Viewpoints: The Community Center Theater needs to go

01/26/2014 12:00 AM

01/23/2014 5:03 PM

Early Sacramentans had an extraordinary track record of accomplishing great things. From building the transcontinental railroad to fighting off other cities to become the state’s capital, our ancestors possessed a truly impressive can-do attitude on which this city was built.

Up until recent years, though, when we pulled off the $100 million expansion of the Crocker Art Museum and rallied to save the Kings and begin the process of building a new arena, I was beginning to get a little worried that we’d lost our civic mojo when it came to big projects; that we were thinking small and acting small.

Now I’m worried again.

My fear revolves around the future of downtown’s Community Center Theater. But unlike the Kings, I’m not worried about losing it. I’m worried about saving it.

The Community Center Theater is, according to the city, not fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city wants to invest about $50 million to bring it up to code, but also to add amenities like new bathrooms and seating. Meanwhile, the stunning Mondavi Center in Davis was built from scratch for $61 million. The city has also commissioned an architecture firm to carve out a shiny new entrance to the building’s depressingly bland concrete shell, built in 1974 in the style of the Brutalist architecture movement.

It’s the architectural equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.

Design issues aside, the renovation still wouldn’t solve all of the facility’s significant limitations. One major local arts leader recently told me that such an investment would be akin to “throwing money into a black hole.”

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau says the Convention Center, which is adjacent to the Community Center Theater, is no longer large enough to compete for the events that would fill hotel rooms and restaurants. Given its way, I’m sure the bureau would prefer to move the theater elsewhere and expand the Convention Center to L Street.

So here’s the problem.

The Convention & Visitors Bureau brings visitors to town, fueling the local economy with critical outside dollars. The Community Center Theater brings locals downtown, which benefits the performing arts community and drives the downtown economic engine that powers the region. Something’s got to give.

And the answer is simple, even if the solution isn’t.

The theater needs to go. Period.

In September, the Sacramento Metro Chamber led a trip to Philadelphia. Each year the chamber selects a different city and invites stakeholders in the Sacramento region’s future to travel there to meet with their civic counterparts and explore ways to address issues in our own region. About 75 of us attended this year.

One of the presentations on the trip was held at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a $265 million structure designed by world-renowned architect Rafael Viñoly. It opened in 2001.

The panel chosen to speak about the facility featured an all-star lineup, including one of the city’s biggest developers, Carl Dranoff, who told our group that when the Kimmel Center opened, he attended the opening-night gala and experienced an epiphany. “I was completely enamored and inspired by the architecture, the performance, the people,” he recalled. After the gala, he said, he walked outside and wondered: “Why doesn’t anyone live here?”

So Dranoff built a 31-story, 163-unit condo tower next door to the Kimmel Center. It sold so well that he built a second one. Then a third. Now he’s planning his largest residential project yet, right across the street from the center.

“The Kimmel Center is as much a draw for tourism as the Barnes (art museum) or the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” he explained. “It’s been proven beyond a doubt that (performing arts venues) are economic engines, and that arts and culture are an economic engine.”

The Kimmel fueled the development of residences, restaurants and retail in a concentrated area – a constellation of civic amenities that now revolve around a single shining star.

Dranoff credits former Philadelphia mayor-turned-governor Ed Rendell for kick-starting the civic renaissance by championing the Avenue of the Arts. “He made it one of his primary economic development priorities,” Dranoff said. “He created enough public investment where the private sector could take over.”

Which brings us back to Sacramento.

The blocks surrounding the current theater have no room for new development. Instead, let’s use that $50 million as seed money for a private campaign. Start by selling the naming rights. In Philadelphia, philanthropist Sidney Kimmel spent $15 million for the naming rights, and Verizon paid $14.5 million for naming rights to the concert hall inside.

San Antonio sold the naming rights to its new performing arts center for $15 million. The new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts will open in downtown Orlando this year, with naming rights sold for $25 million, but also with a $10 million donation from the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

Those two cities have an almost identical metropolitan population to ours. And Kansas City and Las Vegas – which have slightly smaller metro populations – recently completed new performing arts centers.

If we spend $50 million on a renovation now, we won’t see another public investment in a new performing arts venue for generations.

If we want to ignite our own performing arts district, let’s find a place for it near the Memorial Auditorium and the Wells Fargo Pavilion, where the Music Circus performs. There are several largely undeveloped parcels nearby.

A new performing arts center – done right, with extraordinary architecture – will become an economic catalyst for downtown in tandem with the new arena.

Funding will be difficult, but that makes it no less worthwhile a challenge. If these four other similarly sized cities did it – all during the recession – so can we.

So it’s time to think big again, people. Let’s not take the easy way out. Let’s not lock ourselves into generations of mediocrity. Let’s not sacrifice greatness for short-term practicality. Instead, let’s embrace the can-do spirit of our Wild West forefathers when it comes to building our city’s future.


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