A decision on whether to allow a Safeway gas station in the Curtis Park Village development turned into a five-hour debate in the Sacramento City Council chambers Tuesday night that veered into larger issues, including jobs for the needy and the future of fossil fuels.
The behavior of developer Paul Petrovich became its own topic.
Hundreds of supporters and opponents attended the meeting, where Petrovich insisted the council had no legal grounds to deny him the right to build a gas station in the former railyard east of Sacramento City College.
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A majority of council members disagreed. Despite Petrovich’s warning that Safeway would pull out of its plan to build a grocery store, the council voted 7-2 to deny the developer the conditional use permit he needed.
The drama continued until just before midnight, when Mayor Kevin Johnson called for a final vote. Johnson, who voted against the gas station, declared he would go to Safeway headquarters in Pleasanton with Petrovich to urge the grocery chain to build a new store in Curtis Park even without a fuel center.
“I’m thinking if you and I got together and went down there, we’d make a pretty persuasive team,” the mayor told Petrovich.
Petrovich agreed after the mayor pleaded with him to end the meeting on a positive note.
It was the culmination of a marathon debate that featured hours of emotional testimony and discussion of whether council members should overturn a June decision by the city’s Planning and Design Commission to grant Petrovich a permit to build the gas station along with the grocery store.
Hundreds of people filled the council chambers and an overflow area, and a long line spiraled around the City Hall lobby as people waited to go through a metal detector.
The project was introduced by city planner Lindsey Alagozian, who said staff members recommended upholding the planning commission’s 8-3 decision and allowing Petrovich to build the gas station, especially after he and Safeway agreed to move it to a less visible corner of the project away from new housing.
Petrovich, a burly man known as a developer of shopping centers and for his mercurial temperament, took the podium next. Early in his presentation, he apologized to council members for his behavior. Without going into detail, he said he had “reached my limit” after years of battling with Curtis Park neighbors who monitored and challenged him many times.
“My limit was 245 community meetings, thousands of email and blog attacks on me personally and my family,” he said.
One council member, however, said he’d had enough of Petrovich’s nastiness. Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents Curtis Park and Oak Park, said Petrovich had been negotiating for a year with Safeway about the gas station, but only on Friday had he sent an email to Schenirer asking for a meeting.
In the meantime, Schenirer said, Petrovich had copied him on a number of emails in which he had said “very derogatory” things about the councilman.
“I’m not going to meet with you anymore because of that behavior,” Schenirer told Petrovich in the meeting.
The gas station issue came to the City Council after the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association appealed the planning commission’s decision approving the eight-pump, 16-nozzle gas station. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Petrovich staged a community meeting in neighboring Oak Park, in which he reportedly said wealthier Curtis Park residents were trying to deny their poorer Oak Park neighbors good jobs at Safeway.
A Safeway representative, Todd Paradis, told the Oak Park gathering that Safeway wouldn’t locate in Curtis Park Village without a gas station, and he repeated that assertion at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“In this particular project, it’s an absolute must,” Paradis told council members.
Petrovich said he had spent 13 years and $35 million cleaning up the former toxic railyard next to Sacramento City College. He said he had agreed to every change the city had asked for in the plan for the infill project, which calls for hundreds of homes and a shopping center on 72 acres.
Though the prospect of a gas station wasn’t raised until last year, Petrovich insisted it was an acceptable part of the commercial zoning for the shopping center and that the council had no legal grounds on which to deny it. He said he’d never heard of a gas station in Sacramento denied a permit.
Dozens of residents – who seemed to be evenly split between those who supported the gas station and those who didn’t – addressed the council.
Supporters focused on the prospect of Safeway bringing about 200 jobs to the area that would come with union wages and benefits worth more than $21 an hour. Safeway wrote a letter to the city saying it would give Oak Park applicants priority in interviewing for those jobs.
About a half-dozen pastors from Oak Park churches led that chorus, including Anthony Sadler, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, whose son was one of three young men recently hailed for stopping a terrorist attack on a train in France.
“The job opportunities for the underserved Oak Park neighborhood can actually become realized” if Safeway comes to Curtis Park, he said.
Many in the crowd wore blue T-shirts that said “Our Lives Matter,” referring to a national campaign to prevent violence against people of color.
On the other side of the debate, many Curtis Park residents said putting a gas station in a residential area came with health risks for them and their children. Others insisted the gas station didn’t fit with the plan for Curtis Park Village as an urban infill neighborhood geared toward travel by foot, bike, light rail and bus.
Eric Johnson, president of the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association, opined in his presentation that gas stations would soon be relics of the past – or the world would end.
“Gas, coal, fossil fuels – they’re on their way out,” Johnson said. “If they’re not on their way out, our planet is doomed.”
A representative from Sacramento Regional Transit, which operates the light-rail line adjacent to Curtis Park Village, said her organization opposed the gas station.
And Kirk Trost, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which distributes federal transportation funds, said a gas station would fly in the face of its billing of Curtis Park Village as a transit-oriented community that won it a multimillion-dollar grant to build a pedestrian bridge to the light-rail station.
Seven council members, led by Schenirer, ultimately said they, too, thought the gas station was incompatible with the neighborhood plan and could put future grants in jeopardy.
One of two councilmen who voted to back the gas station said he’d been told before the meeting to expect hyperbole that was “extreme and emotional.”
Larry Carr said he didn’t see how a gas station tucked away in a corner of a much larger development could be so controversial, especially since the neighborhood’s design included a 700-space parking lot for Petrovich’s shopping center.
He said he saw the project – a major addition to the city – as serving a larger population, many of whom would arrive in vehicles. The desires of one neighborhood, Curtis Park, shouldn’t dictate its design, he contended.
“I just don’t see the problem with this project,” Carr said.