By Shawn Hubler
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - Wrecking crews tore into the shell of a dated shopping mall a half-dozen blocks from the California state capitol on Wednesday, as work began in earnest on a new downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.
The demolition job is the first step in the construction of a $477 million indoor arena that was approved by the city last year as part of a deal to thwart efforts to move the Sacramento Kings basketball team to the Pacific Northwest.
“Pretty exciting,” yelled David Diaz, a 26-year-old Bank of America teller who stood with a crowd across from the wreckage of the mostly defunct Downtown Plaza, taking photos and shouting over the din of heavy equipment shredding steel and concrete.
“It’s going to be great for the city," he added, echoing the thoughts of several onlookers as the mall crumbled, "but it’s like watching history come down.”
Hoping to hold onto a hometown attraction and revitalize a shabby corner of Sacramento, the city agreed to kick in a little more than half of the financing for the venue. Team owners, led by tech executive Vivek Ranadive, have vowed to have the arena open by October 2016.
The project was crucial in ending a months-long tug of war between Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, himself a former NBA star, and hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, who had sought to bring the team to Seattle.
Critics have sued, and two lawsuits are making their way through the courts. But Johnson and civic boosters have so far beaten back their claims that the project will violate the California Environmental Quality Act and generate too much noise and traffic.
Last week, Johnson held an official “demolition ceremony” to launch the project. But Wednesday marked the first publicly visible demolition, and it drew a crowd.
“This is just so exciting,” said John Santich, a video producer for the Department of Motor Vehicles who stopped by the site with his wife, Pam, on the way to a movie. “This is like a rebirth of the city for us.”
"All we need now is for the Kings to start winning,” quipped Theodis Ross, 56, watching the cranes on a break from his job at the Department of Insurance. “This is historical for sure, but nobody is going to come to see a loser. I don’t care how new your arena is.”
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Eric Walsh)