Critics blast Darrell Steinberg for hooking up Sacramento Kings with special arena bill

Last-minute policy would streamline environmental review, fast-track start of construction, help city with eminent domain

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg hopes to pass a last-minute bill to make it easier for Sacramento to build a new Kings arena.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg hopes to pass a last-minute bill to make it easier for Sacramento to build a new Kings arena.


The proposed Kings arena received an unusual—but not unexpected—Kevin Johnson-worthy assist from Darrell Steinberg this past week: Sacramento’s state senator is poised to score with an eleventh-hour bill that would fast-track the proposed downtown arena’s environmental review and allow construction to begin sooner.

The pro tem’s pitch would also help the city with its eminent-domain proceedings against owners of the Downtown Plaza Macy’s property.

If the bill wiggles its way through the Capitol during these final days of session and the governor signs it, arena construction could get an eight-month head start. This is good for the Kings owners, as the NBA has threatened to take control of the team if a new arena isn’t built by 2017.

Critics worry that beginning construction before exploring matters such as traffic impacts could end up costing Sacramento millions of dollars.

A contingent of regional lawmakers voiced support of Steinberg’s plan last week. He insists the bill doesn’t cut corners.

“This bill still demands a full public environmental review and … delivers a quicker resolution of any legal challenges,” he said in a press release.

Indeed, the bill does not eliminate any aspect of review under the California Environmental Quality Act. Still, environmentalists and others groaned at its arrival.

“We’re disappointed to see yet another CEQA streamlining bill for yet another sports arena popping up in the last days of the legislative session,” wrote Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, which promotes smart environmental legislation.

Sierra Club California has also spoken out against the bill. “Allowing special exemptions for the sake of a sports arena in our state’s capital continues an unfortunate recent pattern of legislating for entertainment complexes, not for the public interest,” executive director Kathyrn Phillips said in a press release.

Steinberg’s no stranger to last-minute bills that help out sports arenas. In 2011, he drove two bills through the Capitol during the final 48 hours of session, including one that specifically eased the environmental review of downtown Los Angeles’ proposed football stadium.

The pro tem says his latest bill would disallow the Kings-arena development from being bogged down by lawsuits. It would require that the California superior and appeal’s courts review any suits within 180 days.

Reznik says that while he appreciates that Steinberg’s proposal “doesn’t affect the actual environmental review undertaken” for the arena, he and others are concerned about different provisions. One such condition would allow arena construction during the environmental-review process, instead of after a report is completed sometime next summer.

Tab Berg, a local political consultant who says public dollars shouldn’t be used to pay for this Kings arena, called this aspect of the bill “a sham.”

“It’s amazing that the Legislature is creating a process where the construction moves ahead of the financing,” he said.

Another contentious inclusion would permit the city to engage eminent-domain proceedings against the owners of the Macy’s property, a New York-based real-estate firm. So far, these owners have not accepted any of the Kings offers for the Downtown Plaza Macy’s Mens & Home Store property.

Last month, city council gave staff permission to use eminent domain to take control of the property. But, as it stands, the city would have to wait to engage until next year.

Steinberg’s bill alters this—and eminent-domain experts say the Capitol lawmaker’s involvement is not the norm.

“It’s unique,” is how local attorney Brian Manning, who focuses mostly on eminent-domain law, put it. He says that if Gov. Jerry Brown signs Steinberg’s bill, the city could take over the Macy’s property within “a few months.”

Berg called this part of the bill “an absolute abuse of eminent domain.”

Craig Powell, with watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, said he was “outraged” by Steinberg’s bill, which he referred to as “a time bomb.”

Specifically, he worries that the arena will have traffic impacts on downtown—almost a certainty—but a judge will not give an injunction to stop work and addresss said issues.

“Caltrans will not foot the bill for new special uses” such as an arena, he explained, adding that the city could end up having to pay tens of millions of dollars for upgrades to freeway onramps and roadways.

This past March, when Steinberg, Mayor Kevin Johnson and the soon-to-be-owners of the Sacramento Kings presented a pitch to keep the team to the NBA board of governors in New York City, the pro tem explained to the NBA how he could pass a bill to streamline arena development.

Helping Steinberg hold good on this promise is local developer Mark Friedman, who leads the new arena development team and is lobbying lawmakers to pass the bill this week. Former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata will also be at the Capitol working for the bill, according to sources.

They’ll be on a tight schedule: The session ends on Thursday, September 12.