Sacramento developer put ego first in ugly gas station saga
For Sacramento developer Paul Petrovich, building a Safeway gas station in Curtis Park isn’t just about the deal he struck with the grocery chain or the $50 million he says having descended 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 Sacramento-area projects over his 35-year career.
It is his ego disguised as a superseded interpretation of law and facts.
When someone finally said no, it turned into Sacramento’s nastiest developmental struggle 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 the California 3rd District Court of Appeals — the most compelling argument Petrovich made Tuesday for the Crocker Village project was that he felt “demonized”.
“I’m a human being,” Petrovich said at the board meeting. “When you’re demonized to this extent – including two political cartoons depicting you as a monster – it weighs heavily on me and the people around me, and… it almost destroyed me.” He added that he has suffered from several stress-related health issues since 2015, when the council initially rejected the project.
It is sad. A healthier solution? Let it go.
Aside from the fact that fossil fuels are cooking the planet and gas-powered cars could be obsolete in less than two decades. For many other reasons, as city councilor Mai Vang pointed out, “voting in favor of this would be counter-intuitive.”
There are nearly 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 — as well as students attending Sacramento City College — already has their gas station habits. Would one more gas station make things easier? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely not.
No matter how aggrieved Petrovich may feel, the truth is he tarnished his name by taking a page from Safeway’s scorched earth playbook and trying to shove a gas station down the Sacramento Gorge.
I know this because I have seen it before. As a reporter in Petaluma, the second largest city in Sonoma County, I covered an almost identical gas station drama.
In 2018, Petaluma’s planning commission narrowly approved Safeway’s permit. A group of residents appealed to the council – concerned about the harm it could cause to primary schools and the Little League they shared a street with – and bureaucratic mayhem ensued. After council canceled the project, ordering a full environmental impact report, Safeway’s legal muscle, Rutan & Tucker, accused the city of bias and violating open meeting laws. The city capitulated and held two more public meetings.
Intimidating both ordinary citizens and the city with the threat of costly litigation, Safeway eventually forced three Petaluma council members to recuse themselves for engaging with voters. A smaller, intimidated, and much more financially distressed Petaluma government approved the project.
Patrick Soluri, the same environmental attorney who represented the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association in its fight against Petrovich, helped a Petaluma group sue the city and Safeway. After two years of court filings and an injunction against further development, Safeway’s permit expired and the gas station fell into the legal abyss.
In much of California, the era of automatic approval for commercial projects is fading as land use practices undergo major corrections. Toxic NIMBYism still threatens much-needed infill housing projects, but the overall development decisions are more intentional and more sustainable than they were when Petrovich purchased the 72-acre property in 2003. Strong-arm development tactics are a symptom of an antiquated system desperately trying to reclaim the power it once had.
The battles of Sacramento and Petaluma were parallel and sometimes indistinguishable. The biggest difference is that Sacramento had the resources to fight back, and it did, rejecting the gas station for the second time last week.
“My rights have been trampled on by a small cabal of activists who have infected a larger predisposed group in Curtis Park with misinformation that has led to the mob rumble corrupting city policies and actions,” Petrovich claimed. at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Petrovich could have been satisfied with the success of Crocker Village. He cleaned up a toxic railroad yard site that he says “blasts the cancer off the top (of it)”. I even imagined owning a house in the BlackPine neighborhood that was built there, although that’s unlikely. The mixed-use Safeway project his company built on 19th Street spurred the development of the Ice Blocks on R Street. It placed shopping malls throughout the area.
But because he lacked perspective, he tried to fight his way to an endorsement. Files obtained by The Bee revealed emails in which he accused Councilman Jay Schenirer of starting a “race war” between the wards. In others, Petrovich imbued himself with divinity, claiming that God had granted him incredible gifts and that anonymous pastors compared his legal challenges to “when Moses begged (the pharaoh) to free his people and (he) didn’t do it”. We all know how it happened.
I would never call Petrovich “mentally ill,” as former city manager John Shirey described him in a 2015 text to Schenirer. And Schenirer went overboard by giving other board members talking points and quarterback motions to reject the project, as the court ruled. But getting biblical about gas station development isn’t reasonable either.
Petrovich told the Sacramento Business Journal that he intends to continue fighting in court. That’s not surprising considering all the threats he made during last week’s council meeting. Petrovich can keep pretending it’s the law when it’s clear it’s more about what he thinks he deserves, not what Sacramento wants.