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 lured Virgin Records to Market Square in 1994 and commissioned noted architect Mark Dziewulski to design a bold landmark for its Megastore. (Photo courtesy of Fulcrum Property)

Just to the right of the Macy’s at Arden Fair, past the tire shop, lies the giant swooping roof of what is now an Urban Outfitters. Its towering, curved structure may not turn as many heads today, but when Friedman commissioned Dziewulski to create it in 1993, it made a bold design statement that would help lure one of the world’s most coveted retailers at the time.

Friedman’s parents had originally envisioned this section, a low-slung strip called Market Square, to be a high-end indoor public market, but couldn’t find purveyors willing to move in. So Friedman hatched the idea of converting it into an “entertainment complex built around media. It was movies, books, records and food,” he says. “And I really wanted Tower. I must have visited Russ [Solomon] a half-dozen times,” he says of the locally based record chain’s legendary founder.

But Solomon’s original store on Watt Avenue wasn’t far away and the music mogul didn’t see any good reason to move. So Friedman called up Virgin Records, one of Solomon’s biggest competitors, and invited them to fly in to check out the spot.

“[Virgin Megastore] needed a landmark iconic look,” says architect Mark Dziewulski. “They were actually nervous, but Mark stood by me. And when it was done, Richard Branson came out and thought it was lovely.”

He picked up the Virgin executives at the airport and drove them to Solomon’s house, then past Arden Fair to the Watt Avenue Tower store. “I said, ‘There it is,’ ” Friedman recalls telling the execs. “ ‘Every single day on his way to work, he’ll see it. Every single night on his way home, he’ll see it.’ ” Virgin relished the idea of planting a flag in Tower’s hometown, and in 1994, the site became the company’s third U.S. store, opening 18 months before the company’s Times Square location in New York City.

“They needed a landmark iconic look,” says Dziewulski. “They were actually nervous, but Mark stood by me. And when it was done, Richard Branson came out and thought it was lovely.”

In his office, Friedman still has a framed Virgin T-shirt on which Branson wrote with a Sharpie, “Mark, thanks for helping us kick Russ’s BUTT!!” When Solomon visited Friedman’s office in 2007 to attend a fundraiser that Friedman was hosting for then-candidate Barack Obama (Friedman is a major Democratic supporter), Solomon saw the shirt for the first time.

“I was laughing like hell when I saw it,” says Solomon. “It was just a case of needling the other guy. It’s just a big old game.” Of course, he adds, “It didn’t make me unhappy later on when [the Virgin store] failed [in 2005].”

Despite the changing music business that eventually shuttered the store, the Virgin project set Friedman on a path to push design boundaries whenever he could.

But it wasn’t until 2002, when he walked into a single-story condo project at 13th and S streets and hit it off with its developer, Mike Heller, that Friedman launched a career in residential real estate—or lofts, to be more precise. Heller had just completed an ultra-modern makeover of the downtown space. With its Ligne Roset furniture, Viking appliances and raised sleeping area, there was nothing in town like it. The two men formed a friendship around their commonalities—a love of modern design, fathers who were local construction legends (Heller’s dad built many of the towers on Capitol Mall and completed the restoration of the State Capitol in 1980), big spaces with no walls, martinis (Friedman’s with gin and a blue cheese olive)—and a shared desire to bring a new kind of live-work ethos to Sacramento. Heller knew right away that he wanted to work with Friedman. “In that conversation and that moment, I said, ‘I’ve got the next thing coming,’ ”
he says, and invited Friedman to join him in the Elliott Building project, the start of another long partnership through a joint company they formed called LoftWorks.

The ensuing years were strong. “From about 2002 to 2007, Sacramento was in a good economy and we built a lot of projects and did really well,” says Heller, pointing to their buildings like the modern Sutter Brownstones in midtown. “He and I are design junkies. We were constantly sending each other photos and articles. We were constantly doing road trips together.” The two became such close friends that Friedman even joined in on part of Heller’s honeymoon in Venice. They were, says Heller, like brothers.

But then came the real estate crash. Development stalled when buyers disappeared, and Friedman turned to other pursuits, among them making bread, and even fermenting his own sourdough starter to pass the time. The days were long.

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Waiting for yeast to rise is about the limit of Friedman’s patience, though. So, despite being positioned financially to wait out the downturn, he decided to see if he could engineer his own solution—for the entire town. Through his involvement with UC Davis, he cofinanced a study on potential growth in the area in 2010. What was going to get us out of this mess? From that research, he and university chancellor Linda Katehi pulled together the idea for a food-centered future (with the World Food Center at its seed) as “a response to the economic downturn and figuring out how we could create jobs,” he says.

By the time the recession began to fade, Friedman had focused in on West Sacramento and building The Bridge District, one of the largest urban infill developments in the country with 188 acres (he and his partners own 60 of them) that will someday be about 25 city blocks, as a place where he might be able to create both profit and stimulus with the core of ideas he had been ripening, and even an eventual possible home for the World Food Center if and when it materialized.

In this barren, long-neglected part of the riverfront between the freeway and Raley Field, he imagined a new extension of the city that would have the energy and appeal that he found lacking—a legacy project that was the biggest he’d ever done. “The challenge with this site is, what do you build?” he says. “It’s an absolute blank canvas. In many respects, it doesn’t exist in people’s consciousness.”

Friedman and Dziewulski traveled to a long list of forward-thinking cities like Amsterdam, London and Portland searching for the answer. “Every time I saw him, he’d show me pictures or renderings from other countries of some pretty wild designs. Lofts made out of grass or some other material,” says Cabaldon. “Mark is sort of an unexpected developer in what drives him and the way he engages, not just with people but also with what’s possible. He really treats this like the whole place is his home and his future.”

What they ultimately created was inspired by a place far closer to home than they expected: San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood, a small enclave near the base of the Bay Bridge that dates to 1855 and features an oval park as the center of a residential development. Friedman’s West Sacramento project, dubbed The Park Moderns, features 32 townhomes and was also built around an oval park to maximize the potential of living close to both nature and the city.

Inspired by San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood, The Park Moderns in West Sacramento will feature 32 townhomes and a central oval park. (Rendering courtesy of Fulcrum Property)

 Like South Park and the urban London squares it was modeled on, the concept was to create a sense of community and connection to nature within the urban landscape—each townhome overlooks the shared green space, for example. Instead of commuting to work on freeways, residents will be able to walk, bike or, eventually, hop on a streetcar to Sacramento’s business and entertainment districts.

The units themselves have a mix of façades, done mostly in dark grays and browns, and raised front porches with fire pits. Behind the townhomes are 96 apartments, some with huge glass panes looking out over the winding river with downtown beyond.

“Mark is motivated by a really core belief that design has the power to make people’s lives better,” says Fulcrum’s director of design Stephen Jaycox, who has been central in the planning. Friedman, he says, constantly asks, “What is the consequence for the city? Does it move the city in the right way?” The two spent hours walking the perimeters of the park, which centers on a rough hewn, oversized communal table made of granite that Jaycox—a former deputy director of the Cincinnati Art Museum—designed, trying to determine the best proportions to make it large enough to be useful and small enough to foster community.

And beginning this fall, one of The Bridge District’s—and the Sacramento region’s—most striking architectural structures will begin to sprout between The Park Moderns and the Sacramento River. There, Friedman and Jaycox will construct a wooden, 182-foot-long, biomorphic-shaped structure dubbed The Barn which, when completed next year, will feature a restaurant by the folks behind midtown’s buzzy LowBrau and anchor a covered outdoor space along the riverbank for events like music festivals and other community gatherings. Designed by Dutch landscape architect Jerry van Eyck, the structure will represent a visual expression of the riverfront, melding the modern and the natural sensibilities that Friedman envisions for the entire district.

The Barn will anchor a public space in West Sacramento’s nascent Bridge District, which will host community events like music festivals. (Rendering courtesy of Fulcrum Property)

That district will start to come alive this November when the first Park Modern residents move in. As a testament to the excitement generated by the design and concept, half of the 32 units had sold this past winter, months before any of the homes were even built. Among the initial buyers were fellow design aficionado and Hot Italian restaurant co-founder Andrea Lepore and West Sacramento Mayor Cabaldon. To the team’s further amazement, the development was featured in the prestigious 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale showcase, which was presided over by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas.

Still, Friedman could not have imagined what opportunity waited for him next. His Park Moderns may have been exhibited on a world stage for design enthusiasts, but his next project would actually become a world stage.

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“The whole thing that happened with the Kings was not something we planned on at all,” says Friedman’s wife, Marjorie Solomon, sitting in her office at UC Davis’ MIND Institute. She’s a petite woman with fine features, lively eyes and olive skin. Her first few years back in Sacramento, Solomon commuted to UC Berkeley to earn a Ph.D. and has been an autism researcher for the past 15 years. “We thought that investing in a sports team was kind of a vanity investment,” she says.

Despite Solomon’s surprise, the person taken most off guard by Friedman’s investment may have been his LoftWorks partner. “I didn’t see it coming,” Heller says. “It was a little bit of a shock to me.” Heller, who describes Friedman as “very ambitious,” says it’s been hard to watch his alliance with Friedman fade as he becomes more “entrenched” in the Kings. “It took a while for me to process it and get my arms around it,” he says. “I miss the days of the more intimate collaboration. Those were the funnest days for me.”

But, he adds, “Mark has a vision for where he is and where he wants to go, the impact he has on the community, his legacy. When it was presented to him to have the role of investing in the Kings and working on the arena, I think he just thought, ‘This is my time.’ ”