The Sacramento Community Center Theater is the Sleep Train Arena of performing arts centers – a hulking, gray, concrete bunker that is woefully inadequate for patrons and performers, and a high-profile architectural embarrassment for our city.
The primary difference: We’re about to tear one of them down and replace it with a gleaming jewel that will instill civic pride and stimulate downtown growth, and we’re considering sinking tens of millions into the other one, settling for generations of civic and architectural mediocrity.
This Thursday, mere weeks before taking bold action to bolster Sacramento’s future by selling bonds to help fund a new downtown arena, the City Council will be asked to make a choice about how many millions – roughly $11 million, $36 million or $52 million – it wants to spend to renovate this community’s decrepit, uninspiring theater.
Rarely does a city take one giant step forward and one giant leap back at the same time, but both could happen here within the next few weeks.
How has it come to this?
The short answer is that some city officials and some in the arts community believe that an $11 million investment is necessary to bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are, however, some very smart people asking very smart questions about whether that’s an accurate number, or if it’s actually much lower than that (or if most of those issues have, in fact, already been addressed), but that’s another discussion.
The same people supporting a renovation also believe that if we’re going to invest $11 million anyway, why not spruce the place up a bit too, adding more bathrooms, a center aisle, new seating, better acoustics and other cosmetic and operational improvements. If some of the improvements are made, the tab would run about $36 million; if all them are made, the number could reach $52 million.
As you ponder those numbers, consider that the spectacular Mondavi Center in Davis was built for $61 million. When it opened in 2002, The New York Times trumpeted, “Near Sacramento, Finally, a Big-City Arts Center.”
Ouch. Sacramento’s “big city” theater isn’t in Sacramento at all. It’s not even in the same county. But you can’t blame Davis. Sacramento’s theater was outdated even then.
And in 2011, Folsom opened its cozy $50 million Harris Center.
Suddenly, Sacramento was getting its cultural lunch eaten by both sides of the region. If you want to see Wynton Marsalis or Itzhak Perlman, you drive to Davis. If you want to see Chris Isaak or Jeff Bridges, you head to Folsom. Both have far superior acoustics, much nicer amenities and beautifully designed structures.
Further, other cities around the country that are roughly the same size as ours – San Antonio, Orlando, Indianapolis, Kansas City – have all completed new performing arts centers recently, and all during the recession.
So what’s the answer for Sacramento? It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad and build a new theater already. If we want to be a great city, then it’s time we start acting like one. That means investing in cultural facilities and the arts groups that bring them to life. We need to find a larger site that can accommodate a great theater, and with enough space nearby to allow room for the growth that this urban catalyst will provide – the retail, restaurants and residential projects that will pop up around it.
In the short term, yes, the council should fix any lingering ADA issues, but it also needs to immediately begin exploring alternative sites (allowing the old theater to operate uninterrupted until the new one is finished) and funding mechanisms, establishing defined benchmarks and a hard deadline (12 months?) for deciding if a new theater is feasible.
After all, the city has already stated that improvements won’t be made until 2016 anyway. So why wouldn’t we explore the options? Why wouldn’t we ask the questions and explore the possible benefits of doing something truly extraordinary?
A large hall in today’s dollars will likely cost between $100 million and $300 million, based on theaters in cities of similar size. And, like these other cities, the majority of the theater should be privately financed.
Whatever it ends up costing, our new cultural centerpiece needs to be an ambitious, inspiring and breathtaking architectural symbol.
The group overseeing the design of the new arena clearly understands the power of dynamic architecture. At a recent presentation, developer and Kings minority owner Mark Friedman espoused the importance of creating a transparent façade where outsiders could see in; where passersby could sense the energy emanating from within the structure.
So let’s hope the city does the right thing in coming weeks, and trades in both our concrete slabs from the past for some much-needed concrete plans for the future.
Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine, www.sactownmag.com.