Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Envy isn’t healthy, even for cities

Architects tried to design the Golden 1 Center with only-in-Sacramento touches.
Architects tried to design the Golden 1 Center with only-in-Sacramento touches. Sacramento Bee file

Just my luck, but ever since college, I’ve lived in cities where people insisted on comparing their hometowns to bigger or “better” places – a municipal inferiority complex of sorts.

Folks in Charlotte looked toward Atlanta. Raleigh residents gazed at Charlotte. Boston measured itself against New York.

Now I’m in Sacramento, where people love to compare our fair city to Portland and San Francisco.

When I wrote recently about making sure an update of Sacramento’s rules protected trees, a caller admonished that Sacramento’s parks and trees couldn’t hold a candle to Portland’s. For far too long, Sacramento was dismissed as a pit stop between San Francisco and Tahoe.

After spending time in all those supposedly superior places, I can say they all have their charms. But they also have their flaws. I don’t return home from those trips convinced that a particular city was so much better than where I was. For me, it’s like that old saying: It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to live there.

City envy is an unhealthy, unhelpful attitude. I’ve never quite understood this obsession among local leaders to join the big leagues. And whenever I hear civic boosters babbling on about becoming a “world-class city,” it makes me cringe – and check my wallet.

In Sacramento, the Kings and other backers of the new downtown arena promise an exciting entertainment district around it, just like L.A. Live near Staples Center. Invariably, supporters of a streetcar line linking West Sacramento and Sacramento point to Portland. Now, some are saying a renovation of the Community Center Theater, in conjunction with expanding the Convention Center, would be as successful as what Phoenix did.

Me-too thinking can get you in trouble. Remember everyone jumping on the bandwagon for pedestrian malls as a way to revitalize downtowns? Most failed, and many cities have torn them up, including Sacramento, which let cars back on to K Street in 2011.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for borrowing smart ideas from other places – it’s not as if there’s an endless supply – and hopefully improving on them. For instance, the city of Sacramento is carving “parklets” out of on-street parking spaces as San Francisco did. It’s also working on bicycle-sharing programs popular in many cities around the world. Entrepreneurs are trying to make Sacramento as well known for craft beers as Napa is for fine wines.

Also, comparisons with other cities can be helpful to see how you measure up and where you fall short, leading to self-improvement. For instance, Sacramento needs to do better at capitalizing on its natural assets, such as the riverfront, as I wrote after visiting Vancouver last summer.

But the truth is, there’s no foolproof how-to manual on making a great city.

Cities – just like people – shouldn’t just copy others. They should strive to be the best version of themselves. And there are plenty of smart, committed people around here to come up with solutions that fit Sacramento.

So whether you love the arena’s design or not, at least give the architects credit for aspiring to make it quintessentially Sacramento, with hangar-sized doors to invite in the Delta breeze, a façade etched with leaf patterns and a public plaza that celebrates the city’s agricultural roots and its farm-to-fork future.

We need that same kind of ambition for other projects. Crocker Museum should aim for something more than a mini-Central Park for its new green space. A makeover of Capitol Mall should highlight Sacramento and not be a “bad impersonation” of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as City Councilman Steve Hansen put it.

Harsh, but true. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Mayor Kevin Johnson seems to have learned this lesson during his years in office.

The first time he summoned me to City Hall, early in his first term, he tried to sell me on needing more power to move Sacramento into the big time, listing cities he wanted to emulate. Six years later, in his final State of the City speech last month, he focused far more on the potential for home-grown innovation and entrepreneurship.

Especially now, with a burst of development tied to the new arena, Sacramento ought to make sure to build on its strengths. We can be a more vibrant and livable place without giving up our identity.

Come to think of it, that would be a fine platform for a mayoral campaign, a vision for voters to believe in.