Sacramento Deflated

Sacramento, it seems, is on the verge of losing its only professional sports franchise, the Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association, to Anaheim. Most people here could care less. But, for those who have sought to transform the downtown into an upscale entertainment district, the prospect of losing the Kings has engendered an outbreak of hysteria. Sacramento, you see, is nothing without professional sports and the service economy associated with it. Arco Arena, the home of the Kings, will go dark, and there will no venue capable of hosting concerts by Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Metallica and U2. Upon the departure of the Kings, Sacramento will become, in their words, a cow town, a bleak nowheresville, a place that will be permanently deserving of its recent designation by Forbes as one of the most miserable cities in the US.

Of course, you know the solution. The city of Sacramento and its citizens must, to mix sports metaphors, step up to the plate and publicly subsidize a new arena facility in which the owners of the Kings, predominately, the Maloof family, receive the profits from its operation. Revenue sources that could be used to preserve city services in the face of substantial losses of funding from the state must be diverted to the construction of an entertainment complex operated by the Maloofs, a family of millionaires unwilling to put much of their own capital at risk. Most proponents, aware of the publication of studies that have found that subsidized sports arenas are not financially beneficial to the communities that build them, don’t even attempt to justify it on economic grounds. It is, rather, a quality of life issue, and, in the absence of the Maloofs and their basketball team, they pretty much imply that it is going to turn to shit.

As you might have guessed, this is the struggle over neoliberalism fought at the local level, much like the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, and, in this instance, as in Vancouver, we stumble across one of its defining features. For the proponents of both the Games and new Kings arena, the community and the quality of life associated with it are narrowly defined. For them, the community consists of middle to upper middle income people with sufficient disposable income to patronize these events and the bars and restaurants connected to them. Entertainment is no longer a matter of personal preference, but an entitlement, so much so that local governments are obligated to subsidize its availability for them, and transform neighborhoods through redevelopment policies and law enforcement practices so as to render the areas in which these facilities are located reassuring enough for them.

Hence, the construction of $3000-$4000 a month loft apartments on 16th Street a block away from the capital grounds, and an emphasis upon opening money losing restaurants and an IMAX movie theatre nearby on the east end of the K Street Mall that require Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency funds to survive, with Downtown Business Association guides, disparaging known as bumble bees because of their bright yellow outfits, spending much of their day playing cat and mouse with the homeless. Meanwhile, on the west end of the mall, the light rail line runs past empty storefronts, vacated by long established businesses, such as a used record and video store and a clothing store that sold jeans and overalls, in anticipation of glamourous projects that never progressed past the high concept stage. About a quarter mile from there, where the Capital Mall approaches the an old bridge that crosses the Sacramento river, there is still an large empty hole where the old Sacramento Union newspaper building was located, empty for three or four years now, because a preposterous high rise condominium project, a project in which the state employee pension plan, CALPERS, invested, quickly revealed itself as an economic absurdity. Dave Jones, a former city councilmember, predicted that the redevelopment of the downtown would fail unless enough people were attracted to to the downtown through the construction of affordable housing, but, predictably, given the lack of investment return associated with it, his warnings went unheeded. Undeterred, the city is proposing the expenditure of millions on the relocation of a light rail station in this area so as to divert the primarily lower middle income and low income population of color that use it away so as to purportedly enhance the appeal of the location for redevelopment.

Another former city councilmember, Robbie Waters, has estimated that the city has spent approximately $500 million dollars over the last couple of decades in its failed pursuit of the gentrification of downtown Sacramento. You would think that such an abject failure would induce caution when it comes to financing an even more extreme redevelopment project in the guise of a new arena for the Kings, but you would be wrong. The appetite of the neoliberal community for entertainment must be fulfilled, even if it is done at the expense of the rest of us excluded from it. But there is a problem, an insurmountable one. There is not enough public subsidy to finance the project, especially as it appears that the real problem for the Maloofs is an urgent need for additional capital investment to enable them to absorb losses from their ownership of the Kings and their casino business. Beyond this, there is the inescapable fact that it is no longer possible to finance such projects off the profits of ancillary residential and commercial development, as was attempted with an arena proposal at the state fair Cal Expo site a couple of years ago. Furthermore, in 2006, city voters rejected measures that would have authorized the use of public funds to facilitate the project. In 2011, in a city with many public sector workers laid off or on furlough, with class sizes increasing in the public schools and recreational programs either eliminated or reduced, the public is likely to perceive any such proposal as incendiary. A city with an reported unemployment rate of over 12% is not going to respond favorably to providing more corporate welfare.

In any event, the Kings are probably already on their way to Anaheim as the Maloofs engage in the pretense of keeping their options open to keep Kings fans coming to games until the end of the season. But the failure of the redevelopment of the K Street Mall and the inability to construct an arena complex for the Kings provide an insight into a failed model of development that was seemingly global in scope. Sacramento is a charming, low density city, with many tree lined streets, that has many blocks and half blocks in which the original structures have been torn down in the last ten years. If you were so inclined, I could drive your around the downtown and adjacent Midtown, and show you numerous such locations within an hour or less. And, then there is the Tapestri zero lot home project in Midtown, where, after three or four years, units have gone up at a snail’s pace, with 75% of the project’s footprint still empty as the developers await the sale of a unit about once every 3 or 4 months. One might actually think that these empty lots resulted from some terrible, violent conflict, say, a secessionist war thirty or forty years ago. All of these buildings were demolished with the expectation that they would be replaced with new, exciting projects aimed, of course, at the preferred demographic of middle and upper middle income people that planners and developers wanted to attract to the central city. They readily dismissed the notion, as suggested by Dave Jones, that the city could be redeveloped along lines that would enhance the quality of life for people already living within it. Or, to put it in more Marxist terms, it didn’t provide an opportunity for sufficient capital accumulation.

If he came to Sacramento, Owen Hatherley, a British author known for his modernist urbanism, would knowingly smile. He has seen something similar in the United Kingdom. In his provocative book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Hatherley exposes the failure of New Labour redevelopment, a program based upon the same arrogance that the lower middle class and lower classes must be replaced by the middle and upper middle classes in order to reinvigorate cities characterized as blighted. The dispersed empty blocks and half blocks of Sacramento find their expression in the aggregate in the massive Westfield Hole in Bradford, where a vast hole has been torn in the center of the city in expectation of a shopping mall that has yet to be built. Graffiti on one of the posters for the mall, put on the boarded fence that surrounds the hole, declares it Best Among Ruins. The miniature wasteland of the Tapestri project achieves monumental scale in the partially completed New Islington development in Manchester, where several architectural firms were assigned the task of replacing a 1970s low-rise council development. But in the face of this urban catastrophe, one that is admittedly not as bad as the attainment of the aspirations of the planners and developers intent upon a utopian, antiseptic gentrification, there remain signs of effective resistance, the creation of social alternatives. I’d like to think that Hatherley would appreciate ArtBeast, an art studio for children in a remodeled old, three story craftsman building in Midtown. It’s not so much that the building has been remodeled for a community purpose, in this case, the playful use of the arts to assist in child development, although that is certainly admirable, but that the proceeds from the studio support housing and educational programs for homeless women with children. Here, we discover a positive circularity, wherein the redevelopment of a building for one socially beneficial purpose assist in facilitating an even more important one.

RICHARD ESTES writings can be found at