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Key piece of Sacramento’s R Street redevelopment plans went up in flames

Derelict brick warehouses were the building blocks of trendy neighborhoods from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, in recent decades.

In Sacramento, however, such buildings are relatively rare, so the near total destruction by fire of the Crystal Ice and Cold Storage building on R Street is a serious setback for efforts to turn the once-gritty industrial corridor into an arts and housing district, developers and public officials said.

“I think the loss is to the greater Sacramento area first and foremost,” said John Dangberg, Sacramento assistant city manager. “We don’t have a lot of historic warehouse building stock, like many cities do.

“We have spectacular ones in the downtown railyards, and a spattering in the River District and along the R Street corridor. They’re something we highly value because there aren’t many of them.”

The historic portion of the former Crystal Ice plant was intended to become the focal point of the Ice Blocks – a multiblock collection of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments – on R Street between 16th and 18th streets in midtown Sacramento.

The oldest portion of the structure was made up of nine interconnected buildings totaling 82,000 square feet.

Foot-thick wooden columns and massive beams supported the cavernous spaces with exposed brick walls. Wooden floors showed the wear of nearly a hundred years of use. Developers Mike Heller and Mark Friedman planned to keep as much of that character as possible, and tenants saw it as a major draw, they said.

After two years of planning, work finally had started on the project. Then a three-alarm fire tore through the structure early Saturday, and much of the plant, and the plans that went with it, came crashing down.

“The building is still unstable, and we haven’t been permitted to go in and assess it yet. But from my observation, it appears to be a total loss,” Friedman said. He awoke early Saturday morning to the news and stood watching the wreckage smolder.

“Most of what was appealing about the building were the old timbers,” Friedman said. The floors were Douglas fir planks, six inches wide and two inches thick. And the building’s insulation was wisps of redwood, he said.

“It was a very fine shaving that looked like redwood cotton balls,” the developer said, adding that all that wood fueled the conflagration.

On Monday, fire investigators interviewed neighbors and reviewed security video but hadn’t entered the blackened shell of a building because it’s unstable.

“Sacramento Fire Department investigators are scouring the area,” said department spokesman Roberto Padilla. “They are not looking at anything in particular.”

It could be weeks before any cause of the fire is released, Padilla said. Before investigators can enter the building, city inspectors must determine whether it is safe, and heavy equipment must be moved into position, he said.

Crystal Ice and Cold Storage was started in 1924 by A.R. Carstensen and his wife, Ruth. Originally in Oak Park, the business moved to 17th and R streets and delivered 100-pound blocks of ice to customers. The business turned to cold storage with the advent of refrigerators. It preserved fruit, vegetables and meat and provided crushed ice for rail cars shipping fresh vegetables east.

Heller said last year he saw the cavernous old plant becoming like Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping district, the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., and other places where gritty post-industrial landscapes have been transformed into hip economic centers.

“Most every city has these iconic districts,” Heller said. “We want to be part of that industrial vibe.”

The plans included a new apartment building with ground-floor restaurants at 18th and R streets, where demolition of another less-valuable structure continued Monday. Across R Street, the graffiti-covered brick facade of the former Orchard Supply Hardware stands intact. Plans call for it to be transformed into a mix of restaurants and retail.

Those properties, called Blocks 2 and 3, will move forward as planned, Friedman said.

What will become of Block 1 – the older ice plant – remains uncertain and will for some time, he said.

New construction is a possibility, he said. But it won’t be able to replicate the character that was lost in Saturday’s fire.

“It’s the character and quality that made those buildings so unique,” Friedman said. “It was a historic patina created by years of long use. We cannot fake or replicate that character, and many tenants wanted that character.”

A number of architecture and engineering firms had wanted to occupy the top floor, and retailers had shown interest in the ground floor, he said. He said he and Heller would develop new plans.

“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,” he said.

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

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