Albert Einstein once said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
It’s too bad that the German physicist doesn’t have a seat on the Sacramento City Council. When it comes to the newest proposal to expand the convention center and renovate the theater – set to be discussed Tuesday – we need to consider Einstein’s words carefully.
In 1986, when convention officials declared that it was time to expand the convention center to remain competitive, there was simply no room to grow. Structures surrounded the facility.
Long story short, city officials wrestled with land-acquisition issues for nearly 10 years until the $80 million expansion materialized in 1995, again with no room to grow. To borrow from the UPS slogan, that’s not exactly moving at the speed of business.
In 2013, the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau said it was time to expand again.
While nearly everyone agrees we need a bigger convention center, not everyone agrees on the size. The SCVB recently said that we need a modest bump from 137,000 square feet of exhibition space to about 200,000 square feet. Meanwhile, two influential business groups – Region Builders and the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council – have called for a far larger expansion, one we simply don’t have room for.
Or do we?
One major structure on the site that not only can be demolished but should be demolished is the Community Center Theater. That concrete mass of brutalist architecture that stands defiantly as a paean to civic mediocrity is not only aggressively uninspiring, but its glaring inadequacies leave it empty an embarrassing 270 nights per year. Sacramento, with its inferior theater and lack of a professional arts presenting organization, has all but surrendered its cultural mojo to superior performance halls in Davis and Folsom.
So instead of wasting $80 million to $100 million – the approximate amount the city is considering spending to refurbish the theater – let’s take that money, create a public-private partnership and build a new landmark on Lot X, at Third Street and Capitol Mall, near Crocker Art Museum.
But I digress.
On Sept. 1, the city held an open house where an architect from Populous – one of America’s largest designers of convention centers – said that most cities expand or redesign their centers every five to 10 years.
In fact, Indianapolis’ convention bureau recently studied the possibility of expanding its convention center for the second time in five years. Indianapolis has 566,000 square feet of exhibition space; Sacramento has 137,000.
However much space we need, I guarantee that we’ll be having this conversation again before we know it.
To be blunt, if we make this timid decision to do the bare minimum, we’ll be short-shrifting both critical projects. It will be the Sacramento of old, not the Sacramento of bold.
Quite simply, this decision will go down as one of the biggest missed economic and urban design opportunities of our lifetime.
The City Council should delay its decisions on both buildings for six months until the plans are more fully baked. Critics will say they’ve already been waiting for nearly 20 years. But we have some really smart people on the council, and they know that’s not true. It’s only been since earlier this year that the aforementioned business groups determined that we need far larger convention space than we have room for now.
To even consider investing more public money without a professional operator in place, and without a 50-year expansion plan for the convention center, would be the definition of civic irresponsibility.
Sound insane? Einstein would certainly agree.
Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. Contact Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org.