Here He Builds

The governor of California lives in one of his loft projects; the mayor of West Sacramento is moving into one of his townhomes. Even Barack Obama dropped by his office en route to the presidency. The scion of one of Sacramento’s most prominent power couples, developer Mark Friedman is now stepping onto center court, hoping to shape the way we live and play through forward-thinking design, starting with the city’s highest-profile building since the State Capitol. Meet our city’s newest game changer.

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Friedman in his office space on the second floor of the Elliott Building (Portrait by Max Whittaker)


 


 

TThe Lord of Lofts is staring at a doomed building at the corner of 5th and L streets with dogged intensity. But his electric blue eyes are likely seeing something grander than the weatherworn blocks that make up this side of Downtown Plaza. This is where he sees the tipping point of Sacramento.

“This is the building they are going to start tearing down first,” says developer Mark Friedman (who earned his aristocratic nickname for pioneering a surge in modern mixed-use projects in Sacramento), peering across to the passenger window of his V-10 Audi R8 to get a better look on this cool August morning. At 57, his close-cropped dark hair fades into gray at the short sideburns, and his brow creases into a pattern of perfectly formed rectangles, like a flesh-toned Google map of a city grid.

For Friedman, here is the place where nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes hustling is about to culminate—with a nearly half-billion-dollar, 21st-century coliseum—“the most technologically advanced arena in the world,” as mandated by the Sacramento Kings’ primary owner, Vivek Ranadivé. The design and building of the complex is a colossal undertaking, and one that Friedman, a minority owner of the team, is guiding. But even in the few moments that he slows the car to rubberneck the corner where construction will start, it’s clear that he sees more than that signature structure.

Friedman hopes this site represents a game-changing pivot for an idea of Sacramento that he has been laboring on for years—a way to take his hometown to the next level.

He taps the gas with a fawn-colored desert boot made of leather so buttery it looks like it might melt onto the pedal, and the two-seater shoots towards the 5th Street tunnel, close to where the Kings hosted a demolition kickoff for the new arena a week earlier. Soon, this wall will not exist, replaced by angry mounds of tangled rebar and broken concrete. He gives it one more all-consuming glance, as if willpower alone could start the chunks tumbling down.

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Friedman’s lofty ambitions began in 2003 with midtown’s Elliott Building, which houses Gov. Brown’s Sacramento residence. (Photo courtesy of Fulcrum Property)

Before the “Here We Stay” mantra and the new arena became the talk of the town last year, Friedman was best known for kick-starting the building boom in midtown, beginning with the 1922 Elliott Building on J Street where Governor Jerry Brown now lives when he’s in town. Since Friedman transformed that onetime car dealership across from Memorial Auditorium in 2003 (with developer Mike Heller), he has put together a string of projects with the same modern ethos that seemed avant-garde to the point of risky at their conception—until customers began clamoring for his neoteric stamp and retro sophistication became the trend.

“I can still remember when we opened it,” he says of the Elliott’s debut. When the public got a peek for the first time, he quietly hung out at the edges of a third-floor loft space in the building—which boasts ceilings with exposed beams and almost floor-to-ceiling windows—eavesdropping on reactions. What he heard, he says, was that people were hungry for his brand of elegant urbanity that had long dominated in cities like New York and L.A. “It lit a match in terms of making people feel that midtown would be exciting,” he says.

Friedman is proud of chaperoning the city’s architecture out of traditional constraints (when asked about the origin of his company’s name, Fulcrum Property, he cites the Archimedes quote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”). But since the real estate crash of 2008 left him with an unexpectedly open schedule, he’s also been an agent provocateur for a cosmopolitan vision of Sacramento’s future that until now has been largely too esoteric for most to notice.

He has immersed himself in disparate social and cultural orbits, from serving on the Chancellor’s Cabinet at UC Davis and the board of the Sacramento Theatre Company to being a fellow of the American Leadership Forum—an Elks Club-meets-Outward Bound invite-only society of civic-minded power brokers—as part of this ambitious project.

From these connections, he has blueprinted and championed the concept of our city as the “21st-century Silicon Valley” of agribusiness, a notion that sounds breathless in its enthusiasm but is actually rooted in solid sense. It includes UC Davis’ much-hyped World Food Center—an idea that he was pivotal in forming, though he doesn’t publicly take any credit for it, which will likely come to fruition in the coming years. But it goes beyond any one endeavor. It’s about bringing together the innate strengths of this region into a coherent identity. It centers on our climate and the indoor-outdoor ethos that every Northern Californian embraces in one form or another, and it also nurtures our historical home-field advantage—farming.

And it goes far beyond farm-to-fork. Friedman believes there are few issues more central in the coming decades than how the world will manage its food and water supplies. The planet is growing desperate for solutions. He sees the region’s agrarian heritage as a unique strength specific to this area that could not only provide local growth in terms of jobs and new companies, but could also make an international impact by being a world leader in sustainable sustenance. It will be someone’s big business. Why not ours?