Capitol Park Plan Is Taking Shape After Delay of Decades

California was in the era of the State Water Project, the freeway systems and other grandiose ventures when it adopted its first master plan for the state Capitol and Capitol Park in Sacramento. That 1960 plan promised a "noble and monumental seat of government," with high-rise buildings ringing the park and two giant legislative towers soaring at its eastern end.

The idea was noble. The plan itself, in retrospect, was not. Had it been fulfilled, the area might now resemble a 1950s Soviet planner's dream with the park walled off by a series of dreary office boxes cut from the same blueprint.

Nearly 40 years later, after various fits and starts, California finally is pursuing a sensible, livable and aesthetic Capitol Area Plan. Sacramento takes a major step forward this year with the design of a million square feet of office space to house 6,500 employees of the state departments of Education, Health Services and General Services.

The success of the complex straddling Capitol Avenue at the east end of Capitol Park is critical. The five-building, $400-million complex, scheduled for completion in 2002, will anchor a major corner of the area and presumably set the tone for future development. Current plans call for seven major projects designed to consolidate the offices of 18 agencies now scattered throughout Sacramento, many of them in leased space.

The work will involve more than just erecting buildings, as airy and attractive as they might be. The Capitol Area Plan, adopted in 1977 but essentially dormant until it was revived and updated this year, provides for a mix of office space, private business and housing. The idea is to integrate a campus of high-tech structures into the Sacramento community with more than 400 new housing units and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

Fortunately, only three of the boxy structures were built under the 1960 plan, and the state significantly helped future builders by purchasing 42 blocks of property within the official 60-block planning area. Much of that land now is used for parking.

Construction essentially stopped in the late 1960s as the state began leasing office space in private buildings, mostly in the downtown area north of the Capitol. Since then, state planners have debated leasing versus building and whether to locate near the Capitol or in the suburbs, where land is cheaper. Under Gov. Pete Wilson, those questions have been settled. Employees will be brought together in new state-built headquarters buildings in the Capitol area, although commercial property still can be leased on a case-by-case basis.

A team of experts from the Urban Land Institute toured Sacramento in 1995 and endorsed the mall project. Its report said the Capitol and its park "must be viewed as unique treasures that deserve protection and, where possible, enhancement. In the urban context, they must be framed by a supporting environment."

The new plan may not live up to the 1960 promise of noble and monumental. But it will be better than the old plan. The new buildings will be workable, open structures that welcome the public that owns them. They will fit agreeably into the larger Capitol community and complement the most noble state structure of all, the venerable 1879 Capitol.

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