Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: A tragic tale of fire and Ice

It was one fire that destroyed one building. Nobody died. The building was heavily insured.

Something else eventually will be constructed at the location of the venerable Crystal Ice building in midtown Sacramento, which was gutted by flames Nov. 7. But it won’t be the same. A piece of Sacramento history was destroyed when fire ravaged the 82,000-square-foot building that takes up several blocks of R Street between 16th and 18th streets.

The shame of this still unsolved calamity is that the integrity of that old plant was going to be preserved by developer Mike Heller, who was on the cusp of realizing his vision for the nearly century-old edifice before the fire occurred.

“The biggest emotion for me is, ‘My God. That’s2  1/2 years of a continuous labor of love,” Heller said. “We were going to keep the spirit and soul of that building. I made love to the bones of that building. And then in one 5 a.m. phone call, it’s gone.”

That might sound like hyperbole until one considers the history of the Crystal Ice and Cold Storage building, the evolution of R Street and the story of how Heller and his partners emerged as new-generation stewards of Sacramento’s past.

The building long had been a lime-green eyesore, abandoned for more than 30 years. But at one time, the cavernous space was a fixture in a Sacramento that no longer exists. It was a place of commerce and a major employer before the regional exodus to the suburbs some 40 years ago.

Heller’s eyes lit up when he imagined the Crystal Ice building in its glory, back in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. “People used to be able to drive down an alley behind the plant, put a penny in the machine and buy a bag of ice,” Heller said. “I can imagine people pulling up in their Model T’s.”

As described in previous Sacramento Bee stories, the plant was actually nine interconnected buildings. It had plank floors, massive sliding barn doors, high ceilings, reclaimed wood and vintage freight elevators. “It was everything you’d ever want in an old building ... right on R Street at the gateway to downtown,” Heller said.

For the past two years, Heller had planned to bring Crystal Ice back to life by preserving its classic character within a state-of-the-art complex that would be home to a new class of people pumping life into modern Sacramento. The $80 million Ice Blocks development had plans for 150 residential units, 60,000 square feet of retail space and more than 50,000 square feet of office space. Sacramento Republic FC, the wildly popular minor-league soccer team, would move its headquarters into the old building.

Heller said he already had 30,000 to 40,000 square feet of space committed to creative-class tenants, including architecture and engineering firms. As with the rest of R Street, they would be helping to reinvigorate a part of the city that had lost its mojo.

That’s what made the Crystal Ice project so exciting. It represented a resurgent Sacramento. It was about a vision of the city that took pride in its past while feeling optimistic about its future.

The project also represented a civic victory. Aside from the Fox & Goose restaurant, R Street in midtown was a relic for decades. In that time, many powerful forces sought to turn the old warehouses and classic spaces into faceless corridors of functional state buildings.

From the 1980s onward, R Street was a political battleground. More traditional developers wanted the quick buck that could come with the expediency of constructing more state buildings. This was fought by midtown residents and by Sacramento planners who held out for something more.

The idea of R Street as a cool warehouse district – similar to Fourth Street in Berkeley or the Pearl District in Portland, Ore. – seemed like a pipe dream. It was an idea that was disparaged and one that seemed unlikely to come together. But now it’s a reality. The vision for R Street is being realized, and the corridor has become a jewel in Sacramento’s urban resurgence. Bars, restaurants and clubs are brimming with young people who live and work nearby. This development has coincided with the construction of the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento.

Heller marveled at how his proposal to preserve Crystal Ice was warmly embraced. The project had few detractors, if any. “This became a community project,” he said. “I’ve never had such an outpouring to any of my projects,” he said.

It was because Heller – the developer – wanted what the residents wanted. “I’m not a big-volume developer,” he said. “I’m a boutique guy that drills down and gives my heart to my projects. Even though the Crystal Ice building was dead, to me it was alive.”

Heller, whose previous work includes the MARRS building, said he was two weeks away from beginning construction when he got that dreadful call in the predawn hours of Nov. 7. In the days since, his mind has been “racing” between his instincts to pursue a new vision for the space and the harsh realities of dealing with plans that have been destroyed.

The amount of work that goes into preparing a building for construction is considerable. Years were spent obtaining permits and securing deals based on redeveloping the specific assets of the Crystal Ice building. Now those assets are gone. The building is still too damaged and dangerous for fire officials to inspect the grounds. It could be weeks before anyone knows what caused the fire.

Now Heller spends his time talking with insurance adjusters and with partners such as Mark Friedman and Kevin Nagle, minority owner of the Kings and a lead investor in the Sacramento Republic.

“My mind is already thinking about getting in that rubble and seeing if any of those barn doors are salvageable,” Heller said. “But for now, I have to exorcise all of our previous plans. They serve no purpose.”

They vow to build something bold on the Crystal Ice space. Meanwhile, work continues down and across the street on the other portions of the Ice Blocks development.

“That’s the cathartic path I’m on,” Heller said. “We’re going to hoist a couple of beers, say we gave it our best and turn the page. Let’s roll now. Time is wasting.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee