Build it and they will come; but what if they’re already coming? The Old Town Elk Grove pavilion project sans rail passenger platform

By Michael Monasky |  

For me, it is sad that the city of Elk Grove has missed an opportunity to link with its past history as a stagecoach stop, its present rail passenger traffic, and a place in tune with future 21st Century public transit.

The city plans to build a pavilion in Old Town Elk Grove, while failing to recognize that four Amtrak passenger trains pass through each and every day. The city chose to perform a very limited, and in my mind inadequate, negative declaration environmental document when a full environmental assessment is needed to gauge the effects of this important project.

It is not enough for the city to promote itself, to market the brand that would be The City of Elk Grove. The city council is responsible for the commonwealth of all its residents and visitors; that’s why we have a police department and provide for common spaces to gather and celebrate and travel. Our roads are our commonly held utility, our most valuable asset and the most expensive to maintain.

The rails are no different from our roads.

In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams an Iowa corn farmer builds a baseball park from a vision that ghosts of famous players needed a place to gather; he hears a voice saying “build it and they will come...” In Elk Grove we have a reverse field-of-dreams; the rail passengers already course through Old Town four times daily. They just don’t have a platform to get on and off the train.

In the San Joaquin Valley, little Hanford, California, population 53,000 and the seat of Kings County, has double tracks and two passenger platforms; Elk Grove, population 175,000, has none. The city reports that the Union Pacific tracks occupy an historic right of way yet denies any historic significance for the site’s service in rail passenger and freight. We have so much to learn from our past, our mistakes and achievements reside there. We ignore this important historic resource at our own peril.

The city of Elk Grove plans to use federal Housing and Urban Development funds to build the pavilion and parking for about 200 cars. There are no plans for children’s play equipment, no community garden, and no passenger rail platform. This project calls for three times as much parking lot (25,000 sf) as park space (8,000 sf).

The Elk Grove city council is accustomed to having expensive parties at this existing site, setting up unsightly cyclone fencing to keep out anyone without a ticket. These aren’t small soirees, with an average of about 1,500 participants at each event. Elk Grove Boulevard and the side streets of Old Town are heavily congested with this sort of use. The city council is reluctant to shuttle participants from already available parking facilities on nearby lots, and instead prefers to build permanent parking on the pavilion site.

If we are to become responsible stewards of our public resources, we should build at least one rail passenger platform in Old Town, preferably two, incorporating that structure with a pavilion for public events. The city council should exercise greater care in building parks, with the foresight to include amenities that accommodate everyone; children, the surrounding community, and our legacy as an agrarian society. We should be replacing our parking lots with gardens, playgrounds and shade trees. There is ample scholarship that Native American activities included digging (planting and weeding) as an essential element of creating and maintaining parks. A community garden acknowledges and engages the social element of that historic legacy.

There is much planning that must be done to change the city’s course and to implement these ideas. But the city has engineers, planners, interested citizens, and many financial resources to meet these needs and to build this essential public utility in this important and historic place.

The federal HUD funds are not detailed in the negative declaration report by the city. Today, I hereby request a copy of records for the city’s negotiations and transactions with HUD through the Freedom Of Information Act specific to all phases of this project, as well as all other municipal expenditures dedicated to this project. To decide the final disposition of this project, I propose that the city council yield its power to the people of Elk Grove in a series of special charrettes, open public meetings to determine the merit of the ideas herein set forth.

It’s time we do the people’s business differently in Elk Grove. Kevin Bewsey, the manager of Capital Improvement Projects for the city, told me that about one or two per cent of residents contacted by the city regarding such projects ever respond to city planning and engineering solicitations for comment. Of about 1,000 persons contacted by mail, only about 20 showed up for a meeting about the project in May 2019. Most residents cited parking and traffic congestion issues and concerns; it’s ironic that the city’s negative declaration environmental document determined that these were less than significant effects of the project.

The city council’s approach to planning is remarkably parochial; it is like a moth attracted only the searing light of generating revenues and passing them on to developers. Although it’s essential that the city council balance its budget and keep a stream of income, this is not an exclusive priority. The city council has poorly managed, and largely ignored its responsibilities to, public transit. We cannot buy our way out of the climate catastrophe awaiting our children’s grandchildren. I fear that our onerous legacy denies them a prosperous natural inheritance, as well as useful public transit.

There are groups that guide us in that endeavor such as the Environmental Council of Sacramento,, various conservancies and land trusts, and special groups like railroad hobbyists. As their rational faculties develop, our children should be included in these crucial decisions. As the city has failed to provide adequate environmental analysis for this project, it also has not tapped any of these resources.

It’s time the city council required a full environmental review and study for the Old Town Pavilion project, and presented to public meetings for thorough discussion and approval. The city council must acknowledge its historic past, live within its present means, and plan for a collective, productive future.

We must build the rail passenger platform(s) in Old Town Elk Grove because the passengers are already there, it reduces vehicle miles traveled by personal automobile, and is a public convenience advancing sound, public transit policy.


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D.J. Blutarsky said...

Mr. Monasky, thank you for your thoughtful commentary.

It is admirable that you would suggest more citizen involvement and city government transparency. However, I would contend that the typical Elk Grove resident does not associate themselves to a civic purpose, nor is interested in more civic involvement.

Like a massive jigsaw puzzle, Elk Grove is made up of many neighborhood "pieces", and within each neighborhood are residents whose primary concern is their personal well-being and property values. Propose a hospital, Catholic church, tattoo parlor, or a Walmart, and those nearby jigsaw pieces will come unglued.

Outside of their regular activities of comfort food delights, essential shopping, and family sports activities, the typical Elk Grovian could care less who the Mayor is, where City Hall is located, and sure has no reason to travel the few congested east-west thoroughfares to visit Old Town on the "poor side of town".

Who are these typical Elk Grovians? For starters, the majority with the highest levels of disposable income are employed in the public sector, insulated from the economic peaks and valleys of the private sectors. Then there are the large multi-generational families fleeing the Bay Area as renters, and now purchasing their first home in the Grove. Big, affordable, and just a long, long commute away to work each day--but living the American dream.

Mr. Monasky, the typical Elk Grovian could care less about the issues you mention. The government families will probably cash out when they retire and move. The large multi-generational families will need to keep raising new family members to keep the monthly cash flow healthy as the older family members pass on. But one thing is clear--leave their neighborhoods alone!

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