California Academy of Sciences Trumps Cal Expo and Arena

“If we don’t wish to be a cow-town, then we had better stop acting like one.”

Planning large-scale, civic projects isn’t child’s play.  It changes, forever, the shape of communities, the economies of cities and it costs beaucoup bucks.  Detroit and their Silverdome fiasco can tell you what happens when you don’t do it right.

The California Academy of Sciences and their new facility did it right. They took over a decade to plan and build it.  They took an entire year, before even considering what the shape of their future would be, to simply answer the question “What is a Natural History Museum?”.   You can take a look for your self,  here,  and here.

That kind of planning begins with the real tough questions like, “Who are we and what the hell do we want to become?” or, “Why are we doing this and what and who are we doing it for?”.  Its the kind of planning that takes real guts, and real foresight.  Its the thing one does before they even put their pens to napkins or look in their wallets.  It lays the foundation stone of the entire project – an invisible rock upon which every subsequent decision will rest – will succeed or fail, live or die.  No one but the early planners may ever see such a stone hidden in the foundation of the final work. But you can bet your last bag of concrete that what you see at the end of the project is the mirror image of the initial care and plain mindfulness that went into the most basic questions,  long before people hauled out their questions about location or financing or legislative process or Joint Powers Authorities and percents of proceeds.

Does that resemble how Sacramento is going about what may be the two largest projects it has undertaken in its history? (leaving aside K-Street and the Railyards for the moment).  Not in the slightest.  Not even close.  Much as we may wince and scream when someone yells “CowTown!”;  when it comes to how we’ve gone about the arena project and Cal Expo’s future (projects which shouldn’t even be mixed up with each other) we should consider the appraisal an act of kindness – a gross understatement.   Our fumbling and failing and politiking and waving money isn’t just cow-town, its cowtown-cubed.  We’ve stepped in the big cowpie, folks, and seem to be too proud to get out of it, scrap off our boots and start again, the right way.

‘Sacramento First’ seemed to be a good “First Step” A process that might have considered such questions – but we kept giving it deadlines (invented by the NBA) and tugging and pulling at their process; meanwhile, doing secret negotiations and ‘non-disclosure’ agreements on the other side of town.  Sacramento First  may still be able to do a respectable job. But it is clear that it is a whole lot less of a job than it really should have been.  From the get-go ‘Sacramento First’ and the Mayor might have considered what ‘Sacramento First’ means in a world where success depends on getting onto the global stage.  Can any metropolitan area think in terms of its own narrow local vision when its undertakings will need to reach statewide, nationwide and, ultimately world-wide?  Our corporations are doing just, thinking globally,  and have been doing it for some time.  But, instead of thinking in terms of markets and interests associated with people and places with names we can’t even pronounce (other than our little side-bets that we will boost tourism), our projects seem entirely encased on what is best for ourselves, and only ourselves.   Cal Expo, indeed, is sitting on state property and has a statewide mission, but has deliberately tried to make its plans for the future and its courtship with the NBA and arena a purely local affair.  As if private development of its property, serving only local and regional interests,  was the only backyard it lives in.

In short, our politicians, their  projects and the interests they serve have been thinking locally (20th century politics, downtown vs natomas,  Kings Basketball…) and acting globally  (investors from Australia,  Exhibit halls from Texas,  consultants from Ohio or Tennessee or Maryland) – just the opposite of how we ought to be thinking and acting.

Perhaps ‘Sacramento First’, had we thought about it, should have been named something like ‘Delta King’  – the first boat on the rising tide of the 21st century – a tide that will lift all boats, and more.  But first we’ve got to put down our little shovels and pails, get off the beach (or sandbox) and enroll in Thinking 1A (bonehead planning).  That’s the place where you learn how to decide what it is you want to be when you grow up.  It’s the place where the California Academy of Sciences began its education, and look what happened to them – they graduated, Magna Cum Laude.  Should we do less?  Can we afford to do less?

Be assured of one thing,  if we don’t take the opportunity to do it right, this time,  someplace else in the world will, and soon.  Then we can go back to the beach with our pails and shovels and watch as all the other boats go by.  If we don’t wish to be a cow-town (no slight to our rural brethren intended),  we had better stop acting like one.  – The CEAV Project


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