Tony Bizjak

Back-seat Driver: Railyard vs. Downtown Plaza as arena site?

Published: Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013 - 12:19 pm

A group of wealthy investors is expected any day to announce it hopes to buy the Sacramento Kings and keep them in town by building an arena at Downtown Plaza.

The idea of turning Downtown Plaza into an arena isn't new. The shopping mall isn't doing well, and is due for a rethink. But the city has been focusing its arena ambitions for years on the downtown railyard, several blocks to the north.

So, which is a better site for an arena? (We're looking from a transportation, or people-moving, perspective here. Cost is a different question. No price has been set yet for a Downtown Plaza arena.)

Interviews with city, Regional Transit, Caltrans and rail officials suggest this preliminary conclusion:

Downtown Plaza appears to be the better choice for getting 18,000 people in and out of events en masse.

It starts with the fact that the city is planning to build a major transit center in the railyard behind the depot, big enough to handle up to 15 million people annually on trains, buses, taxis and light rail. The site needs space for parking, rental cars and car drop-off zones.

It would be ideal to team the transit center with an event center – like Madison Square Garden and Penn Station in Manhattan.

But the chosen railyard site south of the rail tracks is small. An arena's hefty size demands would force planners to shrink the transit center and could lead to design concessions that reduce the center's usability long-term.

In contrast, the Downtown Plaza site is a two-block walk from the transit center. That's not as good as next door. But it's not bad, and it gives the transit center space to grow.

Downtown Plaza looks to be the better arena location for light rail. All three RT light-rail lines have stations near the plaza. That proximity could encourage more people to leave their cars at home or in a park-and-ride lot and take rail to events. The railyard, in contrast, is served by one light-rail line.

Most arena users will come in cars. On that score, the plaza appears a better bet because it is closer to more garages and has a surrounding street grid already in place. It also has underground parking on site. If arena builders can preserve a chunk of that parking, it could serve as the required premium parking for big-ticket customers.

Then there is pedestrian congestion. Downtown Plaza users would disperse in four directions to garages (amid existing restaurants, bars and stores.) In contrast, a railyard arena may be walled on two sides by the river and train tracks, sending most pedestrians south across I Street.

Interstate 5 access to both sites is similar. But south-of-plaza garage users would also drive to the W/X freeway.

Our experts say, however, it's too early to anoint one site. The city must do studies first. That is, if the Kings don't run off to Seattle in the meantime.

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