Forsakes a village

Curtis Park rail-yards project abandons smart-growth ideas for suburban formula

Kathleen Ave (left) and Rosanna Herber, of the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association, standing above the proposed site of Curtis Park Village.

Kathleen Ave (left) and Rosanna Herber, of the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association, standing above the proposed site of Curtis Park Village.


Paul Petrovich had a special piece of public art in mind for his latest and most ambitious development project. A chrome statue of two gorillas playing chess would be the conversation piece at Curtis Park Village, a 72-acre commercial and residential project that Petrovich is proposing for the abandoned, highly toxic rail yards next to Sacramento City College.

It would be just the kind of signature sculpture Petrovich projects are known for, and sometimes mocked—think the great shiny, chrome horse that looms in front of Safeway at the R Street Market.

“Someone suggested I put certain people’s faces on the gorillas,” Petrovich joked last week during a contentious three-hour community meeting with residents of Curtis Park and surrounding neighborhoods.

He didn’t elaborate, but he might have been referring to Rosanna Herber and Kathleen Ave of the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association. SCNA has been a vocal and persistent critic of the project. It’s not the ape statues that bother them—Petrovich has since abandoned that idea—it’s that they don’t see the “village” in Curtis Park Village.

The Curtis Park Village project is 72-acres, compared to the 240-acre project proposed at the downtown rail yards. But it presents a unique opportunity for infill development—surrounded as it is on all sides by the mature neighborhoods of Curtis Park, Land Park and Hollywood Park, with two light-rail stations and Sacramento City College nearby.

As currently drawn up, the project includes a 250,000-square-foot shopping center, 178 single-family homes, more than 200 condos and an 80-unit affordable senior-housing development. Critics complain that the project is too suburban in design and out of step with the “smart growth” planning principles that the city is supposed to follow.

“This is a development from the past, this is not a forward-looking project,” Herber told SN&R.

Ave concurred.

“You’ve got two light-rail stations here. The idea that you’d fill in that space with pavement and parking spaces is just unbelievable,” she said.

Petrovich insisted that his project will blend in nicely. He also added that he’s doing the neighborhood a big favor by dealing with what he calls the “ticking time bomb of carcinogens in your backyard.”

“We have a chance for a mixed-use development that could set the standard for the country,” Petrovich said. “But if I get tripped up, this all goes industrial and it gets paved over.”

The project area is bookended by the 4th Avenue/Wayne Hultgren and City College light-rail stations. That makes it a prime candidate for transit-oriented development that would reduce automobile traffic, air pollution and suburban sprawl.

In fact, Petrovich received $9 million in state bond funds specifically earmarked for transit-oriented development projects. The project, as originally proposed in 2004, included only 170,000 square feet of retail space and adopted more cutting-edge development principles, like “vertical mixed-use” buildings, with stores and offices on the ground floor and residences on top. Like the current plan, it contained plenty of single-family homes, condos and apartments.

“It was transit-oriented, it was walkable and bikeable and on a neighborhood scale,” recalled Alex Kelter, president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

In its 2004 incarnation, the project received special recognition from ECOS and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its embrace of smart-growth principles.

Fast-forward five years. The commercial and residential real-estate markets have collapsed, and perhaps more importantly, Petrovich has learned that the land is more than three times as polluted than was known when he first made the deal with the Union Pacific Railroad Company, the previous landowners.

Instead of a mere 80,000 cubic yards of toxic soil laced with lead, arsenic and other carcinogens, Petrovich now has 250,000 cubic yards on his hands. He can’t afford to remove all the contaminated dirt, so the new plan is to bury much of it and cap it with an impermeable plastic barrier beneath a planned neighborhood park. It’s much more expensive than the earlier cleanup plan.

Petrovich did not respond to SN&R’s request for an interview. But when he explained his predicament to the approximately 100 people gathered at the community meeting last week, he indicated he’d been misled about the extent of the contamination on the UP property. When asked why he doesn’t go after UP for some of the cleanup costs, he said, “They have two six-story buildings in Omaha, full of attorneys.”

In order to make the project pencil out, Petrovich has increased the amount of retail and commercial development by nearly half, from 150,000 square feet to 250,000 square feet, at the expense of some of the smart-growth elements contained in the earlier plan.

The new proposal would feature nearly 1,000 parking spaces and doesn’t provide for a direct connection to City College or the light-rail station there. A pedestrian bridge has been discussed, but there’s no source of funding identified for the approximately $7 million it would cost to build it.

The SCNA says the retail development being planned is out of scale—more of a regional shopping center than the kind of neighborhood-serving businesses they’d like to see. Some residents fear the shopping center will bring heavier auto traffic into the neighborhood.

Petrovich has made concessions to city planners and to the SCNA. At first, the revised plan had no affordable housing—but then he added in the senior housing element. He agreed to put in some higher-density housing—duplexes and fourplexes—near the light-rail station on the north end of the project.

“Rosanna and I have had spirited conversations, and those have made the project better. But there comes a time when I have to make a decision about whether I can go forward with a project,” Petrovich said. “Is it a perfect project? No. Is it a project that can get built? Yes.”

Meanwhile, the SCNA is working with architect Michael Corbett on a smart-growth plan that they think would be commercially viable. Corbett was one of the developers behind Village Homes in Davis. Built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that project was widely praised as being ahead of its time, featuring energy-efficient design, encouraging biking and walking and de-emphasizing the role of the automobile.

The alternative plan, which Herber stresses is “just a suggestion,” incorporates the vertical mixed-use development jettisoned from the Petrovich plan. It also includes more open space, features parking behind some of the stores and cuts the overall commercial space down to 170,000 square feet.

“It’s beautiful,” Herber said. “It puts the mixed-use back in the development, and it makes it not so focused on automobiles and much more focused on humans. Paul will never go for it.”

Indeed, Petrovich dismissed some of these smart-growth ideas at last week’s meeting. “This is suburbia, like it or not. This is an automobile society,” he said. “You can’t leap to a downtown Portland design in this project.”

He noted he has already experimented with vertical mixed use next to the Safeway store on 19th Street, where he built housing above the retail shops. Financially, Petrovich explained, “I lost my butt.”

Herber is hopeful that the SCNA alternative plan will convince city officials that something else is possible. Critics fear that the council will support a project, even a flawed project, rather than risk years of extra delay.

However, Sacramento City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, who represents Curtis Park, said she agrees the current plan has too much space devoted to commercial development.

“I don’t know what the magic number is, but 250,000 square feet is not it,” said Hammond. She also doubts Petrovich can win over all the neighbors. “I think there are some people who are not going to support any project.”

The Sacramento City Planning Commission and then the city council will take up the project in the next several weeks. Herber worries the council may agree with Petrovich that this is the best project that can get done under the circumstances.

“People will say, ‘Oh, it’s good enough. We’re not Portland or Denver, so this project is good enough,’” Herber said. “But why does it have to be just good enough?”