Crocker Village’s stunted growth

Why community outrage—and a lawsuit—continues to stall Paul Petrovich’s controversial Curtis Park development

Years after developer Paul Petrovich first drew up plans for a new Curtis Park neighborhood, the development remains unfinished - and the subject of debate.

Years after developer Paul Petrovich first drew up plans for a new Curtis Park neighborhood, the development remains unfinished - and the subject of debate.

Curtis Park Village was supposed to be a happy, safe haven with several hundred new homes, a Safeway, almost 1,000 parking spaces in front and a gas station.

But the proposed development has been stalled for months—years, really—as a wealthy developer and the local residents who oppose his gas station duke it out in court.

About eight months ago, after the Sacramento City Council blocked Paul Petrovich’s controversial Curtis Park Village project—later renamed Crocker Village—several months ago, from proceeding, Petrovich threatened to bring in a cheap discount grocery store, a nail salon and a pet supplies store.

A bluff? Possibly, and since no one budged, he took things up a notch and, in February, sued his opponents.

The story can easily be spun as one of a small, neighborly community being invaded by a belligerent developer who hopes to cash in at any cost—in this case, defiling their neighborhood with a shopping mall, a gas station and increased traffic. On the other hand, some residents say they look forward to the new development. They believe it will class the place up a bit, boost the economy and, possibly, even reduce congestion and traffic by providing the community with a convenient one-stop shopping center.

The divisive element between the pros and the cons is, as it has been for many months, the gas station. Petrovich proposed it as a Safeway rewards gas station, where customers who buy groceries there would build up credit to use at the gas station.

Reportedly, Safeway has said it wouldn’t move into Petrovich’s envisioned commercial center when the city council rejected the conditional-use permit that would have allowed him to build the “fuel center.”

A representative from Safeway did not return SN&R’s phone calls or emails to confirm.

And if Safeway doesn’t move in, a cascade of negative effects could follow.

“Safeway is not going to come without the gas station, and without the Safeway we won’t get the better co-tenant businesses,” said Bruce Strickley, a resident of the Curtis Park neighborhood, adjacent to the proposed building site.

In other words, the gas station was the linchpin of the whole community.

If the Safeway doesn’t take up residence in Crocker Village, a lower-end grocery store probably will—and it’s the dodgy co-tenant businesses that will come along with a low-end grocery store that are such a turnoff to residents like Strickley. He worries that eliminating the gas station will indirectly lead to the presence of such places as a payday loan office, a laundromat and an auto parts shop.

On the other hand, a Safeway would mean upscale cafes, a nice restaurant, a gym and perhaps a bank, Strickley says.

“And we really need a one-stop shopping center around here,” said Strickley. “If we had one, people like me might actually ride our bikes there.”

Strickley also believes the plan as Petrovich wants it would ease local traffic and congestion.

Petrovich first proposed his project more than a decade ago. Locals seemed more or less OK with the development, which Petrovich supposedly agreed to build in a style aesthetically similar to the historic architecture of Curtis Park. The project description also included bike paths, plenty of green space and a pedestrian-friendly design.

Eric Johnson, a Curtis Park resident and president of the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association, told SN&R that he and other locals liked the plan, which would have been a welcome improvement to what had been for decades a derelict vacant lot. To mitigate any potential impacts of the project, Petrovich even helped pay for community improvements, like a pedestrian bridge leading over the train tracks to the light rail station. He also invested $50 million into cleaning up an old toxic dumping site at a defunct rail yard.

It looked like a good deal for everyone.

Then, in 2014, Petrovich sprang the idea of a fuel center. Local opponents, Johnson among them, went up in arms. Community meeting halls were packed with angry residents (though some accounts report that there were plenty of supporters, too).

Residents of the area were concerned that the automobile-centric approach of the project would worsen traffic and create a net negative impact on locals’ health and safety.

The Sacramento Planning and Design Commission voted 8-3 in June 2015 to approve the project—gas station, parking lot, Safeway and all. Then, in November, the city council intervened and shot the plan down. The main problem remained the gas station. Today, the project has barely begun, with just a handful of the planned homes finished and occupied by new residents.

Petrovich’s lawsuit, which is still pending, specifically targets the city of Sacramento, the city council, the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association, Andrea Rosen and Johnson. The suit contends that the city led Petrovich on a 12-year process of meetings and formal deliberations, including a 2,000-page environmental impact report, before—without justification—turning at the last minute and rejecting the gas station, a core piece of his plan.

Third-party reviews of the project determined it would produce a net reduction of traffic and would not pose a significant public health risk, according to the suit. The lawsuit also claims that part of the reversal came because one city councilman, Jay Schenirer—a Curtis Park resident—seemed to have personal bias against the project.

Schenirer’s camp denies the allegation.

Joe Devlin, chief of staff at Schenirer’s office, wrote in an email exchange with SN&R that “[t]he council member has been very supportive of the project over the last six years and the office is looking forward to the completion of the project. It will be a benefit to the neighborhood and the city.” The only part that the councilman was ever unsure of was the fuel station, Devlin explained.

Johnson and Rosen are accused in the lawsuit of using “speculation, hearsay and incompetent lay arguments” to make the case that the gas station would pose a public health and safety hazard. Still, Petrovich offered to placate their concerns by relocating the gas station to a point farther than initially planned from the nearest homes, the lawsuit states.

Johnson said he could not comment on the lawsuit, saying only that Petrovich’s legal approach is essentially a scare tactic.

“He’s trying to intimidate people into not questioning future developments,” Johnson said.

Petrovich’s law firm, Rutan & Tucker, did not return emails seeking comment. Neither did Petrovich, whose last formal court action was a public records request filed on July 6. More recently, he filed a motion with city council asking to be compensated for his legal fees to the tune of $300,000. He withdrew the request before the council had a chance to consider it at their July 19 meeting.

Meg Heede, a Curtis Park resident who favors Petrovich’s project, said in an interview with SN&R she is outraged by the city council’s rejection of a project that had already been greenlighted.

“It passed every review and got approved by the planning commission, and after years of advancing, the fact that the city council rejected it after a few locals appealed it is just insane,” Heede said.

Some of the outcry over Petrovich’s project comes from its focus on driving and parking. The lawsuit, in fact, unabashedly calls the nonresidential portion of the development “a large, automobile-oriented Commercial Center.”

It may sound unappealing, but Rob Wassmer, a professor of urban land development at Sacramento State, says Petrovich really couldn’t have planned Crocker Village any other way. That, he says, is because building a large community without a focus on car culture just wouldn’t be profitable.

“People aren’t getting out of their cars, not even in Curtis Park,” said Wassmer.

Wassmer says an apartment building constructed almost a decade ago beside Highway 50 was oriented around public transit and without a great deal of parking spots.

“And it wasn’t successful,” Wassmer said. “People didn’t want to live there.” The apartments were eventually converted into hosing for Sacramento State students, he adds.

Wassmer empathizes with Petrovich and framed the saga as a classic case of NIMBYisms—a.k.a. “not in my backyard” people who object to change if it affects their own lives, especially the areas where they live.

But Curtis Park residents have said they oppose Petrovich’s plan simply because it will harm the environment and the aesthetic nature of the historic neighborhood.

Johnson, in fact, says he is eager for the project to proceed as promised—before the gas station was proposed.

“It’s really frustrating for the residents of Curtis Park that the development has been stalled,” said Johnson. “It’s really frustrating to have this project that was promised as walkable, livable, green, environmentally conscious, all that good stuff, to right now just look in a lot of ways exactly like it did seven years ago when it was just a pile of toxic dirt.”

Correction: Eric Johnson’s quote in the final paragraph has been amended to reflect that Johnson said that the land on which Crocker Village sits was a toxic pile of dirt seven years ago, not 70.