Editorial: Don't build a big barrier in railyard

Published: Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012 - 2:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012 - 11:31 am

Done right, the city of Sacramento can have a prominent transportation center and a superb city-owned entertainment and sports destination within the downtown railyard.

As Mayor Kevin Johnson said Tuesday, the city is "on the verge of doing something very special." We hope he is right.

Yet in a bold, important, clear statement that city officials should heed, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, has made it clear that the design of the arena must fit the site – without overshadowing the elements that give the railyard its sense of place, the historic old depot and the Central Shops.

"It is imperative that an arena located behind the historic depot is well-designed," she wrote the day after the City Council's historic vote to move forward, "and can co-exist with both the planned intermodal transportation center, and future Railyards redevelopment."

Unfortunately, the first plan released by the mayor's office last week, by the Populous architecture firm, depicts a bulky arena bowl plunked down between the old depot and Central Shops – and it towers over those buildings. Sacramento can do better.

Fortunately, the city does have alternatives. For example, the Rose Center of the Urban Land Institute last year chose Sacramento as one of four cities nationwide for a yearlong program that emphasized land-use challenges in the railyard. An eight-person panel from across the country offered recommendations.

The ULI conceptual plan would place a public plaza in the corridor from the depot to the Central Shops. The arena would be as far west as possible on the site and transportation facilities as far east as possible. Why? "The scale and massing of the entertainment and sports complex must not overwhelm the historic Depot and Central Shops."

Significantly, the ULI idea did not crowd the site with three items that turned up in the Populous site plan – a hotel, a practice facility and a VIP parking garage for luxury box holders. Those can be close to the site but need not box it in.

The city has said that fitting an arena to the west of the site doesn't leave enough room for loading docks, though it doesn't seem credible to say that the site can fit a hotel, a practice facility and a parking garage but not trucks for circus giraffes and elephants. The loading issue clearly needs to be further explored.

The city does want to do a follow-up panel with ULI's Rose Center. Wise move. That outside perspective, bringing in experience and expertise without special interests tied to any particular design, is valuable. It should happen soon.

Things are moving fast. In April, the City Council will consider a predevelopment funding agreement between AEG, the Kings and the city. Contracts for architects, environmental consultants, traffic consultants and others will follow soon after.

In presenting ULI's railyard recommendations last January, Mayor Kevin Johnson said that a massive building would be "doing what we don't want to do – creating a barrier from downtown to the railyard" – a divider rather than a connector, like the Interstate 5 barrier between downtown and the river. At the time, the issue was a proposed giant intermodal transportation center, which, thankfully, has since been dispersed.

Now that same problem applies to an arena building. More than a million people a year travel by rail or bus through the railyard. Transportation should remain the focus around which the arena and other uses are built – much as San Jose's Diridon Station District, a transportation hub, anchors the 20,000-seat HP Pavilion and other amenities.

The aim, as Matsui has said, should be to create a well-integrated center of architectural and functional significance that has a strong sense of place.

As she noted, Sacramento has a "once-in-a-generation chance to get the layout of, and access to, the intermodal and arena sites right."

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