Will the once iconic Sacramento destination regain its luster?
The Delta King, a paddlewheel riverboat with hotel rooms and a live theater, docked on the Old Sacramento WaterfrontPhoto by Alita Xander, Shutterstock
When the Old Sacramento Waterfront hosts its annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony Nov. 23, thousands of visitors will converge at the historic destination that’s about a mile from the California State Capitol.
The 28-acre attraction boasts 53 historic buildings, with retailers, restaurants, museums and other activities, including riverboat rides and railroad excursions. But even as the Old Sacramento Waterfront attracts millions of visitors each year, it has long struggled to maintain a clear identity and compete with more modern entertainment districts throughout the city.
Efforts to revitalize Old Sacramento have been underway for years. The aging wooden boardwalk was replaced in 2017, and this summer a new LED sign spelling out “Old Sacramento Waterfront” was erected atop the California State Railroad Museum. But the city’s more ambitious and far-reaching plans to overhaul Old Sacramento were scuttled when Covid-19 hit in 2020. Now, with the pandemic seemingly in the rearview mirror, officials are once again turning their attention to the popular waterfront destination.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a longtime supporter of plans to revitalize the district, pledged to shepherd the project to completion within two years.
“The pandemic unfortunately delayed our plan to modernize the waterfront with new attractions and gathering spots for residents and visitors,” Steinberg told California Local. “But the hotel taxes we were going to use for it are coming back, and I’m committed to reviving it before the end of my mayoral term.”
Below California Local breaks down the history of Old Sacramento and details what’s on the horizon for the unique waterfront destination.
What are the origins of the Old Sac Waterfront?
What is now Old Sacramento Waterfront first emerged during the Gold Rush era in the mid-1800s as a prime location for business and commerce. But the roughly three-mile stretch of land, situated along the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers, was plagued by fires and floods.
In the 1860s the street level was raised and eventually the commercial district moved away from Old Sac, which devolved into a notorious skid row.
The situation remained bad for a century, and then city officials in the mid-1960s began to redevelop the area, which was registered as a National and California Historic Landmark. Taking advantage of the scenic location, Old Sac became a historically themed destination, with cobblestone streets and dozens of retailers and attractions. The 28-acre area thrived for a couple decades, but by the ‘80s other parts of the city began to emerge as hotspots, with modern shopping malls and other attractions.
While Old Sacramento remained a popular destination, especially among tourists, it began to lose some of its luster. "This has become a tired part of town that needs a reboot," Mayor Darrell Steinberg said during an April 2019 press conference about plans to renovate Old Sacramento. Those plans were derailed the following year when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
What is there to do at Old Sacramento Waterfront?
There are now about 100 shopping, dining, and tourist attractions at Old Sacramento Waterfront. Retailers include clothing boutiques, bicycle shops, souvenir stores, beauty salons, toy stores, a costume shop, and of course tattoo parlors.
Dining options range from Joe's Crab Shack, a popular seafood chain, to O'Mallys Irish Pub, noted for hosting the NFL ticket every Sunday. And the comedy club Laughs Unlimited features noted local and national acts.
Taking advantage of its riverfront location, Old Sacramento Waterfront also offers cruises, like a 1.5-hour trip aboard Capitol Hornblower, during which you can sip a cocktail while enjoying the view along the Sacramento River. There’s also River City Queen, which offers a number of excursions, including a two-hour dinner cruise complete with a three-course gourmet meal. And Sac Brew Boat offers the opportunity to grab some friends and adult beverages and hop aboard the 16-passenger, pedal-powered vessel for a 1.5-hour cruise down the river.
Finally, the signature waterfront attraction at Old Sac is the Delta King. This permanently docked paddlewheel riverboat, built in 1927, has eight hotel rooms, a theater, restaurant, and conference facilities.
The Sacramento History Museum has exhibits that feature images, artifacts, and interactive elements about the people, places and events that shaped Sacramento.
The museum also offers various Old Sacramento tours that explore everything from ghosts to how the area’s streets and buildings were jacked up in the 1800s to avoid flooding.
Next to the history museum is the California State Railroad Museum, which tells the story of the Transcontinental Railroad through some 225,000 square-feet of interactive exhibits and beautifully restored railroad cars and locomotives. And one of the more popular holiday activities in Sacramento is the museum’s Polar Express Train Ride, an hour-long adventure complete with hot chocolate, sweet treats and, of course, Santa himself.
What happened with plans to revitalize Old Sacramento Waterfront?
The city spent about $8 million to rebuild the old waterfront wood boardwalk and replace it with faux-wood concrete in 2017. That same year the city launched Waterfront Idea Makers to breathe new life into Old Sacramento in order to make it more competitive without losing its historical quality.
As part of the ambitious program, the city commissioned five design and architecture teams to develop concepts for Old Sacramento. City staff and the City Council ultimately approved a plan in 2019 that included new civic, event and park space.
Details indicated a grassy event venue would accommodate up to 5,000 people, with a two-story, 25-foot-wide trestle and overlook. Other plans called for a new two-story building with food and beverage space on the ground floor and outdoor event space on the second floor. There were also plans for various water features, including a reflecting pool and a children’s splash pad, as well as a rooftop deck atop the Sacramento History Museum .
Construction was scheduled to begin by fall 2021. The project was to be funded through the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), which is typically used for projects that support tourism, address a community issue or support underserved populations. But when Covid-19 hit, the roughly $47 million earmarked for the project went away.
What does the future hold?
Now that the pandemic has receded, there appears to be renewed interest in once again updating Old Sacramento Waterfront, but funding remains a challenge.
Nevertheless, there has been some progress. In October 2021, when the Sacramento City Council voted to allocate $61.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to Covid-19 recovery efforts, the council included $5 million to help improve lighting and security throughout the district. This followed complaints from business owners about safety at Old Sac.
In June, a new $250,000 LED sign spelling out “Old Sacramento Waterfront” was erected atop the California State Railroad Museum. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s nonprofit foundation spearheaded the privately funded project along with other community-driven businesses and organizations.
Scott Ford, economic development director for the partnership, said his organization is also investing in other lighting upgrades and improvements at Old Sac.
“The district has been redeveloped over a series of decades, so there's been a lot of inconsistencies and deferred maintenance,” he said. “It may not be the same as a $47 million revamp, but it’s nice to see new investments going in, which will help improve the guest experience, enhance the sense of place and add visibility to the district.”
In addition, California State Parks is currently seeking public input on design guidelines for a proposed hotel at Old Sacramento. State Parks has been working with a local design firm to develop a series of conceptual studies.
Andrew Kehoe, Steinberg’s communications director, said the original Waterfront Idea Makers designs approved by City Council in 2019 are still in place, and officials are in the process of identifying funding sources to move forward.
“We really believe the waterfront can be an iconic destination,” Kehoe said. “It’s just that because of Covid, everything has been moved back a couple of years.”