2021 Best Real Estate Projects: Museum of Science and Curiosity

September 13, 2021

From the September 13, 2021 issue of
Sacramento Business Journal.

By Ed Goldman

We’re introducing you to our Best Real Estate Projects of the Year. This is the top adaptive reuse project.

Discussing the name of the on-again/off-again SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity, now poised for a late fall opening, marketing director Shahnaz Van Deventer joked, “It seemed at times that the best name for it might have been Lazarus.”

For those unfamiliar with Lazarus of Bethany, he was the fellow in the New Testament whom Jesus brought back to life four days after his demise.

The $83 million MOSAC, as the museum brands itself, is a massive project that started in earnest in 2005 (as the Powerhouse Science Center) and experienced more stops and starts than Highway 99 at rush hour.

“There was the Great Recession,” said Michele Wong, a longtime booster, volunteer board member and now the unpaid CEO of the museum. “Then there was Covid. Then there were funding issues. But now, we hope nothing can stop our opening. Sacramento needs a destination like this.”

Perched on the Sacramento River just south of Old Sacramento, the former Pacific Gas & Electric facility sat vacant and dilapidated for decades. In the early 2000s, a site visitor was likely to encounter homeless people, bats, cobwebs, ashes and dust.

But the late Evangeline Higginbotham, who was the executive director of the city’s Discovery Museums, always thought of MOSAC as a dream within reach. Hers was the vision that spurred the proposed redevelopment of the power center as a multipurpose science museum. According to officials, a significant exhibit or room will be named for her.

“We expect 250,000 visitors a year,” said Johan Otto, whose Carson Development got the project off the drawing board. He’s served on the board as what Wong called “our hardest working volunteer” for more than 15 years.

While the planned exhibits have yet to be brought in, a recent private tour revealed an airy, modern design, with floor coverings meant to literally underscore specific exhibits — such as carpeting with river colors and a sense of flowing currents as the base of educational exhibits on the science of water. Already in place and fully functional is a domed, state-of-the-art observatory/theater in which members of the tour were treated to panoramic history, ecology and astronomy films.

Jason Silva, a partner with Dreyfuss & Blackford Architecture, spent 15 years working on the project, “designing and redesigning it four times over” to accommodate fund fallout — “at which point we decided the basement would cost too much,” he said — and a windfall, when a $7 million grant from the Proposition 84 Nature Education Facilities Program in 2011 “allowed us to double the size of some exhibit areas.”

“A lot of inspiration came from the original powerhouse building,” Silva said. “At the time it was built in 1912, it was considered the height of technology. That had also been brought on in phases, as we do now with certain structures.”

He said that there were “some constraints due to historic preservation considerations.” In fact, the Pacific Gas & Electric name is still embedded high on the wall on the river side of the structure, which used to be its entrance — and needs to remain. The new entrance side on Jibboom Street displays the name sponsor, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, “at least for the next 15 years,” said MOSAC’s Wong.

Asked to cite one of the facility’s challenges, general contractor Steve Van Someren of Otto Construction said with a laugh, “Hey, there was nothing easy about this job. We had environmental challenges, safety challenges and budget challenges, so I can’t pinpoint just one challenge. Having said that, I’ll tell you that it was an amazing project for us, though.”

One of the more innovative aspects of construction was the deployment of a machine called the Brokk, a robot with a powerful hydraulic “breaker” for demolition. It was brought in when Van Someren, who served as senior project manager of MOSAC, and his team realized the roof of the old powerhouse building could collapse under the weight of workers preparing to remove it. “Safety was always a primary concern,” he said. “We used the Brokk to demolish the east wall and roof of the building.”

At certain times during the project, Van Someren said, “We had 85 people working on site.” When San Francisco construction projects shut down due to the pandemic, that team “suddenly included a bunch of metal-decking guys who’d been thrown out of work. It was probably the only bright spot about Covid: San Francisco’s loss was our gain.”

Fast Facts

SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity

Details: MOSAC transformed an abandoned riverfront structure into a regional hub for science education.

Cost: $83 million

Completed: May 2021

Developer: Museum of Science and Curiosity

Contractor: Otto Construction

Architect: Dreyfuss & Blackford Architecture

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