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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For Friedman’s part, he says, “Mike is the best partner that I’ve ever had apart from my dad, and I deeply value the relationship.” But consumed with The Bridge District project and the arena, Friedman had to put a lot of his smaller projects on the back burner, including one that he feels deeply passionate about—the restoration of the historic Crystal Ice buildings on R Street, for which Heller is now leading development.

Friedman’s sense of legacy took on a different kind of importance in 2012, when his father died after three years of degenerative illness, a “cross between Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease,” as Friedman describes it. Since Mark’s return to Sacramento, the two had been both close and competitive, Friedman struggling to earn respect both from his dad and in a town dominated by Mort’s accomplishments.

Top: Mark Friedman (far right) with his brothers, Jeff (left) and Phil, and his parents, Mort and Marcy, in Kenya in 2005. Bottom: Friedman, his wife, Marjorie Solomon, and sons Adam (left) and Sam with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in the Elliott Building in 2007 (Photos courtesy of Mark Friedman)

“Whenever anything was mentioned about Mark anywhere, it’d always be ‘the son of Mort and Marcy Friedman,’ ” says Marjorie Solomon. But his father’s death, coupled with his own success, quickly dissipated that tagline. He no longer had to define himself against the elder Friedman. Now, he was the elder Friedman.

“When Mark stood up at the memorial service and then a year later at the stone setting, I saw Mark in a way that I hadn’t actually seen before,” says Lial Jones. “It was important for him while he worked with his father to have his own development company, to do his own independent projects, to be very separate. And then, it was like, ‘Now I need to come back in because I am the patriarch of the family. I’m honoring my father by continuing to greater heights.’ ”

Friedman quickly began melding his economic ideas into the Kings plans, preaching his belief in development as a social tool—both making profits and effecting change, and creating something more than a place to simply watch sports. He spoke eloquently at city council meetings and in front of state Senate committees and NBA owners. He chatted, evangelized and lobbied until the entire town knew his vision, even if they didn’t know who to attribute it to—that this building, aside from being an architectural icon, would be an expression of who we are as a city. As Mayor Kevin Johnson puts it, Friedman framed the project as one that would reflect “our climate, our food, our respect for the environment, our entrepreneurial spirit, and our respect for the past while embracing the future.”

“It’s really about putting together a vocabulary that is capturing people’s imagination,” says Friedman. “It is so intuitively obvious to everybody, but as soon as you frame it in a way that is succinct, everybody says, ‘Of course.’ ”

His language became key to persuading people to move forward, and his ability to articulate the potential of the arena beyond the interests of the ownership group turned him from just another minority owner to a major player.

“Very bluntly, I don’t think that I could have done this without Mark Friedman because really the key component was being able to convincingly say we could build a new arena,” says Ranadivé. “And there is nobody who understands Sacramento better than he does. He’s a big-picture guy.”

Marjorie Solomon says that big picture of what the Kings deal meant to both her husband and the city came soon after the deal closed and they hosted a dinner at their house for their new partners. They were sitting around with many of the team’s principal owners—the Jacobs brothers, Chris Kelly, Andy Miller, Mark Mastrov and Ranadivé. “And everyone was talking about wanting to invest in Sacramento,” she says. “If you get people from the outside coming in who have substantial wealth, which all those people do, and they want to make the place a better place, which they all profess to wanting to do, then you start having more synergy to make those kinds of things happen. This is just really the next step in a campaign to make Sacramento a better place.”

“For Mark especially, this is more than a basketball arena,” says Kings president Chris Granger. “This is a civic place for Sacramento, a place where people can come together and feel excited.”

Friedman is quick to point out that a project as vast as this is hardly under the control of one person. In particular, he says that Kings president Chris Granger has been fundamental in pushing “the idea of using this building to project Sacramento’s identity on a national stage.”

But Friedman, who has worked with the architects every step of the way, also owns that he pushed hard for the indoor-outdoor sensibility, and the final sunken bowl design with its hangar doors opening onto the central plaza is largely a result of that. It may sound like a trivial point—a pretty bit of propaganda as overused and meaningless as “cook’s kitchen” or “move-in ready.” But for Friedman, it implies something concrete and essential to success.

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Friedman spends a lot of time thinking about space, the empty parts as much as the taken. He believes that space makes you feel emotions. Whether it’s the instinctive formality brought on by a house of worship, or the way a grassy hill in a park begs kids to roll down it, the places that mean the most to people invoke feelings. Any of the architects the group approached could have made an iconic building—the Ranadivé mandate of an outline so distinctive that people can name it from a simple sketch. But Friedman knows what makes a building great isn’t just in its form. It’s when that form somehow tweaks at the subconscious, asking us to interact in some way, that creates a place we can’t forget, a place we want to be.

“For Mark especially, this is more than a basketball arena,” says Granger. “This is a civic place for Sacramento, a place where people can come together and feel excited.”

Friedman is already hard at work creating that excitement and sense of community with his other projects. At The Park Moderns, for example, Friedman added undulations to the flat land to make his park more inviting and to give it places that felt sheltered. There is a wall along one side behind a small slope, which he envisions residents leaning against to read a book on the weekends. On the townhomes, the steps that rise up to the front porches are designed to separate the personal domain of the dwellings from the street, making it feel private and protected, a retreat for hanging out on warm nights. And inside Arden Fair mall, which he is currently remodeling, the old glass elevator is being wrapped with LED displays that will broadcast everything from video artwork to regional events—including, yes, probably a Kings game or two—in real time, turning what is essentially a banal corridor into a place to stop and interact. These are thoughtful and careful choices. They change what people will do in the space, and ultimately how people will feel there.

The sunken bowl of the arena—with seats below ground—is another careful choice. Traditional stadiums are enclosed with little view inside from the street level because there is nothing to see except the back wall supporting all those chairs. Opening that space by moving the seats down allows for the indoor-outdoor effect, and looking into the structure at street level becomes a dynamic sight line. That changes the feel of the plaza from being the entryway to a monolith into being a flowing spot that will hopefully attract people in its own right and work as the heart of the nearby burgeoning businesses when the arena is not in use.

“The [arena] plaza is essential to that because that is the place that is going to be visible, accessible and active at 2 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon,” says Friedman. “It’s critically important for the restaurants and the stores that we are going to develop that the plaza be a beautiful place that [people] want to visit. Otherwise all of our surrounding development doesn’t work.”

If those design choices turn out the way Friedman hopes, then “this becomes the center of Sacramento for the next several decades,” says Granger, and could serve as that elusive bit of civic tinder.

In truth, Friedman daydreams not about what the finished building will look like, but what we will think of it, whether it will live up to this promise. “There’s a moment that I imagine and look forward to, which is when the ribbon is cut and the big glass hangar doors are wide open,” he says of that debut planned for 2016.

But until that hoped-for moment of validation, Friedman is all-in on the process, savoring what it means to be an NBA owner and the king of arena construction. For a guy who, as Johnson puts it, has “swagger,” the pressure is part of the enjoyment.

“It’s very interesting to be thrown into an ownership group where you’re dealing with other people who are role leaders in their own professions, ranging from people like Chris Granger, who’s one of the leaders of the NBA, or somebody like Vivek, who’s got his own business and his own persona,” says Friedman’s wife, Marjorie. “Mark is fortunately secure enough that this can be something that’s really exciting and fun for him as opposed to something that’s threatening. To rub shoulders with these people I think has been really, really great and horizon-opening for him.”

Steering the Audi past the arena site, Friedman heads back up J Street toward his midtown office in the Elliott Building, the project that started him down the path that led him to this pivotal juncture. Eleven years later and 11 blocks away from that beginning, he’s looking at a legacy he never imagined as a builder of this city in both concrete and ethos. The moment is not lost on him. “My life is charmed,” he says. “There is nobody in Sacramento right now having more fun than I am.” S