodore Judah, a surveyor and railroad engineer, to lay out a town that would serve as a railroad terminus. The site was 19 miles east of Sacramento, next to the American River, on land that was part of a Mexican land grant purchased by Folsom from the estate of Alexander Leidesdorff. The grant was named Rancho Rio de los Americanos. In 1856 the 90-block town was named Folsom, after its founder, who died the preceding July.

The Sacramento Valley Railroad, the first railroad west of the Mississippi River, sent its inaugural train from Sacramento to Folsom in February of 1856. Sutter Street instantly became a thriving commercial hub, bringing in supplies from the Sacramento Valley that were then sent on by wagon to Gold Rush sites in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The Sacramento Valley Railroad was consolidated with the Folsom and Placerville Railroad in 1877, and eventually into the Southern Pacific Railroad. Folsom lost its train dominance in the 1860s when the transcontinental railroad was built through Roseville and over the Sierra. The last train rolled out of Folsom in the 1970s.

As gold fever abated in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Folsom’s Sutter Street became the commercial center for the ranchers and farmers who settled the surrounding area.

In 1915 an alternate route to the first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, went from Auburn to Sacramento through Sutter Street in Folsom. As families started traveling for pleasure in their automobiles Folsom’s historical charms became tourist attractions.

The small town incorporated into a city in 1946 with a few thousand residents. Sutter Street was still the center of town.

A decade later Folsom Dam was completed and the city expanded beyond its original townsite and the population grew. In 1960, with almost 4,000 residents, Folsom got its first shopping center. It was in the 300 and 400 blocks of East Bidwell, at the edge of town. With drive-up parking, new shops opened at the trendy site.

WHERE TO GO? Visitors study the temporary directory displayed on Sutter Street. Photo by Roberta Long

Sutter Street spiffs up in 1960

In response to competition from the new shopping center, Sutter Street merchants renovated their area. They put a line of shingle shed roofs on their buildings to protect customers from heat and rain. They installed a median strip with trees to add shade and created parking lots off the street.

An aging Sutter Street faces new challenges

By 2000 the city’s population had grown to around 52,000. Intel came in 1984 bringing thousands of new jobs, and Folsom expanded south to Highway 50 and east to the El Dorado County line. Sutter Street was no longer the commercial center of Folsom. Competition was popping up all over, including the Folsom Premium Outlets close to Highway 50. To top it off, the Palladio regional shopping center was coming on line.

Although many people loved the familiar comfortable charm of the Sutter Street they knew the Historic District was already changing.

Folsom Dam Road closed in 2001 after 9/11. Traffic was redirected to the Folsom Historic District business and residential areas to cross at the Rainbow Bridge or Natoma Crossing. The distress caused by thousands of additional vehicles through the area was not relieved until Folsom Lake Crossing opened in 2009.

In October of 2005 the Gold Line extension brought light rail from Sacramento to the Historic Folsom Station.

By 2005 sales and property taxes from Sutter Street area businesses were dragging. Sales taxes support 49.5 percent of Folsom’s general fund. Property taxes kick in another 27.6 percent. The merchants and property owners were not able to finance needed improvements. Nor were they able to direct replacement of outdated infrastructure. The buildings did not meet modern code requirements, nor did they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A public-private partnership was needed.

TEICHERT CONSTRUCTION CREWS lay new underground utility pipes on Sutter Street in mid-November 2010. Photo by Roberta Long

Business and city step up

Joe Gagliardi, chief executive officer of the Folsom Economic Development Corporation (FEDCorp) and the Folsom Chamber of Commerce, said a coalition of FEDCorp, the city, the Folsom Tourism Bureau and chamber commissioned a retail study of the area.

The Folsom Historic District is the original 90-block townsite. The Sutter Street commercial area is small, hemmed in by residences on three sides and the Powerhouse State Historic Park on the river side. The challenge was to define Sutter Street as a special place that would attract visitors and shoppers again.

The study concluded that the Sutter Street area’s special niche would include fine dining, entertainment, arts and history. Retailers who could add an educational component would attract more people. For example, Gagliardi cited the Sutter Street Theatre, which offers acting and art classes for children and adults. The study indicated that retailers should complement one another, creating a synergy that brings attention to the whole district. It also pointed out that the district is perfect for a community and tourist gathering place.

The study made clear that neighboring residents cannot support the Sutter Street merchants alone, and encouraged the Folsom Historic District to partner with the Folsom Tourism Bureau and other entities to market the area.

Folsom Redevelopment Agency commits funds

The Folsom City Council, acting in its capacity as the Folsom Redevelopment Agency, committed property taxes from the Folsom Historic District (the original 90-block townsite) to redevelopment projects in the Sutter Street commercial area: four blocks on Sutter Street, plus cross streets Reading, Decatur, Wool, Riley and Scott.

The agency’s part was to provide utility upgrades, new street surfacing, access required by the American with Disabilities Act and civic amenities. With these in place the property owners can improve or construct their buildings. One block between Sutter and Leidesdorff streets is called the Railroad Block. Part of the nearly 5-acre site is owned by the city. The remainder is a new private development called Folsom Historic Station.

The redevelopment agency allocated $10 million for revitalization of Sutter Street, $14 million for a multi-story parking structure in the Historic Railroad Block, and $10 million for a public plaza in the Historic Railroad Block. This was phase one.

In later phases the agency contemplated additional revitalization work, improvements to Riley and Leidesdorff streets and a second parking structure. These projects are now in jeopardy with Gov. Jerry Brown’s targeted elimination of redevelopment agencies in his proposed budget.

SutterStreet finished watercolor

ARTISTIC RENDERING of Sutter Street looking from Riley Street when the revitalization project is finished. Courtesy of Steve Hubbard/Louis Kaufman Architect

Sutter Street merchants

From his corner on Sutter and Wool streets, at Snook’s Chocolate Factory, candymaker Jim Snook presides as president of the Folsom Historic District Association. The family business was started by his parents on Sutter Street in 1963. He and his wife, Renee, moved the store to its present location in 2002.

“There’s never a good time to do something like this,” he said. “The infrastructure was so old. The street was dug up four or five times, but it was just putting on band aids.”

It’s been a year since the Folsom Redevelopment Agency approved an $8.4 million contract to Teichert Construction for phase one of the Sutter Street Revitalization project.

With the end of phase one in sight and the economy perking up, Snook is upbeat.

As the representative for the merchants through the redevelopment process, Snook said, “We’ve honored all the difficult challenges — the elderly, the disabled and future generations. It was difficult to get around. People with baby strollers had a hard time. We’re gaining more pedestrian space and people are enjoying walking around.”

It’s been a hard year for the merchants, with access to their businesses limited. They stayed open and offered extra incentives to entice customers.

The property owners voted by an 85 percent margin to approve a property tax assessment that would provide ongoing management of the district.

Most of the business owners reported they had a band of faithful customers who stayed loyal. Cloud’s Porcelain renewed acquaintance with former customers when they found parking behind the Sutter Street Steakhouse Riley Street and noticed the relocated pottery business in its studio/warehouse.

Teichert Construction did its best to keep disruption to a minimum, and workers stopped to help customers navigate the pedestrian detours. Before the holidays, Teichert brought in two grading crews to accelerate completion of the grading. Mike Davis, grading foreman, said there was an archaeologist on site to make sure anything uncovered was preserved.

None of the events that are normally held throughout the year on Sutter Street were cancelled. The Folsom Chamber of Commerce did whatever it took to host FolsomLIVE!, the Cattle Drive, the Christmas Tree Lighting and other popular events, and people came. Other organizations with events in the district did the same.

During construction the city contracted with Eric Coombs, ENC Valet, to provide free valet service on weekends.

With the street clear now, Snook said the narrower width acts as a traffic calmer. “It draws them in. People are driving slower.”

The new look is what people in the future will recognize as Folsom’s Historic District and, to underscore the point, Snook indicates several photographs of Sutter Street at different stages of its history that he keeps under glass on a small round café table for just such inquiries.

Historic District neighbors have a voice

With a redesign and the prospect of major reconstruction in the commercial area, it was important to include the views of neighboring residents and to minimize any negative impacts. FEDCorp subcontracted with Jeff Ferreira-Pro, a resident of the area, as facilitator and project manager.

Ferriera-Pro had done consensus-building at Hewlett-Packard. He learned there, “Everything is connected to everything.”

He had his work cut out. “There were opposing camps in the Historic District, and they cancelled each other out,” he said. “Nothing could move forward.”

Through a series of dialogues and brainstorming, along with surveys of what people cared about, Ferreira-Pro sought common ground. “Melding the differences and purposes behind their passions was the challenge,” he said.

“We found that everyone valued the district for different reasons. We discovered that historic preservation and economic development are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually dependent. Historic preservation requires money. Money comes from merchants.”

One of the things that helped people visualize what Folsom’s Historic District could look like was a tour of other redevelopment projects. A group of residents, city and business people representing 20 stakeholder groups traveled to Santana Row in San Jose, to 4th Street in Berkeley, to Los Gatos and Pleasanton. “It was Joe’s idea,” said Ferreira-Pro. “That was the beginning of a spirit of collaboration.”

The residents discussed what would happen without revitalization and most realized their quality of life would deteriorate. Some of the comments were, “Are we going back to having brothels?” and “We’ll have boarded up shops.”

In the end, not everyone was perfectly happy, but the residents and business owners became aware of their mutual concerns.

Ferreira-Pro has high hopes for the Historic District. “With its beautiful setting, the bike trail, the quality of life, it should be an international tourist attraction,” he said.

Sutter Street revitalization

Two projects were completed in 2007: the city’s multi-story parking garage in the Railroad Block and the Sutter Court building in the 900 block of Sutter Street. Sutter Court is a mixed-use development created by Folsom developer Jeremy Bernau. “A mix of uses is consistent with the original development of Folsom,” said Bernau. The building follows the patterns and principles of historic architectural design in Folsom, Sacramento and Gold Rush era towns. The three-story building is home to Folsom Lake Bank, R.E.R. Engineers, retail shops, professional offices and eight loft apartments.

Bernau and Folsom city staff worked together to design a mixed-use ordinance that sets the standard for future mixed-use projects in the city.

At the other end of the commercial area, Folsom resident and area developer Doug Scalzi opened the Folsom Electric Power and Lighting Building on Sutter and Scott streets in 2010, with Sutter Street Steakhouse, office and retail spaces and public parking. This three-story, brick-faced building reflects the original Folsom Powerhouse that sent electricity to Sacramento beginning in 1895 and is now in the state historic park across Riley Street.

The cosmetic touches on Sutter Street aren’t finished, but the new look is apparent. The sidewalks have been widened for shoppers and outdoor eating spaces added. Parallel parking pockets are interspersed along the street. Small granite blocks separate the parking spaces from the street, a little touch of elegance that refers to the past.

The trees in the median are gone, causing anguish from those who loved them. Arborists had inspected the trees and declared them not healthy. When the street was torn up to install new utility lines, and the median was removed, the cause of the trees’ distress was discovered — the old Lincoln Highway was right underneath the pavement with only a few inches of soil for the tree roots. One hundred new trees are being planted to more than replace those lost.

The shingle roofs on the shed roofs were another favorite feature of the last neighborhood style, but through the years they became a fire hazard. Project Architect Louis Kaufman designed façade improvements to enhance the original architecture. He worked closely with the property owners to give each building its own distinctive treatment.

Before beautification, the street pavement was removed and the aging water and sewer lines replaced.

Fire safety was a major concern. Prior to any plans, a Fire Suppression System Feasibility Study was completed. Folsom Fire Chief Ron Phillips said the water supply was outdated. The larger pipes now installed will supply sufficient pressure to fight any fire. Fire hydrants were upgraded. The buildings have been pre-plumbed for sprinklers. The plan is that sprinklers will be installed in the next phase on a cost-sharing basis with the property owners. This is another project that is at risk due to Gov. Brown’s budget proposal.

Phillips said replacing the dry wood facades and strengthening the structures, including rebuilding the balconies, will improve fire safety dramatically. “It keeps the fire confined, and allows the fire department to control it.”

The finishing touches are coming into view. Bicycle racks and benches are being installed. Landscaping is being planted. Signage identifies the district.

Six interpretative totems, with graphics and photographs, will tell the stories of the early days of Sutter Street, including Chinatown and the Pony Express. The city contracted with an architectural historian to work closely with the Folsom Historical Society and the Heritage Preservation League to select and develop the stories. The research came from the archives of the Folsom History Museum, which is located on Sutter Street. The result is are 9-foot tall, 15-inch square Sierra White granite totems with porcelain enameled inset panels that will be placed around Sutter and Leidesdorff streets.

Access to Sutter Street has been improved and parking is free, both on street and in the parking garage.

The plaza and the railroad

A public plaza will make up nearly 54 percent of the Railroad Block. The A-frame railroad turntable there will provide the focus for the plaza. Folsom El Dorado Sacramento Railroad Association members are working to have a locomotive standing on the turntable.

Plans include refurbishing the existing historical interpretive center on the corner of Wool and Leisdesdorff streets, which includes the Railroad Museum; also, the historic railroad depot on Wool Street, which currently houses the Folsom Chamber of Commerce. In addition, an outdoor amphitheater seating 300 to 500 people, a market area and an interactive water feature will provide day and evening activities year round.

The plaza will be Folsom’s outdoor living room, a gathering place for the community and visitors.

Folsom Historic Station-a private investment

Jeremy Bernau sees the Sutter Street revitalization as rebuilding the neighborhood. “Just building high density next to trains is not a selling point,” he said. Housing needs to be safe, near to shopping, schools, restaurants and parks.

Bernau, whose mother attended Granite Grammar School, has served as president of the Folsom Chamber of Commerce and the Folsom Economic Development Corporation. He has been developing residential properties in Folsom since the 1980s. He has a special concern for the Historic District, where he works from his office in Sutter Court.

His second mixed-use development, called Folsom Historic Station, is across Sutter Street from Sutter Court. The master plan calls for four buildings: Granite House, the Roundhouse Restaurant, Sutter Row and Leidesdorff Building. The buildings will be constructed one at a time, with grading for the Granite House underway. The Granite House reflects an elegant historic hotel. The building will house 30 residential units, plus retail spaces. The design of the Folsom Historic Station buildings complement and interact with the public spaces in the Railroad Block.

The museum exhibit and the celebration

The Folsom History Museum is celebrating the Sutter Street Revitalization in its next exhibit, “Sutter Street Secrets,” which runs through March 20. The exhibit shows the revitalization project on Sutter Street, including artifacts dug up during construction. It will also include a tribute to Teichert Construction.

Folsom City Manager Kerry Miller said, ”We will host a festive community event to mark the completion of this vital Historic District project. We will all be ready to celebrate and showcase Folsom’s refurbished crown jewel.”

The celebration is scheduled for Saturday, May 7.

More information will be coming. To find out more visit the shops and restaurants on Sutter Street or go to the following websites: historicfolsom.org, folsomchamber.com, folsom.ca.us and folsomhistorymuseum.org.

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