The big picture show

Sometimes you solve a problem by breaking it down into distinct parts and then moving to fix these parts step by step. But a better way to solve a big problem is often the opposite: Don’t make a move until you first have considered the problem in its largest possible context and identified what an appropriate solution in that context might look like.

Unfortunately, when it comes to solving the problems of Sacramento’s troubled downtown, we seem often to have taken the former approach when the latter would have served us better.

The above was evidenced last week by the announcement that Westfield Corp. Inc.—the owner of Downtown Plaza—had reached an agreement with Century Theatres to relocate and overhaul the theater complex now positioned at the west end of the mall. The deal will put a shiny new multiplex theater—with 16 proposed screens—at Fifth and L streets above the Morton’s of Chicago restaurant.

It’s true, of course, that revamped theaters and enough screens to attract downtown customers (without killing the Tower Theatre) could bring new foot traffic to the slipping plaza, which, unlike suburban malls like Arden Fair, has seen a sizable downturn in sales these last many years.

But it’s hard not to hear this announcement and think, “Here we go again.” They’re breaking the downtown problem into incremental pieces to “fix” one at a time instead of first locking onto a vision of how to solve the problem in its larger context.

So, what’s the big-picture problem? We have an unfriendly downtown that people don’t want to walk around in and don’t want to hang out in, especially after night falls. Our downtown utilizes public spaces extremely poorly, and its design, basically, is a testament to bad urban planning, with huge divisions between the private “good” spaces of the mall and the public “bad” spaces of the sidewalks and street corners.

Meanwhile, we have a mall owner, Westfield, with its own agenda, having made clear its desire, among other things, to bring a Wal-Mart into the eastern end of the mall. City officials have opposed a Wal-Mart downtown, but Westfield officials say the idea is still very much on the table regardless. So, that’s important context.

Add to this a city council whose members seem to passively field proposals (an arena? a two-tiered theater complex? a Wal-Mart?) instead of actually leading—i.e., getting everybody, including the public, behind a single vision of what should happen downtown.

We don’t outright oppose the new movie-theater agreement, though we believe the number of screens should be reviewed carefully and think the complex would be better off located at Seventh and K streets, so as to reconnect the mail to the neighborhood. But we’d certainly prefer it if these piecemeal downtown fixes came in a larger context—i.e., if they were part of an overall vision for creating a vibrant downtown that successfully merged the private property of the mall with the public realm of the downtown district.