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.

***

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?

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

 

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.

***

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.

***

“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.’ ”

 

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.

***

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