No on Curtis Park gas station, yes on downtown housing

A construction worker carries lumber outside new cottages being built in Curtis Park Village last October. The planning commission debates a proposed fuel center on Thursday.
A construction worker carries lumber outside new cottages being built in Curtis Park Village last October. The planning commission debates a proposed fuel center on Thursday. rpench@sacbee.com

The Sacramento Planning and Design Commission faces a marathon meeting Thursday evening with two highly contentious projects on tap – large residential towers downtown that require tearing down existing housing, and a gas station that is the latest controversy for a residential-retail development in Curtis Park.

While city planners are recommending approval of both, neither is a clear call. Opponents raise valid and substantial points that tilt the balance against the gas station, and that must be incorporated in the downtown housing proposal.

The planning commission does not have the final word. The City Council will get the final say on the downtown project, and the Curtis Park proposal almost certainly will be appealed to the council either way. Still, the commission’s decisions – and how it justifies them – will frame the debate to come.

Though it may not seem like it due to the volume of politically savvy people who are involved, the Curtis Park fuel center is a garden-variety land-use question of whether a project fits near a neighborhood.

Whatever happens, it won’t really matter to the rest of Sacramento. But there are some principles at stake that should persuade City Hall to reject the 16-pump fuel center.

One is that it was not part of the original deal between developer and neighborhood. Even if a gas station meets infill development rules, the entire project might have been different if it had been proposed at the start.

The other principle is that the city shouldn’t encourage what amounts to blackmail. Developer Paul Petrovich has told the neighborhood that without the gas pumps, Safeway won’t come in as the supermarket – and that means a discount grocer and other less desirable tenants. (He declined comment Wednesday.)

That isn’t much of a choice, but if opponents are willing to live without the Safeway, city officials should be as well.

The decision on Sacramento Commons – the residential project on a four-block site bounded by Fifth, Seventh, N and P streets – will have a wider impact on the development of downtown.

The city wants to significantly increase the number of people living downtown. That’s a worthy goal, but the question is whether this is the right project at the right place with the right developer.

Kennedy Wilson, a Beverly Hills real estate investment firm, proposes to build two apartment towers and a condominium/hotel tower, and spruce up the existing Capitol Towers. To clear space, it wants to demolish 206 two-story Capitol Villa garden apartments – and there’s the rub.

It’s an even tougher call because it’s an either-or proposal: Either 1,374 housing units, 74,000 square feet of retail space and a 300-room hotel – or 1,470 units and 56,000 square feet of commercial, but no hotel. Both include more than 1,600 parking spaces. Dave Eadie, a Kennedy Wilson vice president, says a decision between the two scenarios won’t be made until after final city approval and after it’s clear which hotel operators might be interested.

Opponents argue that with plenty of vacant land in the downtown railyard for a residential project, there’s no reason to uproot residents or tear down existing buildings, especially ones with historic value. The developer says there’s a market for new housing at both locations and that this site is better for a mixed-use development. While there are other downtown housing plans on the drawing board, there’s no guarantee they will happen.

But in moving forward with this project, the city should agree to some of the reasonable conditions that many residents and neighbors want. They include allowing demolition and tree removal only when construction contracts, financing agreements and building permits are in place.

Residents also want the development agreement – proposed at 20 years with two five-year options – shortened to 10 years, so if it isn’t complete by then it can be re-evaluated. Given the history of other residential towers downtown that never got off the ground, that’s a reasonable request.