Sacramento’s Entertainment and Sports Center puts fans first while driving the regeneration of the city’s downtown district. Changing the Game spoke to architect Rob Rothblatt, to find out how cutting-edge technology is making it all happen.

Sports fans around the world know the joy and pain of rooting for their team. In 2013, however, supporters of the Sacramento Kings had something more than the weekly fixture list to worry about. Former owners the Maloof Brothers were contemplating an acquisition bid from a Seattle-based investor, which would have meant moving the franchise to that city and renaming it. In the end, the takeover was rejected. The Kings were still sold, to a group led by Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé, but they stayed in Sacramento and kept their name. One of the new owner’s promises was to build a new arena for the franchise, enabling them to move out of their current home at the 1980s-built Sleep Train Arena. The Sacramento Entertainment and Sports Center (ESC) is the result. Currently under construction and due to be complete in time for the NBA 2016-17 season, it offers a radical vision of what a major-league sports arena can be.

Turning the game inside out

“The brief was for what the Sacramento team calls ‘Arena 3.0’— an exemplary sports venue that embedded the Sacramento Kings in the city,” explains Rob Rothblatt a design principal at AECOM. Rothblatt and his team used cutting-edge parametric design tools — advanced computer aided design software — to help create the best sightlines and model the ESC’s distinctive form. Instead of an old, ‘closed box’ in the suburbs, the ESC will combine a state of-the-art bowl with a unique ‘inside-outside’ design that opens up the complex to the city surrounding it. A joint undertaking, its US$477 million cost is shared by the King’s owners and the city of Sacramento. AECOM is lead architect, with Turner Construction as contractor.

“Very few arenas provide visitors with this sense of drama, excitement and engagement.”

“Fans first”

Creating a road to the best fan experience was central. “We put 10,000 of the 17,000 seats in the continuous, 360-degree lower bowl, to bring more fans closer to the action,” says Rothblatt. “Seeing the game just a few feet in front of you — that’s what will keep people coming back.” An innovative design places the main concourse on top of the lower bowl, enabling it to dispense with the traditional ‘vomitoria’ — the passages below or behind tiers of seats. “You’ll enter via the concourse, and then descend to your seat,” says Rothblatt. “Very few arenas provide visitors with this sense of drama, excitement and engagement on entering. It is state-of-the-art.”

There is more technology inside the arena, where clever climate controls keep the environment comfortable. A displacement air system pumps cool air from slots under the seats. The slots are close to spectators, meaning there’s no chance for the cool air to heat up before it reaches them — so the ventilation can be calibrated to exactly the right temperature. This not only helps keep the cost and the carbon footprint of the ventilation down but it also means the temperature on the basketball court can be stabilized and allowing the ESC to open its impressive front doors.

Fans will also benefit from next-level technological interactivity, such as the innovative iBeacon wireless service, which pushes news and information to
visitors while they’re at the ESC. They will even be able to connect with the team as they practise with a translucent glass wall (which glows at night) separating
the training courts from the main arena.

Technology fast track

Architecturally, the ESC is advanced too. A curved façade, made of silver aluminium and glass panels brings people into a new plaza at the front. The façade is perforated or embossed with tree and leaf patterns, symbolising the city’s aim of planting a million trees. “The façade design is a series of pushes and pulls. It hides some of the service elements while allowing views in and enables us to address the introversion of a typical sports arena,” says Rothblatt. Key to the design is the five 60-foot-high hangar doors, which open to the plaza and surrounding development. Getting the hangar doors right was critical, which is where those parametric tools were essential. “We could try things out and check everything worked in that virtual environment,” says Rothblatt. “We could share those designs with our clients and make adjustments easily,” he adds. “If we didn’t have this, we’d be making physical models for months on end.”

This flexibility came in handy early on, when there were discussions about the building’s orientation. “We realised the early plans had it facing east — right into the hot summer morning sun — which would have caused problems for the hangar doors. It was quick and easy to run sun studies with the parametrics, and make the case for ‘dialling the bowl’ to the north,” says Rothblatt.

Uniquely Sacramento

With the project moving forward so quickly, it’s easy to forget that plans for a new stadium downtown had actually been talked about since the mid-1990s, but, until now, nothing had left the drawing board. For Rothblatt, it was a client vision that combined sports, leisure and regeneration that helped get things off the ground. “The ESC had to be uniquely Sacramento,” explains Rothblatt. “But it also had to undo the failed urban renewal of the 1980s, which turned downtown into a set of barren malls.” Those hangar doors are the key. By opening the ESC to the city surrounding it, the aim is that this previously uninspiring part of town will be revitalised. “The plan is to have activity all year round,” explains Rothblatt. The joint team even found a state-of-the-art product with a distinct, undetectable-to-humans aroma that, when piped out above the doors, deters birds from flying into the arena.

A range of new restaurants is planned for the concourse and plaza areas, many of them ‘farm to fork’ establishments using herbs grown in the ESC’s extensive live wall that encircles the base of the arena at the plaza. There are reminders of the rich California Delta agriculture everywhere, including pistachio trees in the plaza bosque and walnut trees on the terrace at the main entry to the site. Sustainability is the final piece of the ESC jigsaw. A vast array of photovoltaics — generating enough energy to power the arena on a cloudy day — is planned, as are features to help manage storm water. And as well as achieving LEED Gold, the ESC aims to be the first major arena to meet California’s strenuous new ‘Title 24’ energy requirements. “That’s no mean feat,” says Rothblatt.

The plan for Sacramento Entertainment and Sports Center is ambitious, but it also makes perfect sense. After all, why shouldn’t a sports arena’s surroundings be as vibrant and exciting as the events taking place inside? Why shouldn’t it be a place that functions all year round, instead of being closed off outside of game days? At its heart, this is what the ESC offers — a new future for downtown Sacramento, wrapped up in an incredible fan experience, to keep those fans coming back.

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