After months of sifting through rubble, fire investigators have been unable to determine what caused the conflagration in November that destroyed the century-old Crystal Ice plant in midtown Sacramento.
"The possibility that it was arson is always in the front of our minds, but unfortunately we were not able to make a determination. The building was just too destroyed," Chris Harvey, spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department, said this week.
The department’s investigators haven’t issued a final report but have wrapped up site work, Harvey said. Much of the block-long building had collapsed into the subbasement, which was filled with asbestos-laden debris. Heavy construction equipment had to be brought in to scour the remains, Harvey said.
"It took months," he said. "The investigation was more thorough and more complete than any other in recent years."
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For decades, the cavernous and decrepit Crystal Ice and Cold Storage building at R and 16th streets had been a key part of plans to turn a long stretch of the gritty R Street industrial corridor into an arts and housing district.
Its destruction was seen as a serious setback to those efforts.
"We don't have a lot of historic warehouse building stock like many cities do,” John Dangberg, Sacramento assistant city manager, said at the time.
The oldest portion of the former Crystal Ice plant was intended to become the focal point of the Ice Blocks – a collection of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments planned on R Street between 16th and 18th streets.
The oldest portion of the structure was made up of nine interconnected buildings totaling 82,000 square feet, with thick wooden columns and exposed brick walls.
Local developers Mike Heller and Mark Friedman had planned to keep as much of that character as possible, and upscale tenants saw it as a draw, they said.
After two years of planning by the developers, work finally had started on the project. Then a three-alarm fire tore through the structure in the early morning of November 7, and much of the plant came crashing down.
"It was a tough loss, but we're going to regroup, and we will come back with something that will be cool, but cool in a different way, " Friedman said days after the fire.
The developers recently submitted plans to the city to build a significantly larger replacement for the old plant – two modern glass-and-steel structures with more than 100,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space.
Two adjacent portions of the Ice Blocks project already are under construction, including a new building at 18th and R streets and the rehabilitation of the older Orchard Supply Hardware building across the street.
Wendy Saunders, executive director of the Capitol Area Development Authority, said she likes the project's new look. CADA spent millions of dollars on streetscaping before the blaze and has been central to R Street redevelopment.
"Of course, the fire was a huge loss, " Saunders said, but added that the silver lining was a new design that makes better use of the property, enables the developer to include underground parking and poses fewer challenges in terms of ADA compliance.
At the time of the fire various people speculated on the cause. Vagrants were known to camp out in the old buildings, and construction equipment might have sparked the blaze, they noted. But whether the fire started by accident or intentionally may remain unknown, Harvey said.
"It's very hard to find an origin because it's just so jumbled," he said.