Sunday Musings: Saying goodbye to the Downtown Plaza

A tour of the Downtown Plaza, site of the Sacramento Kings' new arena. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Thursday, when we were invited to join a small group of media members for a walkthrough of the Downtown Plaza construction site, was a sentimental day for me.  Life has a way of coming full circle, and for me, this was one of those moments.  A little more than 20 years ago, I was a kid without a plan.  Two days out of high school, I moved to Sacramento to live with my father and began the life of a tradesman.

The experiment didn’t last long, but during that first summer, I worked swing shift as an apprentice on the building of the Downtown Plaza.  It was hot and dusty and overall, a miserable experience.  But it was the life that I was born into, and it was familiar.

Being the son of a union construction worker provides a unique perspective on the world around you.  While buildings might look like steel and concrete to the average person, they help make up the personality of a city.  In addition, they are the legacy of the workers that put their blood, sweat and tears into building them.

You can’t drive a block in Sacramento city’s core without running across a building that my father helped build.  He worked the remodel of the State Capitol in the early 1980s and once worked over 300 feet in the air on exterior scaffolding on a downtown skyscraper.  There is a story for each of the jobs that he worked –  a who, when and where.

We worked together on both the Plaza and the Secretary of State building in downtown Sacramento, but I wasn’t cut out for the trades. Everything I carried weighed substantially more than I did, and the Sacramento summer heat is brutal on a guy who has to bathe in sunscreen before walking out of the house.

It was a good life lesson and one my father was more than willing to teach me.  It was his life’s work, but not the one he wanted for me.

While I am not an expert on commercial construction, I do know the Plaza well.  Built over the top of two levels of parking structures, the floors have a sway and shake to it.  The levels of concrete intentionally flex as part of the earthquake safety precautions.

The mall is longer than it looks.  During that summer, I could only estimate the miles that I traveled on a daily basis while shuttling material from one end to the other.  I learned how to handle metal studs without being cut to shreds; there is an art to carrying sheet rock.  Also, I learned a lot about work boots and managing blisters.

During the construction, the mall was broken into four distinct areas, the middle two of which will be completely lost to the build.  “A court” and “D court” will survive in some form, at least initially.  Most of the work that was accomplished while I was on the job will vanish into thin air and then the process will begin all over again.

The “soft demolition” has already gutted the interior walls and many of the storefronts from the 1993 renovation of which I was a part.  The overall demolition will finish around October, but it will be a difficult task because the mall is not one large building.  It is a series of smaller buildings that were added over time.  There are hidden hallways and back alleyways that have supported the inner core of the structure for years.  What has functioned as the Downtown Plaza for the last 21 years, is really a facade that masks decades of smaller construction projects.

Once the grounds are cleared of the estimated 100,000 tons of concrete, steel and other materials, the framework of the building will fly up.   Beginning in February or March 2015,  steel beams, supported by thousands of yards of concrete will rise from the site quickly and that’s just the beginning.

Inner mezzanine levels will start tracing the look of the interior, creating the shape of the inner bowl.  If you know what you are looking for, you will see the outline of where the court will lie, long before the building is closed up and the finish work begins.

Before you know it, the roofline of the building will sit like a cap over an open-air construction zone.  Workers will move like ants in and out of a project that will finish just in time for the 2016-17 NBA season.

Construction on a project of this size takes an incredible amount of teamwork.  It is a well-orchestrated dance that requires impeccable timing.  Steel workers, concrete workers, pipe-fitters, electricians, insulation crews, carpenters, plasterers and painters are just some of the many groups that will move in and out of areas, completing assignments so the next group can come in and do their portion.

It is symbiosis at its finest.  From planning to completion, every inch of the building is plied over and processed by an army of hands.  Each person has a role in the build, and when they said that the new ESC will create 4,000 construction jobs, they weren’t exaggerating.

The final product will be a marvel, but the effort that will go into the project is even more impressive.  Crews will work around the clock to meet the deadline, which is exactly what it was like in 1993.

In the end, a crowd will gather to cut a long purple ribbon with a giant pair of scissors.  Vivek Ranadive and Kevin Johnson will probably share the honor, as they should.  They helped save the Sacramento Kings and accomplished something that seemed impossible.

But the building itself will mean so much more to so many people.  Thousands of workers will drive by that building over its lifetime and be able to say, “I helped build that arena.”  They will go to games and show their children the walls that they had a hand in constructing, and they will beam with a sense of accomplishment.

While construction work isn’t glamorous, it is honest, hard work that comes with an amazing perk.  You create something tangible.  Something that represents who you are and what you do, or in my case, who I was and what I did for a brief moment.

It wasn’t the right career path for me, but I will never forget my time working on the Plaza.  I’m proud of the work I did on the original project, but I would be lying if I said I was sad to see it go.


James Ham

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