Foon Rhee

Can Kings create an iconic public square?

St. Mark’s Square and other public squares in Europe have a long history. Can the Sacramento Kings get anywhere close with the pedestrian plaza encircling the new Golden 1 Center?
St. Mark’s Square and other public squares in Europe have a long history. Can the Sacramento Kings get anywhere close with the pedestrian plaza encircling the new Golden 1 Center?

On my recent Roman holiday (which also took me to Florence, Milan and Venice), I ate a lot of great pasta, drank a lot of strong coffee and took a lot of memorable photos.

And I still thought of Sacramento every once in a while – when I strolled across a grand public plaza common to every great European city and wondered if such a place could exist back home.

The owners of the Sacramento Kings and their partners hope so.

Their vision for the pedestrian plaza encircling the new Golden 1 Center opening next week is nothing less than an iconic town square to rival the best in America and Europe, but with a unique Sacramento flair. Or as Kings President Chris Granger described it, a gathering place “anchored by iconic design, art, and culture, while reflecting and amplifying the values and sensibilities of Sacramento.”

You can’t accuse the new Kings regime of thinking too small. But they’re going up against major challenges – and a lot of history.

Many city squares in Europe have been centers of public life for centuries, often built around majestic cathedrals. In America, sports may be a sort of religion, but it isn’t the same.

The best plazas in Europe are large, ornate, open spaces, which aren’t as common on this side of the Atlantic, where unleased square footage in the central city is bad business.

They have good lighting and palpable energy. They have sidewalk cafes (however overpriced), vendors (however annoying) and hawkers of souvenirs (however tacky). They have buskers and street musicians – violinists who rock recent hits, but also singers who do really bad covers. They’re tourist attractions, as well as local gathering places.

On my Italian trip this month, the most impressive was Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) in Venice, framed by the world-famous marble basilica, bell tower and palace. One of my favorite parts: the competing quintets (violin, piano, flute, cello and accordion) that performed classical and more modern music for patrons of the outdoor cafes ringing the square and anyone else walking by.

My last night in Venice, the one at Caffé Quadri performed “The Nutcracker Suite,” then the one at Caffé Lavena did a medley from “The Sound of Music.”

Could you imagine something like that in the middle of Sacramento, on a nice summer night with a gentle Delta breeze? I confess I’m having a little trouble envisioning it.

Wrapping around the arena, the 130,680-square-foot pedestrian plaza will be at the heart of 1.5-million-square foot, $1 billion Downtown Commons, a “lifestyle and entertainment” district that includes a 16-story hotel and condo tower, plus stores, restaurants and entertainment venues.

The idea is that whether or not there’s a Kings game or other event at Golden 1 Center, residents and visitors will come to shop, listen to music or just people-watch. While 1 million would attend arena events each year, 10 million would visit Downtown Commons (DoCo for short).

The Kings are trying to do more than just recreate the energy when Downtown Plaza was bustling in the early 1990s, or when K Street was the city’s unquestioned shopping hub in the early 20th century.

During the early discussions about a new downtown arena, the most talked-about model for the surrounding development was L.A. Live, the nightlife area in downtown Los Angeles near Staples Center that bills itself as the “most entertaining place on the planet.” It’s nice enough, but hardly worth emulating.

Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive, the other owners and development partner JMA Ventures of San Francisco have set their sights much higher. For inspiration, they’ve looked at a wide variety of public squares here and abroad: Central Park, the High Line and Rockefeller Center in New York; Millennium Park in Chicago; the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; and even the Spanish Steps in Rome.

“The grand plaza that gently wraps around Golden 1 Center works to incorporate the spirit of those amazing civic spaces,” Granger said in an emailed statement, “while also promoting a decidedly ‘uniquely Sacramento’ vibe, in our landscaping, our surrounding vendors and in our programming.”

So instead of a monument to saints or war heroes in the middle of our plaza, Sacramento boasts a playful sculpture, an $8 million piece of public art from Jeff Koons, formally unveiled Monday. That’s certainly different.

DoCo will be a work in progress for months, perhaps even years. Still, maybe we should all lower our expectations a tad. No matter how smart the planning or how ambitious the vision, it’s difficult to create history from scratch – much harder than building a high-tech, whiz-bang arena.

Will Downtown Commons in Sacramento ever be as well-known or grand as St. Mark’s Square in Venice? Highly doubtful.

But it couldn’t hurt to borrow its best features. So make sure there are outdoor cafes. And make sure they hire a decent band.