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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Mark Friedman is playing a lead role in the development of the Kings arena and was instrumental in facilitating the building’s indoor-outdoor design. (Rendering courtesy of the Sacramento Kings)

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who’s been working closely with Friedman on the development of the nascent Bridge District along the Sacramento River, concedes that the notion may seem obvious today. “But it was not obvious to anyone before,” he says.

In the last six years of the economic downturn, Friedman has been architecting both a theory and a concrete path for the city to hit that high noon of growth when there’s no turning back. In his mind, it’s 11 a.m. “What I’m really doing is I’m mining the atmosphere and I’m pulling threads that are there and just making them more visible for people to see,” he says.

"I don’t think that I could have done this without Mark Friedman,” says Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé. “There is nobody who understands Sacramento better than he does. He’s a big-picture guy.”

Twining those strings together has led to a result he didn’t expect—the arena. As a minority owner and a local developer without large-project expertise, many were surprised when the Kings’ ownership group chose him to take a lead. But if it hadn’t been for the opportunity to be a guiding force behind this possible crux of transformation, Friedman likely never would have bought into the team. Even with the urging of civic leaders like Mayor Kevin Johnson encouraging him to get involved, he demurred when Southern California mogul Ron Burkle was, at one point, slated to helm development.

Now fully committed, Friedman is helping create an iconic $477 million dollar structure whose picture will be flashed around the world for months when the first NBA broadcasts take place in 2016.

The new ownership team also brings a new level of financial player to town, a billionaire’s club with the clout and cash to turn Friedman’s stargazing into something corporeal. This is a group with daily access to a network of business leaders who may just be looking for a home for their next venture. It’s a group that can—and did—buy up the blocks around the arena formerly known as Downtown Plaza, and is creating plans for a new vision of downtown. For Friedman, this is more than a spark. It’s a full-fledged fire. However many millions he paid for his percentage of the Kings (it’s a number he keeps private), it must seem like money well spent.

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Friedman has the stats of an all-star: Harvard undergrad (majoring in history and literature), Stanford MBA and law degree, a stint as a Bonfire of the Vanities-era investment banker doing mergers and acquisitions in New York (the first deal he led himself was a leveraged buyout of tech school DeVry for $147.4 million).

By his early 30s, he was earning Manhattan money and having a good time doing it. “I have to confess, like everybody there, I was probably more self-important than I should have been because it is pretty heady to work on such big deals and jet around the country,” he says of his time on Wall Street in the 1980s. “It was really a lot of fun to stay up all night, catch a little sleep and then wake up in the morning and open up The Wall Street Journal and see your deal.”

When the Carmichael native returned to Sacramento in 1991, “I immediately regretted it,” he says. “I traded working on multibillion-dollar acquisitions for shopping center leases. I pouted for a year or two.”

But with a two-year-old son in tow (he and his wife Marjorie Solomon—whom he’d met at Stanford—now have three sons; the youngest is currently at Rio Americano High School); the real estate crash of the late ’80s, which led Friedman to see buying opportunities in the Sacramento region; and Solomon’s desire to change careers from the fast-paced business world to science, New York seemed overwhelming, a life different from what they wanted for their young family. Suddenly, coming home sounded good. His parents, Mort and Marcy Friedman, had just updated Arden Fair mall, which they owned, and it occurred to the younger Friedman that there was a significant family business he could help run.

Mort Friedman was an iconic lawyer in Sacramento who was often described as a “lion” and a “powerhouse” by those he championed, and probably with more colorful language from those he fought. In addition to successfully battling in many high-profile personal injury cases, the senior Friedman was the founder of the family’s real estate empire, purchasing Town & Country Village in the early ’70s (later selling it for $32 million) and Arden Fair—which the Friedmans still own with partners—in 1975. Mort and Marcy were also serious philanthropists and patrons of the arts, supporting the Crocker expansion by donating $10 million dollars. But Mort was not an easy man.

“My dad was very much old school,” says Friedman. “I would bring home a 98 on a test or a paper and he’d say, ‘Where are the other two points?’ ”

The elder Friedman was also religiously conservative and twice served as president of the Mosaic Law synagogue in Arden-Arcade. He strongly believed in social responsibility and giving back, and imprinted those beliefs on his boys (Friedman has two younger brothers).

“Just because your family is comfortable, you’re not entitled,” says Marcy of their philosophy. “You need to earn it. These are really important values. It’s a responsibility when you have more money than you need. It’s a responsibility what you do with it.”

Wanting their eldest son to have a top-tier education, the Friedmans sent Mark to Jesuit High School, where he was the school’s first Jewish student. He was quarterback of the football team, but says he always felt “like a fish out of water” as a teenager. “The things I was interested in were different than a lot of the kids I grew up with,” he says, citing an early love of art and design. He even worked as a Weinstock’s “trendsetter,” when that now-defunct department store was the biggest in town—wearing the latest fashions to let other kids know what was in style. He still nurtures that sartorial sense.

“Mark dresses differently than a lot of other folks,” says Cabaldon, who adds that Friedman’s style was the “first thing that struck me” when they met. “It became pretty apparent to me pretty fast that it wasn’t just about the clothes, but about the design,” he says.

Friedman is nothing if not a design fanatic, his home and office crowded with a vast collection of contemporary paintings, sculptures and furniture—each piece something he will expertly explain in depth. That winged black leather seat near the door of his office? A Hans Wegner Ox Chair, inspired by Picasso’s surrealism and used as Dr. Evil’s throne in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Above it on the wall is a large blue canvas centering on a orange skull surrounded by Mickey Mouse heads—a work by Nevada artist Michael Sarich. Its grinning noggin seems to float forward when viewed at the right angle, which Friedman enthusiastically demonstrates if asked, jumping up to pinpoint the perfect spot behind his desk and in front of the entire brightly hued collection of Domus design bibles.

It’s hard to imagine that eye for aesthetics didn’t come from his mother, an avid art collector and a painter herself. Inside the gated Carmichael home where Friedman spent his teen years, every available surface—walls, shelves, tables—are crammed with the kind of tribal artifacts that most only see in museums. Sculptures and indigenous crafts make up a big part of this collection—a dark shaman’s box carved with fearsome figures, an intricately beaded Bornean baby carrier, a 19th-century Hawaiian necklace made of a sperm whale tooth carved in the shape of a hook, with hundreds of braids of human hair, as thin as 10 strands each, making the chain. How could a kid surrounded by such fantastical finds not expect beauty and craftsmanship in the mundane?

He’s got “a passion for arts instilled in his very being,” says Crocker Art Museum director Lial Jones, a friend who has known Friedman for 15 years.

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Back on the West Coast in the 1990s after seven years in Manhattan, Friedman returned to being a fish out of water. The thing he missed most about New York was the feel of the loft he had renovated at the corner of Broadway and 13th Street, a block from Union Square in a seedy neighborhood better known for intravenous drugs than investors.

Reviving that space in what had once been an old sewing machine factory was a pivotal experience for Friedman. A friend introduced him to a young British architect named Mark Dziewulski. Friedman hired him for $50 an hour to do spec drawings. It was the start of a partnership that has endured to the present. Dziewulski, now an internationally noted architect who splits his time between San Francisco, L.A. and London, designed an expansion of Mort and Marcy’s Carmichael home, which ultimately ended up on the cover of San Francisco magazine. And when Friedman “finally decided to stop complaining about what wasn’t here and try to bring it,” he called Dziewulski and asked him to come to Sacramento to help him for 18 months to try and recreate a bit of his much-missed modernism (Dziewulski ended up staying for about a decade). “I know that this sounds incredibly grandiose, but I’ve tried in all my work to make this the kind of community that I really want to live in,” says Friedman.