Arena

Sacramento seeks to ease the way for fans when downtown arena opens

Sacramento officials are looking at ways to ease congestion the downtown arena opens.
Sacramento officials are looking at ways to ease congestion the downtown arena opens. rpench@sacbee.com

Sacramento officials conducted a reconnaissance mission recently at Sleep Train Arena and observed an interesting phenomenon in the parking lot: Hundreds of fans searching for their cars after the game, having forgotten where they parked.

That gave them an idea. When the Golden 1 Center arena opens downtown next year, the city plans a car-finding service. Using license-plate recognition cameras in garages and on downtown streets, the city can note car locations. People who don’t remember where they left their vehicle can call the city, as long as they remember their license number.

“We’ll have the mechanism to find your car for you,” city parking manager Matt Eierman said.

We want people to come down and have a great experience.

Police Capt. Katherine Lester

It’s one of dozens of steps the city is considering to reduce congestion, confusion and consternation among arenagoers when basketball games, concerts and other events move in October from suburban Natomas to the new center in the heart of downtown.

The city created an arena planning team in July, headed by city police and city arena project managers, to study downtown arenas in other cities and brainstorm improvements that can be put in place before tens of thousands of people begin coalescing at Fifth and K streets.

Officials say they are confident they are coming up with ways, some that will go unnoticed, others that will be obvious, to smooth the path for eventgoers. The new arena is expected to host more than 180 events a year, including more than 40 Kings basketball games.

“This is a massive project for the city as well as the Kings,” police Capt. Katherine Lester said. “We want people to come down and have a great experience. I’m confident working together we’ve been able to address a lot of our needs.”

The city group will lean heavily on technology, much of it new to Sacramento. Online systems will allow people to prepay for reserved spots in garages. Text messages sent to users’ smartphones will let them know which garages have space and which parking meters are available, as well as which streets are congested and which are free-flowing.

Planners also will take advantage of low-tech approaches. Several city blocks adjacent to the arena likely will be closed to traffic during events and for a half-hour after events to allow thousands of pedestrians to disperse quickly. That includes several blocks of L Street and possibly several blocks of Seventh Street. The city and Kings plan to station off-duty city police officers at key intersections, walkways and plazas to oversee traffic and pedestrian movement.

Green light, green light

Although planning group leaders say they expect to have downtown garages, intersections and streets ready on day one, they acknowledge they will have to adjust some strategies in the initial weeks as they and arenagoers get a feel for how things go.

“There is no way we are going to have every single thing figured out,” the city’s arena project manager Desmond Parrington said. “Part of this is a learning experience. We can adjust as needed to make sure things work smoothly with different events. A concert is different from Kings game, which is different from Disney on Ice. Different traffic demand, different pedestrian patterns.”

Parrington said the city’s staff is still identifying the costs for the planned improvements. The Kings will pay for police security at events, and for street and infrastructure upgrades around the arena. The city will increase parking meter rates downtown next month, revenue that can be used directly in some cases, indirectly in others, to finance arena-area traffic and pedestrian improvements.

City officials have been pitching the downtown arena as a better and more varied entertainment experience than the current Natomas arena, which sits alone surrounded by a parking lot and fields. Eventgoers are likely to come downtown early or stay late to go to restaurants and bars in the area, Parrington said. Some downtown workers will walk over from their offices, and some will arrive on light rail, bus, or even via bike.

Some fans and downtown arena critics have expressed concerns about congested freeway offramps, crowded downtown streets, potential difficulty finding parking, and unease about nighttime walks to and from the arena along unfamiliar streets.

City traffic chief Hector Barron, however, contends that if managed correctly, the downtown freeway and surface street grid system should easily handle the arena traffic load. The number of drivers into downtown in the evening for arena events will be far fewer than the number of commuters who come downtown daily to work, he said.

The Kings arena will hold 17,500 people. Kings fans tend to arrive two or more per car. To reduce arena-area congestion, Kings employees likely will park in lots under the W-X freeway south of downtown and take a shuttle to the arena.

The Kings are paying for new fiber-optic lines, which are being installed under streets near the arena to upgrade traffic signals so city traffic engineers can switch signal timing in real time while monitoring traffic cameras before and after games.

City traffic chief Barron said the signal-light changes may include giving cars on the Interstate 5 offramps at 3rd and J streets a continuous green light during the peak arrival time before events, and temporarily closing a block of Third Street to avoid traffic conflicts. A traffic analysis several years ago indicated those two freeway ramps would be the most heavily used by arenagoers and could see substantial freeway backups if nothing is done to ease passage.

Barron said his crew already has been adding new pedestrian signals that count down the seconds before the light will turn red. The Kings will pay for the new pedestrian signals in the arena area; the city will pay for the new signals elsewhere downtown. The city also plans to install old-fashioned-looking acorn-style streetlights and other distinctive lighting along key corridors around the arena and in the plaza to improve safety.

Arena traffic plan map 

$20 parking space

The city also will switch out the current 10-foot-wide pedestrian crosswalks, replacing them with 15-foot-wide crosswalks with distinctive striping that can accommodate more people and are easier for drivers to see. Traffic officials also are exploring changing lights at some intersections, such as Fifth and J streets, to allow pedestrians to cross in all directions, including diagonally, while all cars wait.

Subject to council approval, the city will keep parking meters in operation in the evening, with flat-rate pricing, to capture revenues and to help control where people park by using price differentials on different blocks. The closest meters to the arena likely will be the most expensive. City parking manager Eierman said prices have not been set. The council will likely do that next year. But he suggested the city could consider $20 at the best-positioned meters on event nights, to be paid by credit card or smartphone app.

Other meters, a half mile from the arena, might be priced at only $5 for game or concert parking to encourage parkers to spread out, making it more likely that drivers will choose a variety of freeway ramps and surface streets.

“Pricing is going to be critical to this, making the outliers inexpensive,” Eierman said. Officials say they want to set street-parking prices at a level that will encourage more drivers to use parking garages. Prices at garages during events have not been set. Closer-in garages are likely to be more expensive.

The city also will set up an online system to allow arena attendees to pay for parking in advance at city-owned downtown garages. Those drivers will be able to exit the garage after the event without stopping at pay booths.

The city will send out text alerts to drivers, letting them know if certain streets are congested and which are flowing more smoothly. Officials say they expect to have a phone app in place that will allow arenagoers to check how many available spaces each garage has, or which city blocks have available meter spots, and what the meter price is.

The idea is to get drivers focused on going to certain blocks or garages, instead of driving directly to the arena to look for a place to park, Parrington said.

“It is a shift in people’s thinking,” he said. “At Sleep Train, you go to the arena, pay and park. Downtown is a different environment. They find their parking garage, not the arena. Then they go to a restaurant, or shopping, and make more of a event out of it. That is the benefit to having it downtown to the city overall.”

City officials expect Kings fans to learn, over time, which routes and parking spots suit them. Concerts and other infrequent events, however, may attract more people who are unfamiliar with the arena area and are more likely to need help. The city is talking with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership about getting their uniformed downtown guides out on the streets to help.

Police officials declined to say what kind of security they and the Kings intend to put into place downtown for arena events, but said it would be robust.

“We are confident we are going to create an environment that makes it comfortable for people to come down here,” Sacramento police Capt. Justin Eklund said. “You’ll see a significant presence.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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