Sacramento’s new downtown palace dazzles thousands

On a perfect autumn day, with temperatures in the 70s and the sky a luxurious blue, they streamed into downtown Sacramento by light rail, by Uber, on bikes and on foot.

Officially, this was the public unveiling Saturday of Golden 1 Center, an “open house” that was orchestrated in shifts to introduce the new arena built for the Sacramento Kings and that was expected to draw 100,000 visitors Saturday.

For many, though, the event was almost a spiritual experience – a reflection of the little-town-that-could, and testament to a changing urban landscape.

“I’m speechless,” said James Hennessy, a 29-year-old lawyer living in midtown.

Just past noon, Hennessy sat alone on the plaza level, absorbing the sights and admiring the natural light spilling into the 700,000-square-foot building. The setting is both inviting and intimate, said Hennessy, who arrived in the second wave of visitors to tour the $557 million arena, where Paul McCartney on Tuesday will perform the first of two concerts.

“You can tell they put thought into every single aspect of this arena,” the lawyer said. “It’s the best thing in the NBA.”

A former Oregon resident, Hennessy said his emotions were raw Saturday as he contemplated the journey leading up to this day, and the up-and-down team that has “provided a kind of heartbeat for this town.”

“It’s a cool moment for Sacramento. It’s a cool moment for the NBA,” he said. “And it’s a cool moment for me.

“A lot of things will cascade from here.”

The arena’s potential impact on Sacramento was on the minds of many, who were more eager to talk about a revitalized downtown than the state of the building’s cup holders or the price of a Blue Moon.

“Sacramento has finally arrived,” said Bobette Kirk, 61, who posed with her aunt for selfies in front of the giant video scoreboard.

The arena’s opening has not been without tempests – the selection of public art, for instance, or the design of the building’s seating.

Outside the main entrance, 10-year-old Audrey Chandler of Sacramento gave a hearty thumbs up to the widely debated, $8 million sculpture “Coloring Book,” by artist Jeff Koons.

“I love how the colors just burst!” said the fifth-grade girl, whose older brother Braden was less committal.

“I don’t think it’s worth it for $8 million,” said Braden, 12. “But it is pretty.”

The lack of cup holders in the upper-level seats, known as the Bridge Level, also was a lively topic among Saturday’s visitors, who could be seen experimenting with their drink placements and assessing the risks of beer spillages and falls.

Less affectionately known in most venues as the “nosebleed zone,” the upper seats at Golden 1 Center are without cup holders because, according to statements from Kings management, the incline is much steeper than seating below in order to keep fans closer to the action. But this reportedly left designers without a practical position for a cup holder.

“It is a huge deal,” said 55-year-old Leslie Elowson, a home decorator from Folsom who otherwise described the arena as beautiful. Elowson, who stands 6 feet tall, tested the legroom in the upper reaches and declared it acceptable.

Elowson and friends from Rancho Cordova took light rail to the event, helping drive a spike in RT traffic, which the agency said was 600 percent above normal. Rides were free for ticket holders.

Cup-Holder-Gate aside, many visitors Saturday appeared content to test-drive their new seats, evaluate the restrooms and sample cuisine that was not necessarily deep-fat fried. With offerings from Sacramento mainstays like Selland’s and Paragary’s, guests could be seen carrying plates conspicuously loaded with vegetables, rice and other unmentionables in previous cuisine history at Arco and Sleep Train.

“You’re no longer going to have to have orange nachos if you don’t want them. I’m blown away,” said Hallie Morris, 53, who toured the building with her 16-year-old son Keegan.

Morris said she hadn’t been in favor of the arena deal – she believed that taxpayers didn’t need to build something for “people who can actually afford to do it themselves.” For a middle-class family like her own, attending games is a financial stretch while also saving for college, she said.

But Saturday’s public debut gave her pause, she said.

“I’ve got to say, it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Morris, who works for the California Automobile Museum. “It really does make you feel proud to be in Sacramento.

“It makes you feel you can do anything.”

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

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