Sacramento Kings’ officials are fond of calling the plaza in front of the team’s new arena a communal hearth where people can come together. Sacramentans appear to have embraced that notion, thronging to the 3-acre open space before Golden 1 Center events to mingle, enjoy a drink or take selfies in front of the Koons sculpture or the arena’s vaulted glass facade.
But to the surprise of some visitors, the plaza is not open to all comers on event days.
Two hours before games and concerts, Kings employees roll out rows of metal detectors and line them up across the plaza’s three entrances near J, L and Seventh streets. The Kings say they want only ticketed fans to pass through the airport-like security wall into the plaza, although employees at the detectors often don’t ask people whether they are ticketed or not.
The controlled entry points raise a question: Is the plaza public or private?
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The answer is still evolving.
Legally, the Kings and their partners own the plaza, having bought the site several years ago from the former Downtown Plaza shopping mall owner. The city relinquished ownership decades ago when it turned K Street into a pedestrian shopping mall.
But as part of its arena construction deal with the Kings two years ago, city officials obtained a public access easement and a public art easement on the plaza, essentially allowing the public into the space during most hours to stroll, eat lunch on the teak benches or check out the cityscape reflected in the Koons sculpture. The city contributed $255 million to the arena’s $557 million cost.
Each month, the Kings submit a request to the city for a permit to close the plaza up to two hours before each game, concert or other arena event. They do it by setting up rows of metal detectors, also called magnetometers, that span the pathways in from the streets.
Closing off the plaza allows the team to turn it into a secure, pre-event entertainment venue with DJs, bands, merchandise carts, and food and alcohol sales. The arena has two exterior concession stands and a permit from the city to serve alcohol inside the plaza.
For November, the team has requested city permits to close the plaza for 19 events over 16 days, including for a series of Disney on Ice performances to start the month and a Cirque du Soleil performance at the end.
“We are mindful of the interest of the public,” said Kings President Chris Granger. “The plaza is almost always open. The only time (it’s closed) is during events, and even that is a temporary condition.”
Full plaza closures likely will be limited or nonexistent by next year. That’s partly because the physical confines of the plaza will change. Currently, the space is hemmed in on two sides by construction fences, making it easy for the Kings to control access. Next year, though, a hotel and condominium tower, and retail outlets will open on the north and west flanks of the plaza, creating several new entrances and requiring more access for people who are not headed to the arena.
“You will have retail ringing the plaza, so it won’t make sense to do the same closures they have been doing,” said city arena project manager Desmond Parrington. “People who are not going to arena events will need to be in that space.”
The plaza was designed in tiers, which will allow the Kings to close off the portion closest to the arena while leaving outer sections open as pedestrian passageways for people walking to the hotel, stores and restaurants, as well as Macy’s and Old Sacramento.
As the team gets settled in, Granger said the Kings hope to host public events in the plaza, including yoga classes, farmers markets, craft fairs, art shows and live music.
They also plan to rent out the plaza and other arena facilities to private groups. The Kings recently closed the plaza to allow a private group to hold a dinner for an estimated 1,000 people all dressed in white, called “Diner en Blanc” and billed as a community-building event.
“That group reached out. We thought it was a great way to showcase the plaza during opening week,” Granger said.
He said the team also expects to eventually cordon off the plaza and let ticketed fans “watch” some Kings’ games on video boards in the plaza with the arena’s front hangar doors open, allowing the crowd noise to flow out. No other NBA team has done that. The Kings’ owners are working with league officials on protocols. They first must show the NBA that they can control temperatures and humidity on the basketball floor when the front doors are open.
The plaza itself has received good early reviews since opening earlier this month. “It has this kinetic energy when it is crowded, and it has this serenity when it is vacant,” said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown. “The views of the city are just stunning. It does feel like the heart of things.”
Shelly Willis of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission echoed Hansen, saying the plaza is “intimate and grand at the same time.”
The city has struggled in past attempts to create lively pedestrian areas on K Street. For now, the plaza is mainly empty on weekdays and nonevent nights. Small groups stroll through, some stopping to take photos. A couple from Davenport, Iowa, checked it out Monday morning. “I love the sculpture, the greenery, it’s a nice place to bring your lunch and enjoy the sunshine,” Mary Petersen said.