May 26, 2013

Sacramento developer Mark Friedman gets job of a lifetime building a new arena

Mark Friedman is a home-grown developer with a famous family name, a Harvard-trained intellect and a reputation for panache.

Mark Friedman is a home-grown developer with a famous family name, a Harvard-trained intellect and a reputation for panache.

Son of one of Sacramento's premier power couples of the last half-century – the late Mort Friedman and his wife Marcy Friedman, philanthropists and owners of Arden Fair mall – the younger Friedman has made a name for himself the last 20 years building housing, offices and retail sites around the region with the stated lofty aim of creating community.

Suddenly, that all seems like prelude.

Friedman, 56, has been chosen by the incoming Sacramento Kings owners group for the biggest task of his career: creating one of Sacramento's most important civic structures. A team investor himself, he will oversee design and construction of a $448 million sports and entertainment arena at the Downtown Plaza site. His group also will have a heavy say on what gets built around the arena.

Friedman says he envisions the faded shopping mall being rebuilt into a vibrant regional town square, "the kind of place where, when something big happens in the community, people say, 'Let's go there.' "

In his mind, it would be Sacramento's version of Times Square, San Francisco's Union Square, or Boston's Faneuil Hall.

But time is short. In its frantic effort to win NBA approval to buy the Kings and keep them in town, Friedman's ownership group, led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive, promised it would have the arena open for the 2016 basketball season.

First, the project must undergo lengthy environmental review and win final City Council approval, while facing opposition from some in the community who contend the city is investing much more than the officially stated subsidy of $258 million.

And then there is the construction, which is expected to take two years. The city will own the arena, and the Kings' owners will build it and absorb any cost overruns.

Standing at Seventh and K streets last week, Friedman said he feels overwhelmed, but excited.

"It's like being at the base camp of Mount Everest, looking up at the summit," he said. "I know that we're going to get there. I don't know how."

He laughed. "We'll take it one step at a time."

Letting light in

If done right, the facility should be a Sacramento icon along with the state Capitol, the Tower Bridge, the parkway and the region's two rivers.

Over the next few weeks, Friedman and his team will select a project management firm with an expertise in arena construction. That firm will help advise the Sacramento group as it brings on board architects, consultants, contractors and other arena specialists.

Friedman said members of his development team are already touring arenas in other cities. They visited Barclays Center in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, and are in Indianapolis this weekend at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Friedman's goal is to see what works elsewhere, what doesn't, and how cities incorporate their personality into their arenas.

Friedman said the portion of Downtown Plaza between Fifth and Seventh streets will be demolished. The arena likely will be "nestled" between Fifth and Sixth streets, and K and L streets. The basketball court will be sunken at about the bottom level of the current parking garage.

The surrounding plaza area, to be developed by JMA Ventures of San Francisco along with the Ranadive group, could include apartments, a hotel, offices, restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues, such as a bowling alley or a concert hall.

Physically, the project will be the antithesis of the current Downtown Plaza, which is fortress-like and claustrophobic, with largely blank facades facing the surrounding streets.

The city and team owners say they want the site to reconnect with downtown. The arena itself will be open and light, with glass walls that allow people outside to view activity on the interior concourse, possibly with some direct views into the inner bowl.

That indoors-meets-outdoors feel is part of the "Sacramento DNA" that Friedman said he wants to bring to the site. It could include an arena restaurant that spills out to a public plaza.

"It needs to be an engaging building, not a spaceship that lands in the middle of downtown," he said.

A student of architecture

In a sense, Friedman is an unusual choice as arena developer. He's never built a sports facility. His recent development specialty is urban loft housing. Friends say he's more at home in art galleries and haberdasheries than raucous sports halls, although he played quarterback for Jesuit High School and is an Oakland Raiders ticket holder.

A perennial student of architecture and civic life, Friedman has repeatedly traveled to Europe and elsewhere in search of urban design ideas. He went to Paris, Prague and Amsterdam to see how those cities interact with their rivers in preparation for a riverside community he is building in West Sacramento's Bridge District, next to Raley Field.

People who know him say he is decidedly dapper. "He single-handedly keeps many clothiers in business, here and beyond," joked buddy Doug Elmets, a public relations consultant. Friedman admits he has a penchant, in particular, for fine things Italian – food, shoes, wine.

Friedman, who lives in Arden Oaks with his wife, Marjorie Solomon, a professor at the UC Davis MIND Institute, boasts a major private modern art collection. The couple have three sons.

His Fulcrum Property office in a renovated former auto dealership at 16th and J streets is itself a posh art gallery. Gov. Jerry Brown lives a floor above in the lofts Friedman, Mike Heller and other members of their Loftworks partnership built.

Despite his lack of arena construction experience, City Hall officials say Friedman is a good choice.

Assistant City Manager John Dangberg cited Friedman's acumen, knowledge of Sacramento development and government process and inventiveness. "Mark is sensitive to how design interacts with people and surrounding properties," Dangberg said. "He is a real pro when it comes to doing urban development right."

Friedman's portfolio includes the Rocky Ridge Town Center on Douglas Boulevard, a gathering spot in Roseville, the transit-oriented 65th and Folsom retail and lofts project, and the Davis Commons.

Friedman and Heller built the distinctive Sutter Brownstones town houses on N Street, bringing a touch of East Coast to midtown, but with a straightforward Sacramento architectural style.

He loves to talk big picture, once describing his West Sacramento project, with its river connections and family farmlets, as almost "utopian."

"Our brand is all about bringing sophisticated architecture to Sacramento," he said, "trying to mine what is best elsewhere, but figure out what is distinctively Sacramento."

Strolling Downtown Plaza last week, Friedman acknowledged he initially declined to get involved in the arena project a few years ago when Mayor Kevin Johnson gathered developers to gauge their interest.

Since then, he said, he's come to see the arena effort as a once-only opportunity for himself, his company and the city.

"I've been surprised by the emotional hold this project has on people," he said. "It is unlike anything I have been associated with. People feel like they own the team. They own the building."

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.The Bee's Ryan Lillis contributed to this story.

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