Mission: undoable?

Can Phil Angelides turn a profit on the bad-luck lowland called Centrage?

Phil Angelides might try his hand at developing the old Centrage site near Business 80. Several previous attempts have failed.

Phil Angelides might try his hand at developing the old Centrage site near Business 80. Several previous attempts have failed.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

If this is how Phil Angelides wants to get back into the development game, he’s picked a hell of a project to start with.

Angelides may try to develop a troubled 48-acre plot in East Sacramento that has vanquished many a developer before him—the low-lying stretch of land they call Centrage. His spokeswoman, Cathy Calfo, wouldn’t give up much detail to SN&R. She’s not saying Angelides is going for it. But she did confirm that he has bought an option to acquire the property from his old mentor Angelo Tsakopoulos, and that he’s taking a close look.

“He’s in the due-diligence phase,” Calfo explained. “That should be completed in the next several weeks.

If Angelides does make a bid to build on the property, it would be his first development project since leaving the real-estate business for the state Treasurer’s office almost 10 years ago. And it would be the latest run at a piece of land that has for years proven to be un-developable.

Centrage is surrounded on three sides by railroad levy and on its north side by I-80. It lies just across the freeway from the old city landfill, now Sutter’s Landing Park. And while the property abuts East Sacramento, it is almost completely cut off from the neighborhood next door.

“It’s a very difficult site,” explained City Councilman Steve Cohn, whose district includes Centrage. “You have no access. It’s got zero infrastructure,” all things that are usually prerequisites for successful infill development.

Centrage does have elderberry bushes, potential foraging for California’s threatened elderberry beetle. Aside from beetle habitat, the patch also boasts several thriving homeless encampments and, until recently, rows of fruit trees. “Really good stuff, peaches, plums. You could eat for days,” explained one woman who lives at the foot of a railroad levy on the site. But a couple of months ago men arrived with saws and a chipper, and the orchards were gone.

The parcel has been jinxed for development ever since 1988, when a man named Jim Lennane got the idea to turn the old orchards into real-estate profits. He tried to get the city to go for five high-rise office buildings and more than 1,000 apartments on the tiny parcel. “Centrage was an abomination,” said Jim Collins, president of the East Sacramento Neighborhood Improvement Association. The abomination was beat into submission in 1992 by neighborhood groups, led in part by then-activist Steve Cohn, who parlayed opposition to Centrage into the City Council seat he occupies today. That year Lennane also was frustrated in his attempt to unseat George H.W. Bush as the Republican Party’s nominee for president.

In 1996, developer Lux Taylor was similarly unsuccessful in his bid to build a 500,000-square-foot shopping mall there. Later, half-hearted proposals for auto malls and business parks also went nowhere. But the name Centrage has stuck all along.

Before getting into office, Angelides made his money as a developer in Sacramento and protégé to Tsakopoulos, who owns the property today. Last year, Tsakopoulos sold an option to develop the land to local developer Cambridge Homes, headquartered in East Sacramento.

The Cambridge Homes proposal was marketed as “The Village,” and would have included 300 to 400 homes in a “pedestrian friendly” community that would have blended into East Sac more comfortably than its predecessors. A Greek Orthodox church, built on land donated by Tsakopoulos, was also part of the plan. The Village proposal made a minor splash in the local press. And while the neighbors were concerned about traffic impacts, they weren’t opposing the project.

But Cambridge Homes quietly pulled its application last month, and city officials told SN&R they don’t really know why. Calls to Chris Stevens, president of Cambridge Homes, went unreturned.

Some neighbors believe the project fell apart because the city was insisting on a multimillion-dollar freeway interchange on the south side of the property. Centrage is very close to the notorious I-80 “bottleneck” in and out of downtown.

But senior planner Jeanne Corcoran said the city didn’t demand an interchange—it only asked Cambridge to set aside land for an interchange.

Whether it was the freeway interchange, the slumping housing market, the beetles, bad mojo or something else entirely, the development plan went the way of the orchard—one day it was there, the next it wasn’t.

With the city looking for future “urban infill” opportunities—some spots to do significant home building close to the central city—and with the right developer, Centrage’s luck just might break one day. And Cohn said he would be open-minded about any Angelides proposal. “If he were to do it, you couldn’t pick a better developer to work with,” Cohn said. “He’s a progressive guy. I think he would understand the needs of the neighbors and how local government works.”

But Cohn’s not exactly cheerleading the project, either. “I guess I’m ambivalent about it. I’m fine with it the way it is. You know, it’s nice to have the open space,” he said.

In fact, Cohn said that if he had his druthers, the space would become a permanent park. Given the city’s resources, that’s not likely, either, he conceded. So if Angelides can’t make it work, perhaps the old Centrage lowland will just go on in a sort of nothing-in-particular stasis: not a neighborhood, not a park, not an orchard. Just … Centrage.