Sacramento theater project moves forward, but Convention Center plan in flux

Hold on, arts patrons: The end of those notoriously long bathroom lines at the Community Center Theater is in sight.

The Sacramento City Council on Tuesday approved plans to rejuvenate the city’s aging performing-arts venue on L Street, adding much-needed ladies’ lavatories and private second-floor bathrooms for donor-level ticket holders.

The lack of bathrooms is a long-running complaint against the 1974 Brutalist box that is home to the Sacramento Ballet, the California Musical Theatre’s Broadway Sacramento series, the Sacramento Speaker Series, the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera.

The 42-year-old venue also gets criticized for its poor acoustics, outdated technology and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The council voted unanimously to move forward with a design for an $83.4 million update that will add 41,000 square feet of new space, replace seats, make technical upgrades and renovate the lobby, box office and dressing rooms.

A plan to expand the Sacramento Convention Center didn’t fare as well.

The City Council voted to push forward conceptual designs on a Convention Center expansion recommended by City Manager John Shirey. But it also acknowledged a request by Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and others to examine the project from the ground up over the next few months before committing to the $170-million idea.

Shirey’s limited Convention Center expansion plan has divided civic and business leaders in recent weeks.

Those in favor see a financially sound proposition that allows for another round of renovation in coming years without overstretching the city financially or overestimating Sacramento’s ability to draw conventions. Shirey said Tuesday that the Convention Center project would add 108,000 square feet of exhibition space and was “what is possible” within current financial resources. He said it would create an events district that could generate business between the “bookends” of the renovated facility and the Golden 1 Center.

Steinberg and others say that approach is too limited.

“This is a big decision with a huge financial obligation, and we need to get it right,” Steinberg said Wednesday. “We should do this thoughtfully and carefully and frankly since I’m going to be mayor for the next four years ... I want to help guide and shape that decision.”

Despite unanimously voting to move the project forward as it is, multiple City Council members signaled they would defer to Steinberg’s timeline before taking it further. The mayor-elect, who takes office in December, sent a public letter to council members Monday urging “big thinking.”

“I just want to recognize and emphasize how much work we have to do to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Councilman Jay Schenirer said before the vote.

Council backing for Steinberg would effectively drop Shirey’s scenario from plan to proposal.

The arts community turned out Tuesday to celebrate the theater plan with performances from children in this year’s “The Nutcracker” cast along with performers from the opera and philharmonic. Sacramento ballet artistic director Ron Cunningham said the renovation plan was “inspired.”

The city would replace the theater’s concrete front along L Street with a glass exterior and extend the lobby to 13th Street.

Restauranteur Henry de Vere White said his de Vere’s Irish Pub on L Street sees a 10 percent to 15 percent bump in business on nights the theater is open. “The theater for my business is awesome,” he said.

The retrofit is planned to start in 2017, but nearby Memorial Auditorium would see its own upgrades first. That 1926 facility will be lightly renovated with $16 million of new technology and amenities so it can be used as a temporary facility for shows while the community theater is being renovated. The proposal includes allowing a private company to run and book Memorial Auditorium to increase the number and quality of shows at the historic hall.

The three projects combined have a $270 million budget. The Convention Center would receive $170 million. Bonds backed by the city’s 12 percent transient occupancy tax would raise $230 million. State loans, money saved from closing the facilities during renovations and other city funds would make up the rest.

Assistant City Manager Fran Halbakken also said that part of the budget for the theater renovation, about $20 million, will come from naming rights. The city hopes one generous individual or corporate donor will pony up millions to have the theater named in their honor.

Smaller wallets will have the ability to name individual seats.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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