A big new building is altering the downtown skyline, brought to you by the Sacramento Kings.
It’s not the arena, however. It’s a 16-story hotel and condominium tower, a bounce pass from the Kings’ new Golden 1 Center. This building and the adjacent pedestrian plaza – while still under construction – offer a glimpse of the new vision taking shape on land that for the last 45 years housed the Downtown Plaza shopping center.
The arena and hotel tower will anchor a billion-dollar, six-square-block “lifestyle and entertainment district” of restaurants, stores, theaters, bowling and other attractions. Instead of a suburban-style mall, Kings executives say they’re building a million-square-foot complex of unique amenities not found elsewhere in Sacramento. The arena will open first, on Oct. 4. The hotel tower will debut next spring. Work on the rest of the district is expected to wrap up next summer.
The fast-track redevelopment project is called DoCo, shorthand for Downtown Commons. The Kings and development partner JMA Ventures of San Francisco are promoting it as the region’s new town square, where people can drop by for a farmers market in the morning or a yoga class at night.
“Sacramento currently doesn’t have that place where people can gather and connect with each other,” Kings President Chris Granger said during a dusty and noisy hard-hat tour in late August. “This project does that.”
The hotel tower’s swift rise – at 11 stories and counting, it’s already taller than the arena – is happening on the Kings’ own initiative.
When the city and Kings signed the deal two years ago to develop the arena, the city granted the Kings entitlements good for 10 years allowing them to redevelop the old Downtown Plaza – with a possible 10-year extension – but did not require them to do so. Some critics of the arena deal questioned whether the adjacent development would ever materialize.
But the Kings had no intention of waiting, Granger said. The development group was eager to see its broader downtown vision realized. And, although financing the hotel took effort and time, economics dictated launching the hotel project quickly.
“It wouldn’t make sense for Golden 1 Center to sit there for 10 years without all the other elements around it,” Granger said. “We view this whole thing in totality, rather than, here’s the arena, and then what are we going to do?
“From an economic standpoint, we don’t benefit from having land or opportunities sit on the sidelines. So, we are going to press to get there.”
The city estimates more than a million people a year will attend events at the arena. But that’s just a small subset of the 10 million people Granger expects to visit DoCo annually. That 10 million figure isn’t pulled from thin air. It’s on par with the crowds at Downtown Plaza during its peak years in the 1990s, before a weakening economy and owner neglect sent the property into a financial tailspin.
City officials say they aren’t surprised by the pace of change at the site, noting that the team owners want to bring DoCo to life quickly to help recoup their hefty upfront investment.
“We are pleased they are living up to what they said they would do,” Assistant City Manager John Dangberg said. “We have a good economy, and they are building.”
The Kings owners, mainly wealthy investors from the Bay Area and Southern California, spent $362 million to buy a majority of the team three years ago. They’re putting an additional $302 million into their share of the nearly $557 million arena.
The city is putting $255 million into the arena construction. But it is not subsidizing the construction of DoCo, which is expected to cost the Kings and their partners $500 million or so. The Kings have declined to provide details of those expenses.
The first and biggest step is just about done: Golden 1 Center is a month from opening night, an Oct. 4 Paul McCartney concert.
The tower and its 250-room hotel will arrive about six months later, with an expected opening in spring in time to house visitors for opening rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. The hotel, called The Sawyer, likely will accommodate visiting NBA teams, concert acts, concert-goers and tourists. Kimpton Hotels, a boutique chain, will operate it.
The building’s aviarylike top floors will be reserved for 45 high-end condominium units, providing a small dose of what city officials say downtown needs to flourish: residents.
Macy’s to renovate
Combined, Golden 1 Center and the adjacent DoCo will dramatically reshape a section of K Street that has been reinvented repeatedly since the mid-20th century, when it slipped from its long-held position as the pulsing cultural and retail hub of the city.
K Street has struggled for more than 50 years to compete in the era of suburban shopping malls. The city tried to rejuvenate downtown retailing by attracting Macy’s to the site in 1963. Macy’s became the anchor of a modest version of Downtown Plaza, which opened in 1971.
A 1993 remodel doubled the mall’s square footage, and Downtown Plaza was successful in drawing shoppers for about a decade. Sales dropped off precipitously and merchants began closing as then-owner Westfield Corp. turned its attention to the new Galleria in Roseville. Westfield sold the site to JMA in 2012 for a mere $21 million. The mall emerged as the favored location for a new NBA arena when city officials assembled their plan a year later to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle.
DoCo will remain a work in progress for months after the basketball season tips off this fall.
Despite the fast construction pace, only a handful of restaurants have been announced and little of the new mall will be ready to go in October. A barbecue restaurant called Sauced is expected to open this fall at the eastern end of DoCo in the old Hard Rock Cafe property. Most of the outdoor plaza itself will be open to pedestrians, including the main walkways from J, L and Seventh streets. The hotel tower will have reached its full 16-story height but will remain barricaded behind a construction fence until next spring’s opening.
Nonetheless, early visitors to DoCo will see at least one familiar sight: Macy’s, which owns its building and will continue to hold down the southwest corner of the district.
The retailer is pouring money into a facelift of the building’s exterior, even as it closes dozens of stores elsewhere to shift its attention to online retailing. The renovation includes a new entrance on Fifth Street, facing the arena. The merchandise mix inside will be changed as well, to feature new products and services for city dwellers.
“The transformation of our surroundings downtown has been unlike any other renovation project I’ve ever seen here in Sacramento,” Macy’s Vice President Aram Beloian said in a recent press statement. “We are excited for the opening of the arena and look forward to serving all the people it will bring downtown.”
Another long-term occupant is sticking around, too. Cinemark Holdings Inc.’s Century movie theater complex in the northwest corner of the plaza, which closed in January, will open next January following a remodel. The complex is adding two more screens, for a total of nine.
Besides Macy’s and the movie theaters, DoCo’s developers are trying to create a new vision for the plaza. While the vast majority of the tenants haven’t been identified, Granger said the idea is to build a unique center, not a traditional mall. Given the shopping center’s proximity to a 17,500-seat arena that could host 200 events a year, there will be less emphasis on retailing and a greater focus on bars and restaurants.
“This is a lifestyle entertainment complex,” Granger said. “You can’t find that at this mall or that mall or anywhere else.”
Punch Bowl Social may be emblematic of that approach. The venue inside the hotel tower will be a literal indoor playground, mixing food and drink with bowling, karaoke, foosball, skee ball, trivia games, checkers and chess, a dart lounge and more.
Granger said DoCo could host 25 retailers and 20 food and entertainment establishments by the time the project is completed. City approvals call for 350,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, about one-third the size of Arden Fair mall.
Little housing included
Will it work? Downtown boosters are optimistic.
Michael Ault, who runs the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said there’s a growing appetite for downtown retailing, and the presence of the arena will bring legions of shoppers to the central city. Prominent downtown developer David Taylor, who owns land across the street, likes what he sees so far.
“I think this project has more elements for potential success than anything that has come before it,” said Taylor, who was among the first to pitch an arena a dozen years ago as a replacement for the failing Downtown Plaza.
But retailing consultant Midge McCauley, of the Seattle firm Downtown Works, said the stores in DoCo have to succeed on their own merits and can’t just ride on the new arena’s coattails.
“People don’t go to basketball games to shop,” said McCauley, whose firm has studied Sacramento’s retail market extensively. In the best case scenario, the arena “exposes these people to those stores” and they’ll come back downtown to buy something, she said.
The DoCo plan has drawn some criticism, mostly for its scarcity of new housing.
The 45 condo units atop the hotel tower represent just a fraction of the 500 housing units approved by the city for the plaza redevelopment.
There is room for more housing. City officials, who are eager to see more housing downtown, say an empty expanse of grass at DoCo’s northwest end, behind the movie theaters at Fourth and J streets, could be suitable for residential development.
It can’t happen quickly enough for central city housing advocates such as William Burg, a state historian and downtown activist. He said that the current DoCo plan looks like a missed opportunity for new housing and that many of the 45 condo units in the hotel tower could be owned by corporations instead of full-time occupants.
“What makes an urban center lively and engaged is if there are a lot of residents,” he said. “If you don’t have people there in large quantities, you don’t get that bustling urban atmosphere.”
Darryl Rutherford, head of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, agrees. He said downtown needs housing on or near new development for the people who will fill the relatively low-wage jobs in the restaurants, hotels and stores.
There is some housing planned just outside DoCo, including 137 rental units under construction in a mixed-use project on the 700 block of K Street. The Kings themselves, who have rights to redevelop K Street’s blighted 800 block, are in discussions with the city on a 180-unit housing project.
For now, Granger said the Kings’ primary focus in DoCo is lining up retail tenants. As for residential, he said the Kings are content for now to “stick a toe in the water” with the plan to build 45 condos.