‘Cabal of activists’: Crocker Village developer puts his ego above what Sacramento wants

·5 min read
Andrew Seng/aseng@sacbee.com

For Sacramento developer Paul Petrovich, building a Safeway gas station in Curtis Park is about more than whatever deal he has with the grocery chain or the $50 million he says he sank into a messy, 19-year development saga with the city.

It’s about his reputation. It’s about the respect he feels he deserves after investing more than $1 billion in projects in the Sacramento region over his 35-year career.

It’s about his ego masquerading as some superseding interpretation of law and fact.

Opinion

When someone finally said no, it turned into Sacramento’s nastiest development fight in recent memory. Petrovich has only himself to blame.

After filing two separate lawsuits and waiting six years for another City Council hearing — ordered by California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal — the most compelling argument Petrovich made for the Crocker Village project on Tuesday was that he felt “demonized.”

“I’m a human being,” Petrovich said at the council meeting. “When you’re demonized to that extent — including two political cartoons depicting you as a monster — it takes a heavy toll on me, the people around me, and ... it almost destroyed me.” He added that he had suffered from several stress-related health conditions since 2015, when the council initially rejected the project.

That’s unfortunate. A healthier solution? Let it go.

Put aside that fossil fuels are cooking the planet and gas-powered cars could be obsolete in less than two decades. For plenty of other reasons, as Councilwoman Mai Vang pointed out, “voting in favor of this would be counterintuitive.”

There are almost two dozen gas stations within a two-mile radius of the Crocker Village shopping center, at the corner of Sutterville Road and Crocker Drive. Everyone who lives nearby — along with the students who attend Sacramento City College — already has their gas station habits. Would one more gas station make things easier? Sure. Is it needed? Absolutely not.

No matter how wronged Petrovich may feel, the truth is that he tarnished his name by taking a page out of Safeway’s scorched earth playbook and tried to shove a gas station down Sacramento’s throat.

I know this because I’ve seen it before. As a reporter in Petaluma, Sonoma County’s second-largest city, I covered an almost identical gas station drama.

In 2018, Petaluma’s planning commission narrowly approved Safeway’s permit. A group of residents appealed it to the council — concerned about the harm it might cause the primary schools and Little League it shared a street with — and bureaucratic chaos ensued. After the council kicked the project back, ordering a comprehensive environmental impact report, Safeway’s go-to legal muscle, Rutan & Tucker, accused the city of bias and violation of public meeting laws. The city capitulated and held two more public meetings.

Sound familiar?

Intimidating both ordinary citizens and the city with the threat of costly litigation, Safeway ultimately forced three Petaluma council members to recuse themselves for engaging with constituents. A smaller, cowed and much more financially distressed Petaluma government approved the project.

The same environmental attorney who represented the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association in its fight against Petrovich, Patrick Soluri, helped a Petaluma group sue the city and Safeway. After two years of court filings and an injunction against any development, Safeway’s permit expired and the gas station fell into the judicial abyss.

In much of California, the era of rubber-stamping commercial projects is fading as land use practices undergo major course corrections. Toxic NIMBYism still threatens much-needed infill housing projects, but overall development decisions are more intentional and more sustainable than they were when Petrovich bought the 72-acre property in 2003. Strong-arm developer tactics are a symptom of an antiquated system desperately trying to salvage the power it once had.

The battles in Sacramento and Petaluma were parallel and at times indistinguishable. The biggest difference is that Sacramento had the resources to fight back, and it did, rejecting the gas station for a second time last week.

“My rights were trampled by a small cabal of activists that infected a larger predisposed group in Curtis Park with misinformation that led to the roar of the crowd corrupting the city’s policies and actions,” Petrovich asserted during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Petrovich could have been content with the success of Crocker Village. He cleaned up a toxic railyard site he said was “blowing cancer off the top (of it).” I’ve even imagined owning a home in the BlackPine neighborhood that was built there, however unlikely. The mixed-use Safeway project his company built on 19th Street spurred the Ice Blocks development on R Street. He’s placed shopping centers across the region.

But because he lacked perspective, he tried to coerce his way to an approval. Records obtained by The Bee revealed emails in which he accused Councilman Jay Schenirer of starting a “race war” between neighborhoods. In others, Petrovich imbued himself with divinity, saying God bestowed him with amazing gifts and unnamed pastors compared his legal challenges to “when Moses begged (the pharaoh) to free his people and (he) wouldn’t. We all know how that turned out.”

I would never call Petrovich “mentally ill,” as former City Manager John Shirey described him in a 2015 text to Schenirer. And Schenirer did go too far by giving other council members talking points and quarterbacking motions to reject the project, as the court ruled. But going biblical on a gas station development isn’t reasonable, either.

Petrovich told the Sacramento Business Journal he intends to keep fighting in the courts. That’s not surprising given all the threats he made during last week’s council meeting. Petrovich can keep pretending this is about the law when it’s clear this is more about what he thinks he deserves, not what Sacramento wants.

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