Kaiser Permanente Arena review

Back of KP Arena at sunset, downtown Santa Cruz in background

Back of KP Arena at sunset, downtown Santa Cruz in background

The area between downtown Santa Cruz and the Boardwalk is mostly defined by Beach Hill, upon which numerous old Victorians sit shoulder-to-shoulder with low-slung motels and newer condos. Between Beach Hill and Laurel Street, the area is much less defined. What was once light industrial is now an odd mix of commercial, adapted warehouses, and motels (of course). It’s within that context that Kaiser Permanente Arena, the new home of the D-League Santa Cruz Warriors, fits reasonably well. It’s not a particularly handsome building as from far away it appears slab-sided and unadorned. Few windows puncture the steel cladded exterior, and upon a closer look the walls’ corrugated look is just an update on the old steel building built in the area 50 years ago. And the white roof lacks distinction. Not that anyone was expecting serious architectural character – it is, after all, a $5.6 million, temporary structure. At that price, maybe the best thing to do would be to get some volunteers to put up a mural on the Front Street side during the offseason.

Entrance and box office

Entrance and box office

The temporary basketball arena used in the London Olympics proved to be a good venue, which should’ve reduced doubts on the viability of a similar project in Santa Cruz. What raised eyebrows was the extremely aggressive timeframe to develop the arena, including fewer than three months of construction. (This picture of the arena site was taken during the summer.) It’s that operative word, temporary, that made it all possible. You see, temporary facilities can (up to a point) be built without undergoing the very time-consuming CEQA or EIR process. As a result, there were no 18 months of planning commission and city council meetings or study sessions. The public feedback process was truncated and not formalized. No new infrastructure was required. It just… happened. For good and ill, that’s how it went down. The hope here is that the team is popular enough during that time to justify a new permanent home. Such a facility will be much more expensive and require the CEQA process, but by that time it may be worth it. And while a 3,000-person arena is one or two orders of magnitude less impactful than a 25,000-seat temporary ballpark, what the Warriors and the City of Santa Cruz have successfully executed is a great example for the A’s if Lew Wolff were to consider building his own temporary facility.

Seating sections are freestanding, and the camera position is makeshift.

Seating sections are freestanding, and the midcourt camera position is makeshift.

While this is a temporary building, it was built to last as long as 10 years. The “tent” portion is limited to the roof, a tensile fabric supported by a lightweight truss system. The steel walls extend 25 feet high and are anchored to concrete footings. Three concession stands are located in the corners, while restrooms and team locker rooms are located outside in modular buildings (trailers). The main scoreboard has a small video board attached, and the scorers’ table is one of those fancy ones with electronic signage. Lighting is simple and optimized for basketball. The court is parquet and is the minimum size required. There are suites or a big fancy club. It’s bare bones. There’s a cautionary tale in doing things cheaply and quickly with the Kings and the two ARCO Arenas, but the expectations for KP Arena and the Santa Cruz Warriors are much lower. KP Arena’s capacity is half of most of the arenas in the D-League, though with average leaguewide attendance of 3,000 per game in previous seasons, a 3,000-seat arena may be just right. If anything, KP Arena may have the most in common with the Maine Red Claws’ home, the Portland Expo Building. Coincidentally, the Expo was built almost a century before KP Arena.

What's that guy in the festive hat got in his hand?

What’s that guy in the festive hat got in his hand?

I didn’t sample concessions, so I can’t say anything about those. There were no fountain drinks, so everything was served in a container. That included cans of beer, which were not opened and poured but rather served on their own. Even more unusual, there was an actual beer vendor walking around in the stands, ready to sell thirsty fans $7 cans of Coors Light or Blue Moon. I was so pleasantly surprised that I tweeted out this observation, promptly followed by this response:

I looked into ABC regulations and this appears to be correct. There isn’t really a law on the books that prohibits beer vendors in the stands, it’s just that operators are VERY afraid of losing their liquor licenses. Better to make it a little more inconvenient than to risk losing a license over some guy buying a bunch of beers and handing them to minors in plain view. An element of plausible deniability has to be assumed.

View from Section H, Row 13

View from Section H, Row 13

The game itself was better than your average D-League competition, as the Surf Dubs are a pretty athletic and cohesive unit. They dominated the first three quarters, with the lead surpassing 20 at times. Only during a typical letdown during the fourth did the Sioux Falls Skyforce climb back to within single digits. If you haven’t watched a D-League game, the best way to characterize it is that the majority of the players are 2-3 inches shorter than the optimal height for their respective positions in the NBA. That means a lot of 6’7″ power forwards and 6’1″ shooting guards. All teams have the option to take a 1st or 2nd-year player and stash him on their affiliate’s roster to give him some run. Not many fouls were called, so stoppages were kept to a minimum. Time of the game was well short of the NBA typical 2:30 running time. My game ticket, which was the cheapest tier, was $15. Better tickets were priced at $25 and $35. Courtside and the first several rows (seatbacks) were not available.

Pre- and postgame traffic was bad in the immediate area (Front and Laurel), attributable to much of the crowd staying until the end and dispersing to numerous parking lots spread throughout downtown. Most of the nearby parking cost $10. Remote lots (a mile away) had $5 parking, including the County Government Center. A trolley operated between the arena and County. I came in via the Hwy 17 Express bus, a commuter express route that runs between the Metro Center bus terminal and Diridon Station in San Jose ($5 each way, including WiFi). To gauge how bad the situation was, I went to the wharf and circled back around 45 minutes after the game ended. Traffic appeared to be at normal levels. Noise is a problem. The PA system wasn’t terribly loud inside, but when the doors are open the crowd and music get blasted out into the neighborhood. This is largely because there’s no foyer in KP Arena to act as a buffer. Once a fan gets through security, he’s practically on the court.

Postgame autograph session

Postgame autograph session

Presentation was solid. The ninja-turtle-like mascot spent less time than I expected in the crowd. There was a troupe of Warrior Girls. Lowlight of the game was the anthem singer, who started off in the wrong key, phrased the first verse in a bizarre manner, and completely forgot the second verse, forcing a nearby official to come in and get her back on track after she begged, “Help me out” into the mic. To their credit, the crowd didn’t boo her and treated her respectfully.

Twenty years ago I enrolled as a freshman at UC-Santa Cruz. Even three years after Loma Prieta, the city was still struggling to rebuild. Pacific Avenue (then known as the Pacific Garden Mall) was decimated. As one of those “weird” cities akin to Austin and Portland, Santa Cruz struggled with its need to rebuild, its counterculture element struggling against the desire of big corporate interests to enter the fray after local business were displaced, and the general lack of major amenities. Back then, if you told me that in 2012 a pro basketball team would be playing in a brand new arena near the place I got a pair of woofers for a rebuilt speaker project, I would’ve asked if you were high. Eventually, that’s what progress looks like. Bookshop Santa Cruz and other bookstores were threatened by Borders, which itself was driven into the ground by Amazon. No major department or retail chain stores came in, but there now is a Starbucks on Pacific and a Trader Joe’s on Front. The city and university have been linked more politically than fully integrated, and the D-III status of the sports program at UCSC didn’t help that. I was curious to see how the community would respond. They’ve sold out the first four home games and have sold 1,000 season tickets. Naturally, some of the fans came from out of the town, an assumption reinforced by questions I was asked by others asking for directions. It’s encouraging to see such a great response by Santa Cruz fans, who have been craving some kind of steady entertainment during the winter months. Now they’ve got it, and the team is actually pretty good. Who could ask for more?

4 thoughts on “Kaiser Permanente Arena review

  1. Anyone know who manufactured the Santa Cruz stadium? At the time, it was said to be manufactured in Finland, but nobody seems to know who made it.

  2. Cladded? No, just ‘clad.’

  3. I wish there were some way to stop the announcer from yelling into the arena microphone during sporting events.. I can’t believe that all the residents of Santa Cruz are going to be happy having to listen to this night after night.. I for one am not. Why isn’t there better sound proofing in the building? .. Or are the loud speakers on the outside of the building? It’s horrible and so wrong for Santa Cruz.

  4. @Esther, speak for yourself. I live 2 blocks away, on Beach Hill, and lived here for almost a decade now. I know some of our neighbors dislike its presence. But the Warriors in Santa Cruz is one of those great ideas we never thought we needed (as they recently published in Santa Cruz Weekly). Surely I get annoyed when traffic is rerouted on game nights, and surely the soundproofing could be better. But these are little inconveniences.

    It’s such a great addition to Santa Cruz. The architecture is horrible, but what it adds to the sense of community we have here is amazing. Another thing to be proud of in Santa Cruz.

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