The economy is improving and construction is resuming but the community of Natomas is frozen in time, unable to build anything for almost five years now.
That’s how long a building moratorium has been in place, awaiting flood protection improvements.
Just off Interstate-5, near Sleep Train Arena, along streets named after high flying pioneers like Amelia Earhart and Chuck Yeager, you see the foundations of neighborhoods that never got off the ground.
Wires and pipes rising from overgrown weeds mark the lots where homes are supposed to stand.
One undeveloped cul-de-sac is a magnet for dumped furniture and broken glass.
A mile away, an empty clubhouse and an unfinished pool behind a locked gate provide glimpses of the attractive lifestyle that developers had in mind here.
“Giving people an opportunity to live in a suburban type setting but in the city,” Sacramento Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby said.
Ashby, who lives in and represents north Natomas on the City Council, has been championing development here for years. Everything was building up beautifully though the early 2000s. The recession slowed down development. But what ground it to a halt was a hurricane nearly 2,000 miles away from here.
“Hurricane Katrina hits in New Orleans and it changes the standards for flood control across the country. And as the Army Corps looked at levees all throughout the United States, they identified the ones in Sacramento as being not sufficient for a new standard,” Ashby said.
Based on that assessment, the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed a moratorium on construction in Natomas’ pending levee improvements. That was five years ago.
Some Natomas businesses have failed since then because they were built before the moratorium next to neighborhoods that didn’t get built because of it.
But some businesses have recently moved into vacant storefronts banking on the hope that new neighborhoods will soon be built around them.
“When you’re a first year business owner, you’re building, you’re growing. Your clientele is everything. So them to lift the moratorium for us, would be huge,” said Traci Nwaobi, owner of Royal Beauty Supply.
And people living in homes that were built right before the moratorium are envisioning new neighbors where they now see abandoned lots across the street.
“On the upside, we have all this growth to look forward to. And hopefully some appreciation in our property so we can make a few dollars,” said resident Steve Burt.
The levees that hold back the Sacramento River and nearby creeks and canals near Natomas still need millions of dollars of improvements to be considered 100-year flood safe, which is the required standard. And it literally takes an act of congress to release that money, which is the good news; that very act of congress passed just a few weeks ago.
“And in Washington D.C., the effectiveness of the lobbying from Sacramento, from our congresswoman [Rep. Doris Matsui] and locals like me, is that we won 417 to three,” Ashby said.
In short, the passage of the water resources reform and development act was the biggest hurdle to clear. Once it works its way out of committees and is signed by the president, levee repairs can get fast-tracked and Natomas can apply to have the moratorium lifted.
Ashby says construction could resume within a year from now.
“The hurdle we hadn’t been able to clear since 2008, we finally cleared,” Ashby said.
Thankfully, many of the area’s developers have been very patient through all of this, ready to build upon the foundations they’ve already laid just as soon as that moratorium is lifted.
“We can’t wait. We’re hoping,” Nwaobi said. “We’ve been hoping.”