Developer aims to make old Crystal Ice plant sparkle

Originally published 9/27/2005

Mark Friedman, one of Sacramento's leading central city developers, is preparing to tackle one of its most challenging historic properties: the decrepit and cavernous former Crystal Ice and Cold Storage plant on R Street.

Friedman bought the complex of brick and concrete buildings earlier this month from longtime owners Angelo Tsakopoulos and Bill Cummings, who in the mid-1990s unsuccessfully sought city approval to replace it with a pair of high-rise office towers.

Crystal Ice occupies a two-block stretch of R Street between 16th and 18th streets, just west of developer Paul Petrovich's new Safeway retail and housing complex. With the exception of one building still used for ice delivery, the old plant has sat vacant since 1993.

"I fell in love with the buildings, which looking at them in their current condition, might be hard to believe, " Friedman said. "They have character that I couldn't reproduce or fake, and I think I can turn it into something that will be interesting and fun."

Supporters of the city's plan to redevelop the old industrial corridor of R Street into a mixed-use, walkable district of housing, offices, shops and entertainment cheered Friedman's purchase.

"I would trust that if it's Mark Friedman, it's going to be good, " said local preservationist Kay Knepprath, who helped craft the city's R Street plan.

Paul Schmidt, executive director of the Capitol Area Development Authority, said the rehabilitation of Crystal Ice "would really spark a revitalization of a clearly blighted area" and would connect the new Safeway complex at 19th and R streets to restaurateur Randy Paragary's Empire nightclub and Icon restaurant to the east.

Friedman, son of suburban shopping center developer Mort Friedman, is known for his embrace of modern urban design with an industrial feel. He and a group of partners operating under the moniker Loftworks recently renovated an early 20th century auto dealership at 16th and J streets into a complex of lofts, offices and restaurants that has emerged as a center of Sacramento nightlife.

The same group is currently finishing up a building behind 16th and J with 14 residential lofts on the upper floors, offices on the second floor and street-level retail. Tenants will include Bistro 33, a new restaurant from the owners of the 33rd Street Bistro and the Riverside Club, and Design Within Reach, a well-known modern furniture store.

At the moment, it's hard to envision Crystal Ice as the retail and housing hub Friedman expects it to become.

The buildings are filled with decaying rubble, including asbestos and piles of cork that once insulated pipes. The floor is pocked with dangerous holes, and there is no operating electrical system.

An abandoned squatters camp occupies one large room. The transient occupants somehow managed to bring a couch, vanity, coffee table, old-fashioned pedal sewing machine, wheelchair, tricycle, various candles and a pile of sewing catalogs into the padlocked compound.

Friedman said he's still trying to get a handle on the buildings' condition and what it will take to restore them. He has hired the Portland, Ore., firm of GBD Architects to help.

"They're helping me evaluate what's worth keeping and what we should tear down, " he said.

The developer said he expects to save at least the central brick building, which dates from 1923, as well as an adjacent building of more recent construction whose inside is supported by rows of eye-catching concrete columns.

Friedman also likes the curved, bow-truss roof of the single-story building from which Crystal Ice deliveries are made.

He envisions retail and restaurant tenants on the first floor and housing above.

A raised loading dock could be a nice place for an outdoor dining area.

Friedman said he's exploring three concepts: "green" retailers that feature environmentally friendly goods; a "karma" mix of yoga, massage, spa and other health-related uses; or a "specialty" grocery theme.

It's that last idea that worries neighbor Petrovich. This week, he raised concern that Friedman might try to bring in a grocer, such as Whole Foods, that would compete with his Safeway development.

"That would be about the biggest setback and disaster for the R Street corridor that could ever happen, " Petrovich said.

Friedman, however, said he hasn't even started talking to potential tenants yet. "I haven't approached anyone at all because I don't have anything to show them, " he said.

If he did bring in a grocery, he said, it would be complementary to the Safeway store.

Friedman said it's important that the development have a cohesive theme to distinguish it from other shopping areas. "What you have to do in order to make these city neighborhoods succeed is to make them different, " he said.

He would not reveal how much he paid for the property. Petrovich had it in escrow earlier this year, but the deal fell through over price.