When workers peeled away construction tarp last week at a stylish new 16th Street apartment building, out popped a 32-foot, sinewy surprise.
You've heard of art deco. Meet art gecko.
A blue and brown mosaic tile lizard clings to the southeast corner of the building as if it has just scampered up from the street below.
Created by Chico artist Robin Indar, the lizard is arguably Sacramento's most visible and playful public art piece since the airport's big red rabbit leapt to life two years ago. Some 15,000 vehicles will pass it each day on 16th Street, a major corridor for downtown commuters.
Officials at the Capitol Area Development Authority, who are developing the building with Ravel Rasmussen Properties, say the artwork was a surprise.
It was privately commissioned by developer Scott Rasmussen, who paid about $30,000 for it as a memorial to his late business partner and best friend, Gary Ravel, who died of cancer last year.
"We were, 'Holy smokes!' " CADA Executive Director Wendy Saunders said when the lizard showed up. "We think it's so cool."
Indar views the lizard as a neighborhood protector, surveying the busy 16th Street scene from its perch four stories high.
"I'm hoping everyone gets a good feeling from it," she said. "It's friendly."
The mosaic, a combination of Spanish and Mexican influence, adorns one of two Spanish Colonial Revival-style apartment buildings under construction at 16th and O streets. The structures, set to open later this year, occupy formerly empty lots in an old motel row that city and CADA officials have worked for years to transform into a bustling residential and commercial neighborhood.
The $26 million project will bring 84 market-rate apartments, as well as some restaurants and stores, to the site a few blocks from the state Capitol and across the street from the Fremont apartment building, which houses Pronto restaurant and several other retail establishments.
CADA officials said they are aiming the project for middle and upper-middle income earners looking for an urban lifestyle. Rents will range from $1,500 to $2,160 a month.
"These are not inexpensive, but they're attracting people who have other choices," Saunders said. "It's a long time coming."
The buildings will have ground-floor retail, including potentially a large indoor-outdoor restaurant.
The agency plans two more housing projects on 16th Street in the next few years. Some of those will be subsidized below-market units, but many of those also will be priced at market rates.
"It's creating a residential environment where there was none," Saunders said.
Her agency is applying for funds to add lights, planters, streetscaping, pedestrian islands and other small amenities along several blocks of 16th Street in that area to give it a more residential feel.
The apartment project's first major tenant is a bit of a mystery, though, based on a close view of its feet. The front feet, with their suction-cup toe pads, say gecko. But the back feet are those of a ground lizard.
Indar, the artist, calls the artwork "Gecko Gigante," but said the lizard is really a fanciful hybrid, part gecko, part blue belly lizard. It has a light outline of tiles that glows a faint blue in the dark.
Rasmussen calls the artwork "Take the High Road," a statement he says his late partner, Ravel, often made. The lizard's back is adorned with symbols representing the gamut of religions and spiritual philosophies including atheism that are meant to suggest inclusiveness.
Rasmussen and Ravel, fans of eclectic Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, long talked about putting a lizard on a building.
"Gary had a concept you should exceed expectations and surprise people," said Rasmussen. "He would have loved this and cracked a huge smile."
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak..