After decades of incremental change, Downtown Sacramento is on the verge of a dramatic transformation. State worker furloughs have ended, new restaurants and bars have opened, and the Convention Center is preparing expansion plans. The two most significant projects are the 240-acre Railyards, one of the country’s largest urban infill projects, and the Entertainment and Sports Complex (ESC) on the site of an aging shopping mall called Downtown Plaza.
The ESC has the most potential to reshape Downtown Sacramento’s core. Downtown Plaza and adjacent K Street were part of my first memories of Sacramento when I visited as a teenager. The area influences residents’ and visitors’ impressions of the city as a whole, particularly those attending conventions, and often those impressions are negative. It is critical that the ESC include outside amenities and enhance the pedestrian experience for the surrounding area.
The ESC is on a fast track due to a successful effort to keep the Sacramento Kings basketball franchise from moving to Seattle. The National Basketball Association’s support for Sacramento was contingent on the ESC replacing Sleep Train Arena, the Kings’ current home in the suburban Natomas neighborhood. The Kings’ new ownership group recently purchased Downtown Plaza for the new arena site.
The existing mall requires significant work regardless of the Kings’ fate. A portion of the second floor is vacant due to poor pedestrian circulation. The open air building manages to combine the worst properties of an indoor mall and the worst properties of an outdoor mall. The mall is cold in the winter and warm in the summer. Despite no smoking signs, people sometimes smoke. The narrow passageways and low ceilings are too claustrophobic to attract much foot traffic. Downtown Plaza lacks an urban charm that differentiates it from the nearby Arden Fair Mall and makes up for difficult automobile access.
As with most large entertainment-oriented projects, there are conflicting opinions about whether the City should be providing public subsidies to the ESC. Local businesses see the project as an activity generator that will enhance the commercial and residential market and help create an urban experience for young professionals. The ESC has already been cited as a reason for optimistic job growth projections and increased real estate transactions in the nearby area. Opponents are attempting to place a measure on the ballot that would prohibit the City from using General Fund monies for the project without voter approval.
Aside from several conceptual renderings created during the City’s campaign to keep the Kings, there are no preliminary site plans or architectural elevations released to the public. The developers and the City recently sought guidance on the ESC through web-based surveys, which discussed possible amenities such as internet access, dining, and a children’s play area. These amenities will be important to the success of the project, but other decisions will determine whether Sacramento has established a true community asset. The following is my wish list for an ESC that generates a more vibrant urban core for California’s capital city:
Develop strong physical and visual connections to the surrounding area. Research shows that sports facilities have a greater community and economic benefit when they are an integral part of a greater development plan (Ong 2013). The ESC provides an opportunity to open up the site, provide a K Street view corridor, and reestablish a pedestrian scale on J and L Streets. These connections will enhance the success of the project.
Downtown Plaza’s storefronts, signs, and pedestrian amenities are, like many conventional shopping malls, focused on the main interior walkway, which is three vacated blocks of K Street. The building’s second story, roof, masonry walls, opaque glass, escalators, and art obstruct views of the interior (as shown below). Garage entrances, loading areas, and a limited number of retail storefronts constrain the pedestrian friendliness of the parallel J and L Streets.
To the west of Downtown Plaza is I-5 and Old Sacramento, the city’s charming yet underutilized historic district. Downtown Plaza is connected to Old Sacramento via a pedestrian tunnel underneath I-5 that is dark in daylight and can appear menacing at night. The Downtown Plaza property does not extend to the tunnel, but the ESC provides an opportunity for the City to rethink the connection between Downtown, Old Sacramento, and the Sacramento River. A wide pedestrian bridge over I-5, the development of retail uses near the tunnel, and/or changing public art exhibits within the tunnel, could revitalize tourism and encourage greater diversity of uses in tourist-oriented Old Sacramento.
Incorporate a range of uses, particularly housing. The existing Downtown Plaza includes primarily mall retail and dining with some office uses. The ESC opens the door to a greater range of uses, particularly high density residential, to complement prospective residential development along K Street. Downtown Sacramento has lost 20,000 residents since 1950 and needs a healthy residential population to sustain development over time and create a 24-hour-a-day neighborhood. Sactown Magazine and the Sacramento News and Review have echoed similar sentiments.
Create a community gathering spot. Thirty-five years ago, William Whyte outlined the elements of successful urban public spaces: comfortable places to sit in different types of weather, physical and visual access to the street, opportunities to interact with other people, and amenities such as trees, water features, public art, and food. The vacated portion of K Street could be used for seating, food stands, play areas, and/or small performing spaces. The buildings can block wind, let in sun, and provide shade as needed. As has been discussed by Kings ownership, the ESC should have a transparent facade that makes the community part of sporting events and concerts, even if they have no ticket.
Focus on the little things. I agree with the recommendation by Sactown Magazine Editor Rob Turner that a portion of the art funding required for public projects should be funneled towards a large piece of public art like Sacramento International Airport’s memorable “Leap” by Lawrence Argent. At the same time, the small details are where an ordinary place can become special. My young daughter was entranced by a light fixture decorated like baseball at a recent Sacramento River Cats minor league baseball game, a simple touch that added to our enjoyment of the game. The ESC should use placemaking details to create a positive experience and encourages people to visit and come back.
Placemaking could focus on the city’s history, regional flora and fauna, or the basketball team itself. The Kings name is generic and does not have a connection with the Sacramento region (in contrast to a strong place-based name like the San Francisco 49ers). Creating references to famous kings (and queens) in the ESC and surrounding area can ground the Kings name in the Sacramento landscape and provide a scavenger hunt of sorts for children and adults. Similarly, the ESC could include a human-scale chessboard with movable pieces.
AT&T Park in San Francisco’s South of Market Area (SoMA) neighborhood, Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles, and the sports complex in Downtown Indianapolis serve as centerpieces of larger development plans and have been critical to transforming their surrounding neighborhoods. The ESC provides a similar opportunity for the Kings ownership group and the City of Sacramento to build a facility that contributes to a more cohesive and welcoming Downtown Sacramento. The success of the ESC will be based on how the design incorporates a sense of place, community gathering areas, a mix of uses, and connections with surrounding areas.