Sacramento science center prepares for big leap into future after city devotes $30M

To put it gently, the current Powerhouse Science Center is less than impressive when compared to San Francisco’s new Exploratorium or Sacramento’s revamped Crocker Art Museum.

Its current home is a humble building nestled in a grove of oak trees near a freeway maze in northeast Sacramento County.

On a recent afternoon, a trickle of children and their families dropped into the 5,000-square-foot center off Auburn Boulevard to explore the new “Forces: Earth & Space” exhibit. Grant Larson, 5, scampered – grandparents in tow – from station to station cranking wheels, pushing buttons and releasing balls into a stream of air.

In two years, the science center once known as the Discovery Museum is set to leave its homey confines to take over a stately, century-old building on the Sacramento riverfront. The timeline became more real after the Sacramento City Council last week voted unanimously to contribute $30 million toward the Powerhouse Science Center over the next three decades.

Supporters say the vote was the last piece in a financing puzzle that will allow them to break ground on the $48.3 million project in mid-2018.

The new center, set to open in 2020, will transform the 105-year-old PG&E plant along the river into a state-of-the-art museum with over 20,000 square-feet of exhibit space – quadruple the size of the current facility.

Founded in 1951, the Powerhouse Science Center currently draws 60,000 to 70,000 people annually through school tours and walk-in visitors. That number is expected to more than triple to 300,000 annual visits, said Rita Mukherjee Hoffstadt, deputy director of the center.

Whereas the current space feels dated and cramped, the new space is expected to be modern and spacious. Hoffstadt sidestepped comparisons to the famed Exploratorium, pointing instead to science centers in Seattle, Portland and Boston as better comparisons.

The vision for the new center includes two stories of standing exhibits exploring scientific concepts. In addition to a rotating exhibit, there will be standing galleries on water and the environment; nature and discovery; space; and health and design engineering. The aim is be grounded in general scientific concepts, but also address current, specific concerns of the region.

Powerhouse officials say they want to be more than a impressive collection of exhibits. They want to position the center as the community’s go-to place to celebrate, explain and learn about science.

“We are the capital of the sixth largest economy in the world. That economy is driven by science and technology. We can be that place to showcase it and get people excited about and really celebrate the science in the region,” Hoffstadt said.

In a possible glimpse into its future, the science center was bustling with activity during the August 2017 solar eclipse. Hundreds of people, many of them children, gathered at the Auburn Boulevard center to experience the rare celestial event with scientific guidance. Guests lined up dozens deep to look through eclipse viewers provided by amateur astronomers.

On Friday, Shahnaz Van Deventer, the science center’s director of marketing and development, strolled the grounds of the old power plant.

“Not only do we have that structure (but) we are building a brand new 22,000-square-foot structure,” Van Deventer said, as a steady stream of cars rushed by on Interstate 5. The site won’t have the solitude offered by the old space – which has a small pond and an outdoor amphitheater – but it will have an outdoor activity space.

Van Deventer said she’s particularly happy the new center will include a cafe. Renderings suggest an impressive annex filled with natural light next to the historic building.

The neighborhood around the new center remains a bit of mixed bag. The new center is between Tiscornia Park and Matsui Waterfront Park, and is expected to be the endpoint of a Hanami Line of 200 flowering cherry trees.

The undeveloped railyards sit across the freeway, ready to burst with development. But the immediate area surrounding the PG&E plant building sees a fair amount of traffic from homeless people traveling between Discovery Park and downtown Sacramento. Also nearby sits a string of value hotels.

Still, city leaders see the Powerhouse as a major step in the right direction for a neglected section of Sacramento’s riverfront.

“We are so excited. This is part and parcel of (Mayor) Darrell Steinberg’s larger vision for the riverfront,” said Van Deventer. “We are a catalyst for that.”

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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