Toss out plans to refurbish Community Center Theater

By Rob Turner

Sactown Magazine

January 30, 2016 01:00 AM

Built in 1974, the Sacramento Community Center Theater was constructed during the short-lived and now largely maligned architectural movement known as Brutalism – named for the “brutal” façades comprising the movement’s signature gray concrete walls. Rob Turner Special to The Bee
Built in 1974, the Sacramento Community Center Theater was constructed during the short-lived and now largely maligned architectural movement known as Brutalism – named for the “brutal” façades comprising the movement’s signature gray concrete walls. Rob Turner Special to The Bee

Last March, Jerry Seinfeld was performing at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. He joked – and I paraphrase – “What, you couldn’t even get Doritos to pony up for naming rights here? C’mon, people.”

It took Seinfeld only 10 seconds to sum up the sad state of Sacramento’s primary performing arts center.

And in the coming months it may take only one City Council meeting to lash this concrete behemoth to our ankles as we drown in a sea of missed opportunities. As early as March, the council may take critical steps toward refurbishing the Community Center Theater.

Here’s why that’s a terrible deal for our city.

Over the past decade, city officials have been wrestling with the civic embarrassment that is the CCT. Performers and audience members have long complained about the building, from the acoustics to the scarcity of women’s bathrooms.

It wasn’t until 2008, however, when a lawsuit was filed for not providing wheelchair seating close to the stage that a sense of urgency emerged regarding renovation. In 2010, the city considered a $40 million refurbishment plan, and by 2014, the number was as high as $52 million. And that wouldn’t have even fixed the acoustics – in a concert hall, of all places.

At the time, I pointed out that the state-of-the-art Mondavi Center in Davis was built in 2002 for $61 million, and argued that while a larger theater here would cost considerably more, it was critical that Sacramento build a new theater and regain the performing arts footing it has lost to Davis and Folsom. Sacramento has, by and large, ceded the majority of major performing arts events to the suburbs.

Part of the problem has been that the theater was designed as a one-size-fits-all model. At 2,400 seats, it works perfectly for touring Broadway shows, but it’s too large – and expensive – for other arts groups like the ballet, philharmonic, opera and dozens more.

That’s why one of the newest trends in modern theater design is a flexible-seating format with retractable chairs and walls. San Antonio chose this model, and its capacity can fluctuate between 1,750 and 2,100 seats.

Another problem: our city’s primary performing arts center is, arguably, the single ugliest building in town.

Built in 1974, not only was the building constructed during the short-lived and now largely maligned architectural movement known as Brutalism (named for the “brutal” façades comprising the movement’s signature gray concrete walls), but it also defies every lesson we’ve learned about contemporary theater design since then.

Today, modern performance facilities – including downtown’s new arena – employ steel and glass to open up these civic spaces to the cities surrounding them. These structures create a civic experience rather than simply doubling as dark boxes that don’t play well with others.

Looks aside, the theater has also become a shell of its former self in terms of the number and quality of performances – the lifeblood of any performing arts center. In fact, Seinfeld is one of the increasingly rare major acts that even plays Sacramento anymore, thanks to the Mondavi Center and Folsom’s Harris Center, both of which boast extraordinary facilities as well as arts-presenting organizations that fill their schedules.

By comparison, Sacramento’s theater is barely used. Out of 365 days per year, performances are held there on only about 90 days, leaving a jaw-dropping 275 empty days per year.

So what can we do? The first step is to throw the refurbishment plan out the window.

Merely refurbishing the theater would be, in no uncertain terms, an admission of defeat.

It would reign for decades as Sacramento’s ultimate monument to mediocrity.

And time is running out to do something about it.

As we speak, the city is sharpening its pencils to determine the cost of refurbishment, which has risen from $40 million to nearly $80 million.

And if you think Sacramento isn’t up to the task of building a new theater, then you have to wonder how other cities are doing it.

Salt Lake City is currently building a 2,500-seat theater for $119 million that was designed by César Pelli. San Antonio opened the beautiful Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in 2014 at a cost of $203 million. In 2008, Austin opened a $77 million, 2,400-seat theater.

Where would ours go? Certainly not where it’s at now. And by moving the theater from its current site, it frees up much-needed room for the convention center to expand.

At the moment, the leading location is a parking lot on Capitol Mall known as Lot X, owned by the Sacramento Kings. Here, the new facility would be virtually adjacent to the Crocker Art Museum and only blocks from the arena. There are other sites with merit, but this one is closest to shovel-ready status.

So now is the time for philanthropists, visionaries and city builders in Sacramento to step forward, much in the same way Golden 1 Credit Union did with its 20-year, $120 million naming rights deal for the arena. A $20 million naming rights deal for a new theater would kick things off nicely.

If the city is considering nearly $80 million in refurbishment costs for a D-list building, why not invest those funds in a new theater that will lift the arts, push downtown forward and pay dividends far beyond what’s possible with our current facility?

When you factor in the lost opportunities, the refurbishment plan isn’t just shortsighted, it’s fiscally and civically irresponsible. It ignores the needs of the majority of our region’s arts groups, and robs the city of an extraordinary economic and cultural catalyst.

If a new theater takes a few years, so be it. I’d rather wait five years for the right building than live with the wrong one for generations.

Spending $80 million to put some lipstick on one of our city’s worst buildings is embarrassing, shameful and recklessly pessimistic.

Instead, it’s time to raise the curtain on an optimistic new future. C’mon, people. We can do this.

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at http://www.sactownmag.com/.