Return of the JFDI
Thanks to some bold thinkers, Sacramento is on the verge of a civic renaissance, the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the Transcontinental Railroad. But at least one big project-in-waiting could derail a brighter future for the arts.
Early Sacramentans had an extraordinary track record of accomplishing great things. From building the Transcontinental Railroad to fighting off other cities to become the state’s capital, our ancestors possessed a truly impressive can-do attitude on which this city was built.
Up until recent years, though, when we pulled off the Herculean efforts to fund a $100 million expansion of the Crocker Art Museum, and rallied to save the Sacramento Kings and begin the process of building a new arena, I was beginning to get a little worried that we’d lost our civic mojo when it came to big projects; that we were thinking small and acting small.
Now I’m worried that we may be again.
My fear revolves around the future of downtown’s Community Center Theater, the increasingly obsolete 1974 concrete bunker of a structure that has housed most of the city’s major performing arts organizations for decades.
But unlike the Kings, I’m not worried about losing it. I’m worried about saving it.
The Community Center Theater (CCT) is, according to the city, not fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and needs to correct said issues, and quickly. The city wants to invest about $50 million (only a portion of which will be used for the ADA issues) to bring it up to code, but also to add amenities like more bathrooms, new seating and center aisles in the orchestra section. (Meanwhile, the stunning Mondavi Center in Davis was built from scratch for $61 million.) The city has also commissioned an architecture firm to design a shiny new entrance to the building’s otherwise depressingly bland exterior.
It’s the architectural equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.
Design aside, the renovation still wouldn’t solve all of the facility’s significant limitations. One major local arts leader recently told me that such an investment would be akin to “throwing money into a black hole.” And one local political leader said that the city has attempted—with no success—to secure a major gift by selling the naming rights to this Frankensteined design on a dime.
Meanwhile, the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) says the convention center, which is adjacent to the CCT, is no longer large enough to compete with other similarly sized cities for the events that would fill hotel rooms and restaurants. Landlocked, the CVB plans to expand by adding a third floor to the complex, but given its way, I’m sure the CVB would prefer to move the theater elsewhere and expand the convention center to L Street.
So here’s the crux of the problem.
The CVB brings visitors to town, fueling the local economy with critical outside dollars. The CCT brings locals downtown, which benefits the performing arts community and drives the downtown economic engine that powers the entire region. Something’s got to give.
And the answer is simple, even if the solution isn’t.
The theater needs to go. Period.
When I wrote about this topic in 2010, I called for the CCT to be torn down and replaced on the same site. While I feel just as strongly today about tearing down this antiquated relic and replacing it with something extraordinary and architecturally inspiring, a recent trip to Philadelphia influenced my thinking on the new theater’s location. In short, I’m now convinced that the theater could benefit the city even more in another location.
In September, the Sacramento Metro Chamber led a trip to Philadelphia for its 15th annual study mission. Each year the chamber selects a different city and invites various political leaders, businesspeople and other stakeholders in the Sacramento region’s future to travel there to meet with their civic counterparts and explore ways to address issues in our own region, ranging from education to professional sports and infill development. There were about 75 of us on this particular trip.
One of the panels during the study mission was held at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a $265 million building that was designed by world-renowned architect Rafael Viñoly and opened in 2001.
The panel chosen by the chamber to speak about the facility featured an all-star lineup, including the senior VP of the Kimmel Center, the CEO of the city’s Avenue of the Arts (how great does that sound?), the head of the William Penn Foundation and one of the city’s most prominent residential developers.
Over the course of about 70 minutes, sitting below the theater’s massive barrel-shaped glass rooftop, the panelists detailed the origin of the idea for the center, the execution of the concept and the benefits that resulted from this magnificent civic project, which became a magnet for growth in Philadelphia from the day it opened—literally.
The developer on the panel, Carl Dranoff, told our group that when the Kimmel Center opened, he attended the opening-night gala there in December 2001, and had an epiphany that would change the course of his life, as well as that of the city. “I was completely enamored and inspired by the architecture, the performance, the people,” he recalled. After the evening’s festivities ended, he walked out to the sidewalk and wondered to himself: “ ‘Why doesn’t anyone live here?’ Nobody lived on the avenue. Not a single soul.”
In the years that followed, Dranoff set into motion plans to build a 31-story, 163-unit condo tower next door to the Kimmel Center. Completed in 2007, the project—called Symphony House—sold so well that he built a second residential project nearby. Then a third. Now he’s planning his largest residential project yet, right across the street from the theater complex. And every single ad he ran to market the projects touted their proximity to the Kimmel Center. “Make Beethoven and Brahms your neighbors,” promised one such ad he showed us.
“The Kimmel Center is as much a draw for tourism as the Barnes [Foundation art museum] or the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” he explained. “It’s not about creating monuments; it’s about jobs and economic development. And it’s been proven beyond a doubt that [performing arts venues] are economic engines, and that arts and culture is an economic engine.”
Dranoff had shown that to be true. The Kimmel Center fueled the development of residences, restaurants and retail in a concentrated area—a constellation of civic amenities that revolved around a single shining star.
But how did a project like this happen in the first place? Dranoff gives the credit for the city’s Avenue of the Arts (the nickname given for South Broad Street in the Center City neighborhood), to former Philadelphia mayor-turned-governor Ed Rendell.
“The mayor made the Avenue of the Arts a priority,” said Dranoff. “He made it one of his primary economic development priorities. He created enough public investment where the private sector could take over. And that’s what you really want to do when you’re planning your new arts center. It can’t be all about public investment. We’ve seen government dollars become scarcer and scarcer. If the private sector is not involved, or can’t be encouraged to become involved, you eventually start to lose your momentum.”
In fact, this fall, Rendell was asked in a Philadelphia Inquirer interview how much of Center City’s success could be traced to the arts.
“All of it,” he answered. “There is no question the Avenue of the Arts started it. If you look at the arts, the Barnes and [Philadelphia] art museum and the orchestra, they appeal to high-end tourists and high-end people who want to live in the city. It was the trigger for the restaurant revival, it was the trigger for the retail revival, and it was certainly the trigger for the population revival. Empty nesters are moving back into the city to be near all this stuff, and young people are moving in because it made Philadelphia a happening place.”
Which brings us back to Sacramento.
Building a new theater gives us the opportunity to create a district. And the blocks surrounding the current theater have no room for new residential. Instead, let’s use the $50 million in public funds that the city wants to put toward the renovation as seed money for a private campaign. Start by selling the naming rights. In Philadelphia, philanthropist Sidney Kimmel spent $15 million for the naming rights, and Verizon paid $14.5 million in cash and in-kind donations for naming rights to the concert hall inside.
San Antonio sold the naming rights to its new performing arts center for $15 million to a locally based foundation. The city’s $203 million center will open next fall.
In 2014, the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts will open in downtown Orlando, with naming rights sold for $25 million, but also with a $10 million donation from the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
Those two cities have an almost identical metropolitan population to ours—just over two million residents each. And both Kansas City and Las Vegas—which have slightly smaller metro populations—recently completed brand-new performing arts centers too.
If we allow the city of Sacramento to spend $50 million on a renovation now, we won’t see another public investment in a new performing arts venue for generations to come.
So where to put the new theater?
Ideas from local leaders have ranged from the Railyards to 301 Capitol Mall to a lot near the Crocker Art Museum. But if we want to ignite our own performing arts district, let’s find a place for it near the Memorial Auditorium and the Wells Fargo Pavilion, where the Music Circus performs. There are several parcels near there that are largely comprised of parking lots and smaller buildings. A site needs to be identified and acquired soon, before those blocks are fully developed.
A new performing arts center—if done right, with extraordinary architecture—will become an economic catalyst for downtown, prompting much-needed residential developments, an increased interest in the arts, and an arts district that will reinvigorate downtown in tandem with the new arena.
Funding will be difficult, as it has been for the other cities mentioned above, but that makes it no less worthwhile a challenge. If these four other similarly sized cities did it—all during the recession—then so can we.
Which brings me to the other key lesson that I, and many others on the trip to Philadelphia, walked away with. On a tour of an office-sharing space in the city’s nascent tech district, we met a young man named Alex Hillman, who showed us a tattoo on his right forearm that read JFDI. It stands for “Just F–king Do It.” Amongst our small group, it has since become an oft-repeated mantra in a very short period of time, and if you look closely, you’ll see the acronym printed on stickers on the backs of cell phones of prominent Sacramentans, including the head of at least one distinguished university.
So it’s time to think big again, people. Let’s not take the easy way out here. Let’s not lock ourselves into generations of mediocrity. Let’s not sacrifice greatness for short-term practicality. Instead, let’s embrace the civic chutzpah of our Wild West forefathers when it comes to building our city’s future.
Let’s JFDI, Sacramento. ’Nuff said.