Golden 1 too steep? Building meets city code, but some fans say it’s scary

This photo, taken October 1, 2016, shows the inside of the new Golden 1 Center arena, where on Tuesday night at the Paul McCartney concert, a Turlock woman said she and her son suffered minor injuries when a woman fell on them from the row above.
This photo, taken October 1, 2016, shows the inside of the new Golden 1 Center arena, where on Tuesday night at the Paul McCartney concert, a Turlock woman said she and her son suffered minor injuries when a woman fell on them from the row above.

Sports arenas are built pretty steep these days, especially in the nosebleed sections, and Golden 1 Center is no exception. Betty Harter and Pattye Downing say they learned that the hard way during Paul McCartney’s concerts at downtown Sacramento’s new arena this week.

Seated in the upper bowl during Tuesday night’s inaugural show, Harter, 86, and her son Todrick Harter were injured when a woman tumbled over them from the row behind. They left the arena in wheelchairs, missing most of the concert.

Downing, 62, had a similar experience the following night, seeking medical attention after a fan fell on her and her daughter. She said the fan appeared to have been drinking and was ejected from the concert. While Downing was grateful that arena personnel compensated her by moving them to seats right in front of the stage, she’s vowed never to sit again in the upper bowl at Golden 1 Center.

The configuration of the arena’s 6,000-seat upper bowl has drawn considerable attention in the past two weeks. The steep pitch is the main reason that Sacramento Kings executives said there was no practical place to install cup holders, which usually are on the backs of seats.

Now some fans are saying the upper bowl feels dangerous. Not only are the stairs too steep, they say, there isn’t enough room between rows for people to pass safely.

“It’s very, very tight seating, and very steep,” Downing said Thursday. “I’ve never seen anything so steep in my life.”

Despite the complaints, Golden 1 Center’s seating configurations and other features meet Sacramento’s building codes, said Desmond Parrington, the city’s arena project manager.

The Kings declined to comment on the incidents. But the arena’s architects have said the upper bowl is pitched at just shy of 34 degrees. That’s 2 degrees steeper than the upper bowl at the Kings’ former home, Sleep Train Arena, said an arena official who declined to be identified.

The same official said the leg room between rows in the upper bowl is “comparable” to the upper bowl at Sleep Train.

Some fans, though, insist the upper bowl at Golden 1 feels much steeper and more cramped. “I never felt unsafe at Sleep Train,” Downing said.

Because the new arena contains a second tier of luxury seats, the upper bowl sits higher above the court than its counterpart at Sleep Train Arena. That could contribute to a psychological reaction for a fan sitting upstairs. Gerardo Prado, the architect designing the proposed Major League Soccer stadium in Sacramento, said a bowl can feel steeper when someone is sitting at a higher elevation.

Golden 1 Center is far from alone in having a relatively steep pitch.

Brad Clark of Populous, who worked on the design for the new T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and is planning the Milwaukee Bucks new arena, said steeper upper bowls are the norm. Some fans are uncomfortable with that, he acknowledged. Designers tend to go as steep or nearly as steep as local building codes will allow.

The $557 million Sacramento arena’s upper bowl is actually 2 degrees gentler than the 36-degree upper bowl at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to Sports Illustrated. Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis is also pitched at 36 degrees, according to a study performed for the Kings by an architecture firm a decade ago.

Even steeper is the upper deck of the San Siro soccer stadium in Milan, Italy, with a vertiginous slope of 40 degrees, according to an August online report on stadium architecture and fan noise published by Vice Sports United Kingdom.

“The 30 to 34 (degree) range, I would say, is typical,” said Prado, who works for the Kansas City architectural firm HNTB. He said the pitch at Sacramento’s MLS stadium would likely range between 31 and 33 degrees, with the slope increasing in the upper reaches.

Prado said steep pitches became commonplace in upper bowls years ago. More recently, stadiums are designing the lower bowls with steeper slopes, too.

He said stadiums are built steeply to make it easier for fans to see over the people in front of them. “The steeper the seating bowl, the better the sight line,” he said.

Experts say steeper seating also brings fans closer to the action, while increasing the noise factor in the building. A “wall of sound” effect can help intimidate visiting teams.

That was certainly the idea behind the design at Golden 1 Center.

Mike Wekesser, sports design director for AECOM, the architecture firm that designed the new downtown arena, said in an interview last week that Kings executives challenged AECOM “to get the loudest wall of fans.” One way to do that was making the lower bowl deeper and the upper bowl steeper, he said.

“We try not to ever exceed 34 degrees,” Wekesser said. “Anything (more) than that, you feel like you have to have a rope to climb it. And going down it feels dangerous, too. It is a trade-off to feel safe, to feel comfortable and get close at the same time.”

Some critics say arena designers have gone too far. A fan at a Billy Joel concert in Brooklyn in 2015, injured when a drunken fan fell on her, is suing the owners of Barclays Center for damages. The suit blames a “dangerous seating design in the upper levels of the arena.”

The fan’s lawyer, Michael Castro, said Thursday that Barclays’ design was motivated by the attempt to increase seating in an arena built on a relatively cramped urban footprint. The fact that other arenas have similar designs is no excuse, he said.

“It was done to cram as many people as they can into a tight metropolitan space,” Castro said. “Just because it’s what they’re doing (at other venues) doesn’t make it safe, or the right thing to do.” The lawsuit is pending.

For the Harters, who were attending the McCartney show with four other family members, the incident at Tuesday night’s concert spoiled what was shaping up as a memorable evening. They were injured as McCartney was performing the early-1980s song “Temporary Secretary,” just five songs into the show.

Arena personnel offered to compensate them with tickets to Wednesday’s show, but they had a schedule conflict, Todrick Harter said. He said he turned down tickets to a Kings game because he doesn’t like to watch basketball.

Betty Harter said she and her son initially tried to stay at the concert, putting ice on their injuries to relieve pain and prevent swelling, but they finally decided to leave. Arena staff members brought wheelchairs and wheeled them down K Street to their car, which was parked near Frank Fat’s restaurant, where they’d had dinner.

“I’d never ridden in a wheelchair down K Street,” she said.

Paul McCartney fans queue up for the first concert at Sacramento's new Golden 1 Center to the sounds of "Maybe I'm Amazed" on Tuesday, October 4, 2016.

Paul McCartney fans sing their favorite McCartney songs before the inaugural concert at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California on Tuesday, October 4, 2016. Watch for the "When I Get Older" lady!

Screaming Paul McCartney fans get a glimpse of the rock legend as his car makes its way through downtown Sacramento on the way to Golden 1 Center on Tuesday, October 4, 2016.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

NBA arena comparison

Arenas built in recent years have upper bowls that are higher and steeper than Sleep Train Arena, which was built in 1988.

diagram comparing arena cross sections 

Sources: 360architecture; The Sacramento Kings, Bee research

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