City Beat

Focus is on renovating Sacramento’s Community Center Theater

A conceptual design shows what a renovated Community Center Theater in downtown Sacramento might look like.
A conceptual design shows what a renovated Community Center Theater in downtown Sacramento might look like. Westlake Reed Leskosky

The Community Center Theater at 13th and L streets opened in 1974, and it’s barely been touched since. Patrons complain about the acoustics. The access for disabled individuals is limited. The lobbies are so cramped, it’s often hard to tell whether you’re in line for the bathroom or the bar.

And for years, City Hall has kind of talked about doing something. Since at least 2000, city planners have been throwing around design plans and financing ideas to either renovate the theater or scrap it and build a new facility someplace else. After all these years, it seems the debate is about to get settled.

The City Council will likely approve a set of contracts Tuesday night for a team of design firms and architects to spend the next few months nailing down conceptual drawings and a construction schedule for a thorough renovation of the theater at its current site. The plans will also show how the theater can be linked directly to the Sacramento Convention Center next door and incorporate an expansion of some of the meeting rooms in the convention complex.

In the meantime, city staffers will finalize a $200 million financing plan for the theater and convention center project. Hotel room taxes will likely carry the biggest load of the construction costs, accounting for an estimated $13.3 million a year in debt payback. The whole package is expected to go back to the City Council for approval this fall.

The project is being called a renovation of the theater, but it’s really much more. The 2,400-seat theater that emerges from this process will look nothing like the one we see today. Its blocky, concrete exterior will likely be replaced by glass and steel. The floor and seats will be replaced, the lighting will be upgraded, the acoustics will be improved and the size of the building expanded. The work will also address access for the disabled.

“This is a wholesale transformation into a new theater,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown.

This process was already delayed when the focus briefly shifted over the past couple of years to trying to find money for a brand-new theater somewhere else downtown. A viable cash source was never found for what could have been a $400 million project, and some of the locations under consideration were not close to existing restaurants or hotels.

“I don’t think there’s one restaurateur that wouldn’t agree moving the theater out of the center of downtown seems pointless,” said Henry de Vere White, one of the owners of de Vere’s Irish Pub two blocks away and a member of an advocacy group called Transform 916 pushing for a theater renovation.

Richard Lewis, head of the California Musical Theatre, said 170,000 patrons are expected to attend that group’s popular Broadway Sacramento series this season. Thousands more will watch the ballet, philharmonic orchestra, opera and choral society perform. A huge crowd was on hand for last month’s philharmonic performance of composer John Williams’ classics.

The performing arts groups that anchor the theater are asking the city to schedule a construction timeline that limits interior work to the summer months. That’s when those groups typically go on hiatus, and keeping the inside work to summer could allow performances to continue the rest of the year – and keep those groups breathing. City staffers appear nervous about the added costs that schedule might present, but Hansen said the arts groups “have a really strong argument.”

Theatergoers and performers have been arguing for years for a new or improved theater.

“After Tuesday, it’s not going to be a question of if, it’s going to be a question of when (the work finally starts),” Hansen said. “And that ‘when’ should come soon.”

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