2016 Best Real Estate Projects: CLARA – E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts

October 13, 2016

From the October 13, 2016 issue of
Sacramento Business Journal.

By Vanessa Richardson

We’re introducing you to the Best Real Estate Projects of the Year. This is the top public/private partnership project.

Developer Richard Rich vividly remembers the morning in 2014 when he was sitting glumly on the front porch of his midtown home. As a board member of the Sacramento Ballet, he was grappling with what to do after the landlord served an eviction notice on the building the dancers had used for 18 years. The board didn’t have the money to make the tenant improvements the landlord wanted or to lease another large space.

As Rich stared across the street, the deserted Fremont School came into focus. “Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning,” he said. The 90-year-old building, a former elementary school closed since 2012, probably needed major renovation and upgrades. But with 48,000 square feet, it had more than enough space for the ballet and other performing-arts groups to hold practices and performances.

Rich, whose day job is principal of real estate development firm Mosaic Partners LLC, started making calls.

Two years later, the E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts, better known as CLARA, is a prime example of the revitalization of midtown through adaptive reuse of empty buildings. With its high ceilings and enlarged classrooms, CLARA is now home to the Sacramento Ballet and Capital Stage, as well as smaller, community-based arts groups such as McKeever School of Irish Dance and Capitol Indie Collective.

It’s a nice turn of events since 2008, when a more ambitious project was shelved because of the recession. The city had envisioned a 25,000-square-foot theater at 14th and H streets to house the “Big Four” performing-arts groups – the Sacramento Ballet, Philharmonic, Opera and California Musical Theatre. At that time, Rich was development director for Thomas Development, soliciting funds for the $24 million construction budget. But then the project was put on hold.

The upside for a frustrated Rich: He started attending ballet performances and became a big fan. “It’s such a stress reliever as soon as the lights go down. I emerge from the show completely refreshed.”

He started Mosaic Development Partners in 2011 and joined the Ballet’s board.

Rich said the studio project taught him a new skill set. “Sales is not my thing. I’m a put-your-head-down kind of guy, so a new part of my brain was exercised vigorously. We had to pitch everyone — the school district, the city, the consultants, even the tenants. But because this idea benefited so many parts of the community, it was a relatively easy sell.”

The Sacramento City Unified School District allowed the city to lease the building for 40 years, stipulating that educational components, such as internships and scholarships exposing children to performing arts, must be involved.

Rich gathered many of the firms involved in the original theater project, including Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture. John Webre, the firm’s president, also was president of the ballet during its search for a new home. He was the first to come back on board and worked on the project free of charge for the first year.

The Fremont School, a Spanish Revival-style brick and terra-cotta building built in 1921 and 1922, started as an elementary school but closed in the 1970s due to seismic concerns. It had a second life as an adult education center but was closed again in 2012.

For Dreyfuss and Blackford, the challenges were a major overhaul of the interior structure, along with a full upgrade of mechanical and electric components.

“Each room was too small to have a ballet class in it, so entire rows of columns and corridors needed to be removed,” Webre said. “But much of the vertical circulation stayed in place – the stairs going up and down the sides remained true to the original style. We had to use the bones that were there and to move some bones around.”

All this had to be done while working around the walls, covered in hollow-plate tiles, originally installed for fireproofing purposes. The delicate tiles would be a challenge to preserve, but because they’re historic features, the architects decided to let them be.

“The building is historically important, so we wanted to be true to its exteriors while repurposing it from the inside,” Webre said.

All the work needed to be done on a severely reduced budget. After Dreyfuss and Blackford estimated $11.5 million to rehab the school, Rich went to the city to secure as much of the $24 million funding from the original theater project as possible. But while the city pledged $14 million to the original plan, it could only allot $5 million to the new plan. Rich raised $1.5 million from many of the original donors. The largest gift came from Joyce Raley Teel, of the Raley’s grocery store chain. The studios are named after her mother.

Rich told the companies working on the project to cut the scope of their work to $5 million so at least the studios in the west wing could open for business. The biggest financial challenge was to safely adapt the non-reinforced masonry building to the needs of performing artists. As Rich put it, “If you throw ballerinas in the air, you don’t want them to hit their heads on low-hanging beams.”

After too-costly estimates for standard removal of posts and raising of beams, Eric Fuller, a principal at Buehler & Buehler Structural Engineers Inc., worked with his team to devise a low-cost alternative. It involved installing 36 post-tension cables, typically buried within new concrete, that would be left visible. The cables would hold the ceiling loads while 12 columns in the west wing were removed. That solution was more complex than other concepts, but it was the least costly.

Fuller describes it like a bow-and-arrow system. “When you pull back on a bow, you put a lot of tension in the system, and the string holding the arrow is delivering energy to it. That’s what we did with the post tensioning,” he said. “The cables act like the string, the bow is the floor overhead. The cables deliver energy to the floor to hold it up.”

Demolishing the columns took only one day, but it was the most stressful day of the project. “When we ran the cables through and stressed each one, no one knew how the building would react,” said Coleman Jones, project manager for Rudolph & Sletten Inc., the general contractor. “It took months and months of planning for that one single day.”

The downsizing of the project means that parts of the building still look largely like the original school. They do have new heating, air conditioning, sprinkler and telecom systems. And some classrooms were turned into small studios.

The downsizing actually became a benefit, however. When California Musical Theatre decided against moving into CLARA because of space constraints, that opened the door for other community arts groups to be tenants. “As they tend to be smaller, their needs are smaller, and that also expanded our reach into the community,” Rich said.

After its March opening, CLARA quickly filled all its spaces designated for arts groups. And neighbors embraced the concept. “We were met with as overwhelming support as possible in a neighborhood environment,” Rich said.

For Webre, his work on CLARA paid off in a very personal way. The ballet’s first appearance in the studios was to perform “Juanita y Alicia,” a narrative dance written by his brother about his mother and aunt growing up in Cuba. “I saw this in the building my firm helped design,” Webre said. “There was a resonance that made me proud of all the good work everyone did. When we give back to the community like that, it comes back to us many times over.”

Rich, who managed the project pro bono, has big plans for CLARA’s other two wings, its exterior, and outdoor performance venues. It will, however, take some time to raise funds for those improvements. Still, based on his new skills as a pitch man, Rich is confident it will happen.

“Funding the studio was a leap of faith on many people’s parts, because nothing like this exists elsewhere in the country,” he said. “This was an astounding commitment of belief in the city, and that arts and education can be a leader in economic redevelopment.”

Concrete works great in compression, and taking a lot of it without impact, so we repurposed the concrete floor to make it work like a plate or beam that the cables could deliver force to in order to hold it up.”

Fast Facts

Location: 2420 N St., Sacramento

Size: 47,000 square feet

Completion date: February 2016

Total cost: $6.5 million

Developer: Richard Rich, President of Studios for the Performing Arts Operating Co.

Architect: Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture

General contractor: Rudolph and Sletten Inc.

Engineer: Buehler & Buehler Structural Engineers Inc.

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