Arena thoughts

Power Balance Pavilion (red) vs. The Railyards (green)

The SacBee headlined Saturday, “Arena Deal Dead.” I never really cared that much about the idea of a new arena for the Kings. I’m not a big sports fan, and of all the sports, I think that professional basketball is the most boring of them all (not so for college ball). Whether the Kings play in Sacramento or not is a matter of indifference. Mayor Johnson has said that he wants to see a sports and entertainment venue in the rail yards regardless of whether the Kings are there, or in Sacramento at all, but without the anchor tenant and in these economic times, new construction seems unlikely.

However, there are a lot of transportation implications related to the arena that I’d like to comment on. The Power Balance Pavilion (formerly ARCO Arena), located in North Natomas (part of the City of Sacramento, but north of the river and north of I-80) is in a terrible location. Why was it built out here, in the middle of agricultural fields, which have since been converted to bland suburbs? Because the land was cheap, and really for no other reason. Though there is sort of freeway access, it is a long way out from the urban and suburban areas where attendees come from. It is even worse for transit, with only one line serving the area. On weekdays, you can get close on RT route 11, on weekends, nothing even comes close. I once rode my bike to the place and got there well ahead of the bus. Once arriving, you are faced with a sea of ugly parking, with no way to tell where you’ll be directed to park relative to where you want to go. After the event there is a long lasting traffic jam as everyone tries to find their way back out of the parking lot and waits long periods at the signals. I can’t think of a more unpleasant way to start and end some experience at the place. And if you ride, be assured there are no bike racks.

If the RT light rail green line is extended to the airport, there would be a station close to the pavilion. However, this project is so far off into the future that RT has not even projected a service date. So for all intents and purposes, the pavilion must be considered a car-only venue.

In contrast, an arena location in the railyards, or any place in the downtown area including West Sacramento, would be highly accessible by public transportation. The rail yards will be served by both the Gold line and the new green line extension to the river district, and of course by Amtrak. It might seem unusual to include Amtrak, but large numbers of people already travel from Sacramento to the bay area on Amtrak for sporting and cultural events, so a reverse flow is possible if our events are appealing enough. I’ve been on the train when every seat was filled with Raiders jerseys.

Though the arena design never moved past the conceptual stage, the vision was that many people would arrive by public transportation. Some diagrams that I saw even had a station within the arena, and all had one nearby. For people who insist on driving, the parking would largely be that already existing in the downtown area, not vast wastelands of parking around the arena that would be used only during events. All of this is good.

Nearly every successful modern sport facility has been located in a downtown area. The days of sports facilities in the distant suburbs are over, at least every place but Texas. The more central the location, and the more accessible by transit, the more seats are filled. The argument about whether an arena or similar venue is a good economic investment for a city is still open – there are example of success, and of failure. Sports teams have obtained remarkable subsidies for their arenas, at a level above what any other public facilities obtain. Kaid Benfeld has a humorous prediction for the NCAA tournament based on Walk Score (this was before Transit Score was available). The arena for winner Kentucky has a Walk Score of 94. He and a number of other transportation bloggers have articles on the location of arenas in downtown areas.

I suspect that a sports and entertainment venue is off the table for several years, but when the idea does come back again, I hope that a location in the railyards or in West Sacramento will be selected, and that it will be designed around the idea that most people arrive and depart via an effective and convenient public transportation system.

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