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Sacramento’s Powerhouse Science Center aims to break ground in ’17

An artist rendering of what the Powerhouse Science Center is to eventually look like shows the old building last used in the 1950s, at right, and the contrasting new annex.
An artist rendering of what the Powerhouse Science Center is to eventually look like shows the old building last used in the 1950s, at right, and the contrasting new annex. Powerhouse Science Center

A group that has worked for years to transform a shuttered PG&E plant along the Sacramento River north of downtown into a science museum has revamped its plans for the facility and now says it aims to break ground in 2017.

The Sacramento City Council is expected to vote to increase the city subsidy for the project from $7 million to $7.85 million in order to help the Powerhouse Science Center to pay for the removal of pre-existing hazardous materials such as lead paint and asbestos at the site. The council will also vote to approve a new plan to renovate the plant that will cut construction costs.

The project was originally estimated to cost $80 million, an amount that proved difficult to raise. That figure was later adjusted to $51 million, and the new construction plan will bring the cost down to $41 million. The science center, which is currently located on Auburn Boulevard, will renovate and relocate to the building when it secures the necessary funding.

Harry Laswell, the executive director of the Powerhouse Science Center, said the center has collected $35 million of the $41 million pledged so far.

Rachel Hazlewood, a senior project manager with the city’s economic development department, said the original plan was for the museum to construct a new building to the south of the PG&E plant and then renovate the historical building, which has not been used since 1954.

The original plan would have been a safety hazard for museum patrons, since visitors would have been walking near an active construction zone. Under the new construction plan, those two phases would be switched, which will eliminate the safety hazard as well as decrease costs.

“There’s a lot of benefit in taking on the historic building in the first phase,” Hazlewood said. “We’re thrilled to see that historic structure being put to a productive use.”

Laswell said his group hopes to receive the last $6 million by the end of 2016. He did not have an estimated start date for construction, but said if they receive the necessary funding by the end of the year, they hope to start in early 2017. Construction will take roughly 18 months.

And when the museum is finished, it will be a major attraction for the city. Shahnaz Van Deventer, the director of marketing for the center, estimates that it will draw nearly 250,000 visitors annually.

“That’s an extraordinary amount, approaching the numbers of the Crocker,” Van Deventer said. “Every great city has a great science center. And for us to be the state capitol and talk about education as we do in the Legislature, to not have a science center is something that is going to be a loss.”

Van Deventer said that the new museum will feature a public planetarium, NASA’s newest installation of the Challenger Learning Center and exhibits covering water conservation, energy education, nature discovery and biotechnology.

The center’s goal is to provide a similar experience to the Exploratorium in San Francisco and to inspire and excite children about the STEM fields.

“When you look at the future workforce, today we have a job skill set gap in the STEM fields,” Van Deventer said. “That is what the center will be addressing. We are here to inspire the next generation to go into the STEM disciplines.”

The center also aims to be a big part of the city’s effort to generate more business near the river and near downtown.

“When you take a look at the urban core of Sacramento right now, you have the arts, you have entertainment, you have sports, and the science center is going to add a very important component to that,” Van Deventer said. “You’re seeing an incredible fabric being woven together that will be very attractive to people outside.”

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