Sacramento nightmare — a downtown arena for Kings

Hey, Sacramento leaders, when was the last time you went for a stroll in downtown Sacramento at night? When was the last time your wife parked her car in an underground lot on L Street in the evening to go shopping at the disappearing Downtown Mall? Can you remember ever riding light rail after dark?

I’ve lived in Sacramento for close to 35 years, and I’ve never been thrilled about going downtown at night. It’s a scary place after the hordes of state workers have departed. I love the Crest Theatre, but few artsy movies are worth the tension I feel walking dark side streets to get there. When my wife and I go to concerts at the Community Center, we look for street parking on the south side of Capitol Park to avoid the jammed parking garages. After the show, we stick with a handful of other brave souls and walk the lighted, main path through the park. We feel vulnerable when we  separate to go to our car.

Amazingly, the visionaries touting a new arena for the Kings say the downtown railyard site is an idea whose time has come. With a little planning, downtown will become a festive place where sports fan will crowd new restaurants and bars and revel in the another Kings’ victory. A light rail stop will be built close to the entrance of the arena and thousands of Sacramentans who never ride the rails will change their ways.

Planning visionaries are counting on 20 percent of event-goers to use light rail, according to a story Tuesday  in The Sacramento Bee. That’s because the proposed $387 million arena lacks a substantial parking structure. Sports fans would have to use the estimated 8,200 current parking places within four blocks of the arena site. Unfortunately, those parking places  are used by daytime commuters and there’s no guarantee they would be vacated by game time.

In addition, concerns are being raised about gridlock on city streets and congestion on the freeways. The railyard site would be basically an infill project in a tightly constricted urban location and require new roads, off-ramps and bridges. For 25 years, as the Bee story notes, the Kings played in an arena that was in the middle of a huge parking lot in North Natomas. Even with that, patience was required getting in and out of the arena.

The downtown arena is predicated on making major physical changes to the city’s landscape during a long-lasting downturn in the economy. There must be dozens of city projects that have been put on hold already, including a transit center at the railyard site. Where would money for new infrastructure development come from?

Perhaps even more daunting is the idea of changing residents’ lifestyle. Sacramento is a car culture. People drive everywhere. The affluent folks who go to Kings games are unlikely to give up their SUVs and cars to take light rail, a mass-transit system that has struggled since its debut in 1987 to attract riders. One local architect and planner quoted in The Bee envisions Sacramento becoming  a New York or Boston, with subways filled with celebratory fans. “It’s a camaraderie that comes with mass transit,” he said.

Light rail cars making their way through Sacramento at night look like Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks” – a depiction of lonely folks sitting forlornly in a diner. Any Kings’ fans riding light rail will be sharing the camaraderie of the defeated, if recent seasons are any gauge of the future.

The downtown sports arena plan is either pie-in-the sky urban renewal or a clever diversion by real estate developers with other things on their mind.

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