Neighborhood threats

City council can settle, or duck, the Curtis Park rail-yard controversy

Paul Petrovich recently put up some subtle reminders to Curtis Park neighbors that he can clean up the toxic rail yards as soon as his development proposal is approved.

Paul Petrovich recently put up some subtle reminders to Curtis Park neighbors that he can clean up the toxic rail yards as soon as his development proposal is approved.


You couldn’t ask for a better spot to build a forward-looking, environmentally friendly “smart growth” development. The 72-acre Curtis Park rail yard is wedged between two light-rail stations, a busy community college and an affluent tree-lined neighborhood.

But toxic dirt and some nasty neighborhood politics threaten to derail what could have been a model for urban redevelopment.

In 2008, the rail-yard developer, Paul Petrovich, learned that the property was contaminated with lead and arsenic and other carcinogens—to an extent far beyond what the previous landowner, Union Pacific Railroad Company, originally estimated.

Accordingly, Petrovich jacked up the amount of commercial development in the proposed project, so as to recoup the new, higher cleanup costs. And he jettisoned some ambitious design ideas that had been applauded by local environmentalists and architects.

Along with 178 single-family homes, 200 condos and an 80-unit affordable-housing complex for seniors, Petrovich now wants to install 259,000 square feet of retail stores.

The big shopping center is a big concern for neighbors within the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association, who say the project is essentially a suburban-style strip mall disguised as an urban-infill project.

“We want something that mirrors the Midtown area, not Natomas or Elk Grove,” said Rosanna Herber, with the SCNA.

Still, the city’s planning commission voted last month to approve the project and pass it on to the Sacramento City Council, where it will be heard on April 1.

But Petrovich is making an unusual request. He wants the city council to approve just the project’s environmental documents for now, something he needs done quickly to get state approval for his toxic-cleanup plan.

If the council agrees, that could mean leaving debate about overall land use—and how much retail development is appropriate—for another day, perhaps several months from now.

“He’s trying to get the city council to move his project forward without having to deal with the whole urban vs. suburban question,” Herber said.

Splitting up the project might be convenient for some council members, who’d rather avoid making a tough political call on this project until after the June elections. But the council member who represents the area, Lauren Hammond, explained that she too is concerned about splitting the project up.

Hammond also said she has a compromise in mind to settle the question of how much commercial development is enough, but she said she wouldn’t reveal it in the press.

Petrovich, for his part, is declining to talk to the press at all until after the April 1 meeting.

Hammond tried to get the two parties to go into mediation earlier this year. But she said Petrovich balked at the last minute. Hammond was frustrated; the SCNA was stuck with its part of the bill for the mediator, about $1,500.

When SCNA asked Petrovich to reimburse them, he responded with a demand to look at the SCNA books—and suggested that the SCNA illegally used association dues to fight his project. Petrovich is a property owner in the area, and Herber said he’s entitled to look at the books. But she said she thinks the letter was meant as “intimidation.”

“He wants us to shut up,” Herber said.

Meanwhile the SCNA is making its own threats.

“If the city council is not going to be reasonable and make some minor modifications, we will sue,” Herber said. “We don’t want to sue. We don’t want it to sit barren with pile of toxic dirt.

“We just want it to be a smart infill development, not a suburban strip mall.”

Given its size and location, the rail yard could be a somewhat extraordinary project.

“It holds great promise to be a model for smart growth,” said Panama Bartholomy, who sits on the planning commission. Whether it lives up to that potential, Bartholomy says, depends largely on the vagaries of the real-estate market and on the relationship between the developer and the neighbors.

“Right now, that relationship is not so great,” he noted.