Golden 1 Center debuts on a spot rich in Sacramento history

Beverly Braverman has seen Paul McCartney perform in Sacramento before, but Tuesday night’s show might be the most memorable. The ex-Beatle is in town to inaugurate Golden 1 Center, and Braverman is celebrating in a style worthy of the occasion.

Instead of driving straight to the concert and back, like she did for his last concert at Sleep Train Arena in 2005, she’s having dinner beforehand with friends at Frank Fat’s. They’re staying overnight at the Embassy Suites after the show.

“We are doing it up pretty well,” she said.

The Golden 1 Center era has arrived in Sacramento. The new downtown home of the Sacramento Kings, built at a cost of $557 million, will open with back-to-back concerts by one of the most popular musicians on Earth. Plenty is at stake: The city plunked down $255 million in construction subsidies in the belief that the arena will draw people like Braverman, time and again, to the central city for a night on the town.

The goal is a rejuvenation of Sacramento’s core. The location – at Fifth and L streets, on a site formerly occupied by a dying shopping mall – couldn’t be more appropriate.

Golden 1 Center sits on the spot where Sacramento first grew into a city, in the decades following the Gold Rush. It’s where Sacramento took its initial stab at urban renewal, during the early 1960s, after leveling several blocks of homes and businesses. It’s where Sacramento tried to revive the central city again in the early 1990s, this time with a massive expansion of what was then called Downtown Plaza. Years later, the mall’s demise enabled the Kings’ new owners to buy the property on the cheap, making the arena possible.

This is where Sacramento goes to reinvent itself – a pivotal and historic spot about midway between the Capitol and the city’s birthplace on the Sacramento River. Over the years, it’s been a magnet for shoppers and moviegoers, a melting-pot neighborhood for blacks and Japanese Americans, and the focal point of Sacramento’s highest aspirations. When Macy’s opened its downtown store in 1963, on a patch of land just west of the future arena site, it was such a momentous occasion that Gov. Pat Brown cut the ribbon.

“It’s something that’s been going on since the city began,” said City Historian Marcia Eymann. “This didn’t work, so let’s try that. That didn’t work, so let’s try this.

“We’ll see if this one works.”

After being founded on the banks of its namesake river, Sacramento began migrating east in the 1860s. Railroads had come to dominate the riverfront, so the merchants and other businesses relocated a few blocks inland. It was a slow process – City Hall and the county courthouse didn’t move until the early 20th century – but eventually much of the central city was clustered east of Third Street.

K Street became Sacramento’s shopping district, home to such venerable retailers as Breuners and Weinstock Lubin. The adjacent neighborhood was known as the West End, a hodge-podge of homes and businesses that included Japantown and other ethnic enclaves. Capitol Avenue was the hub of a black nightclub district where the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington performed.

“It was like our own little city,” said April Adachi, 84, who grew up in Japantown.

By the mid-1950s, however, city officials had come to believe the West End had to go. Sections of the area had become blighted with flophouses and hiring halls for day laborers. “There were more single, transient men there than anywhere in the city,” Eymann said. “It was known as one of the largest skid rows on the West Coast.”

In one of the first major urban-renewal programs of its time anywhere in the United States, the city embarked on the Capitol Mall Redevelopment Project. Block after block came down. Entire neighborhoods vanished, whether they were truly blighted or not. Protests from minority communities were generally ignored, said Clarence Caesar, a retired state historian.

“It was a pretty harsh decision, but it was in line with what was going on in the rest of the country,” he said.

Another controversy quickly arose: Where should the new freeway cutting through the city, I-5, be built?

Several routes were considered, including one through the heart of Old Sacramento. Several community leaders protested, led by Sacramento Bee publisher Eleanor McClatchy. The dispute became so heated that President John F. Kennedy personally froze the highway funds in 1961 until the community could reach a consensus.

A compromise was reached. The freeway would parallel the river but spare most of Old Sacramento. The new route had an added benefit: Macy’s wanted it that way.

The famous New York department store was being recruited by city officials to open a store on the redevelopment site. Running I-5 near the store, with a convenient offramp, would satisfy the preservationists and the retailer. Macy’s agreed to build the store.

“It really was a big deal,” Eymann said. “You have to understand – Macy’s was New York. … It was the same as having the Giants and the Dodgers come to California. The city campaigned to get them here.”

Opening day at Macy’s was Nov. 4, 1963. A parade of horse-drawn carriages – honoring the retailer’s founder, Rowland H. Macy, who ran a dry-goods store in Gold Rush-era Marysville – transported dignitaries to the store from the Capitol. Pat Brown joined a Macy’s executive and Miss California to cut the ribbon as hundreds of shoppers prepared to storm inside.

Macy’s sat by itself for several years, surrounded by empty blocks. But city officials and business leaders saw Macy’s as something bigger. A development group that included Macy’s itself and Sacramento contractor Henry Teichert set to work on an entire mall.

The result, completed in 1971, was Downtown Plaza, an $8 million open-air shopping center stretching from Third to Seventh streets, with Macy’s anchoring the western end and a JC Penney at the east. In between were such retailers as Tall Girl Fashions, Hallmark Cards, a couple of banks and two airline ticket offices. (Weinstock’s, the other department store chain commonly associated in Sacramentans’ memories with Downtown Plaza, didn’t relocate to the mall from its 12th and K address until 1979.)

Downtown Plaza was considered sterile and plain looking almost from the start. A $157 million renovation led by developers who had remade a key section of downtown San Diego brought some pizzazz to the mall in 1993, along with a cineplex and a second level of shops.

“I thought, ‘Finally, they’ve hit on something that’s going to rejuvenate that area,’ ” said Sacramento native Steven Avella, a historian at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

The mall prospered for a while and was able to snare high-profile tenants such as Hard Rock Cafe. Downtown Plaza in fact was so successful that when city officials raised the idea of building a new Kings arena there in 2004, the plan fizzled because the mall’s Australian owner, Westfield Corp., demanded at least $200 million for the property.

But within a few years, the mall was in a steep decline. Westfield was preoccupied with its new mall in Roseville and let Downtown Plaza deteriorate. The mall was nearly empty by the time JMA Ventures of San Francisco stepped in and bought it in 2012 for only $22 million. A year later JMA sold the mall to the new Kings owners. JMA is partnering with the team to renovate the portion of the mall, now called Downtown Commons, not occupied by the arena.

The arena’s construction has already brought some signs of life to downtown. New restaurants are springing up, and the blighted block immediately east of Golden 1 Center is being turned into a $55 million mixed-use project with 137 apartments. The Kings’ hotel will open next spring.

Will it work this time? Can the area around Fifth and L streets become a draw again?

Assistant City Manager John Dangberg thinks so. He said Golden 1 is a “destination use,” a magnet that will bring people downtown, like in the days before freeways and suburbs hollowed out Sacramento’s downtown.

“Bringing a destination use to downtown is what the difference is today,” said Dangberg, who led the negotiations with the Kings. “People are not going to drive by their Macy’s in Roseville to come to the Macy’s downtown. But they might drive by the Macy’s in Roseville to come to this whole entertainment center, and the excitement and activity downtown.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

Golden 1 Center debut

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, doors open at 6:30 p.m.

What to know: Check out our online guide at

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