Practicing What You Preach

Hometown boy Phil Angelides left politics for the private sector, but took along his social concerns

Back Article Nov 1, 1989 By Jack Woodard

It’s six in the evening, but River West Development’s modest offices on College Town Drive are busier than most businesses are first thing Monday morning. The receptionist’s phone rings constantly. Other staffers, mostly young and all in a hurry, zip through the lobby and along the corridors. The atmosphere is a lot like that in the State Capitol at the eleventh hour of the final day of a session in the Legislature.

River West’s thirty-something president is running late, and running is the operative word here. Phil Angelides has been in and out of meetings and in and out of town so much over the Southern Pacific railyards project that an interview originally requested Sept. 27 is finally about to take place on Columbus Day.

Angelides radiates energy and intensity, even this late on a typically hectic day, lounging in his office, wearing a polo shirt and tan wash pants. It’s easy to see what propelled him during his eight-year stint in the halls of political power and why he has become a force on the local real estate development scene in even less time. No so evident is why he abandoned a promising career in politics for one in the equally risky business of land development.

With a degree from Harvard, some further grooming by the Coro Foundation and impeccable credentials as a liberal, he was a natural for a job in the administration of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. He landed an appointment in the Housing and Community Development Department, but before he could take it, was tapped to run the successful mayoral campaign of Phil Eisenberg, now a member of the Assembly.

Angelides himself went on to serve as the chief of HCD’s Research and Policy Development Division and later as chief of staff to the Assembly Majority Leader. From there, the logical next step would have been to find an elective seat and fill it. Examples of bright young legislative staffers who have done just that are legion.

Instead, Angelides switched to the private sector, first as an officer of his mentor Angelo Tsakopoulos’ AKT Development Corp., then as owner of River West. The two men and the two firms are still closely allied.

According to Angelides, a number of considerations prompted the career change:

  • “I spent much of my career in the public sector working in the field of housing and land use…. I got very much involved in the issue, cared about it a lot and began thinking it would be good to get out of the policy end and actually go into implementing those things that I’d been involved in…So it was a matter of saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been involved in housing, at least from a regulatory standpoint, so I’m going to go out and actually do it.’”
  • “I very much enjoyed my time in the public sector, but I worked very intensely…. When you’re a legislative staff person, if you do your job well, it consumes a lot of energy…. So while I was not burned yet by any means, I could see that, frankly, if I stayed doing the same thing for another two, three, four years I Might well become burned out…I always want to stay fresh and I’m always looking for new challenges.”
  • “In many ways I was brought up to believe that public service is the highest calling…. I still believe that. I also knew that at some level I would be richer, and I don’t mean monetarily, but would have a much broader level of knowledge and experience about what really made our society work if I worked in the private sector…. I don’t think you can be totally effective in the public sector unless you’ve experienced the other side, so to speak.”

Angelides emphasizes that he brought with him the “beliefs I’ve held and acted on in the public sector.”

“What that means is that in each one of my projects, it’s been kind of a progression,” he explains. “If we’ve done well, I say to myself, ‘OK, you succeeded economically [but] maybe we could have done more than we did in the way of benefits to the community, we could have done better in design. So let’s ratchet up a little. Let’s be a little more creative on design. Let’s give a little more in the way of exactions, or public benefits.’” 

River West’s first major undertaking was as project manager of the 2,500-acre Laguna Creek development. Sacramento’s largest master-planned community to date, it will eventually contain 8,700 homes and 20,000 residents. Employing his public sector skills, Angelides guided the project through the approval process and the formation of the state’s largest Mello-Roos Act community facilities district, with authorization to sell $48 million in bonds.

At the same time, the company became a joint venture partner in the upscale Lexington Hills residential community in Folsom. All 1,400 lots in the 524-acre development were sold to home builders within 18 months and River West itself participated in the development of Berkshire Place, a hillside subdivision of custom homes within the development.

Projects either owned or managed by River West now cover the Sacramento region. The list includes Silver Springs Estates, where the Southgate Parks and Recreation District plans to build an 18-hole golf course on land provided by the developers; a 1,000-acre residential development in North Natomas; Olympus Pointe, a 770-acre mixed use development in Roseville; and Library Plaza.

However, the two River West ventures currently drawing most of the attention are the Southern Pacific site and the proposed “pedestrian pocket” village west of Laguna Creek. The former project can be described as daunting and the latter daring.

SP’s huge railyards, which date back to the Civil War era, contain 240 acres of prime land adjacent to the downtown business district. River West, AKT and Sotiris K. Kolokotronis’ SKK Enterprises are in the process of buying 36.5 acres which include the historic rail station and have the first option on the remaining 203 acres.

Seven teams, including some of the most noted planners and architects in the nation, competed for the job of master-planning the project, envisioned as a pedestrian- and transportation-oriented city within a city. Expectations are that the property will be transformed into an integrated area of offices, shops, housing, parks, cultural and recreational facilities and riverfront development.

Public interviews and the process of choosing between the three finalists were under way at press time. Besides Angelides, the election team includes Michael Davis, city director of planning and development; Robert Smith, executive director of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency; and S. David Steel, SP’s vice president of real estate.

“I always ask myself if I’m doing the most good I can possibly do, given the position I’m in.” Phil Angelides

The goal is to have an approved project by the end of 1990 and to begin work on the initial phase the following year. Development of the whole 240 acres is expected to take 15 to 20 years. 

While the SP development will have a massive impact on the city, the darling of the media is the 800-acre community, designed to emulate the classic American small towns of the pre-World War II era. The Sacramento Bee even published an editorial praising it.

Plans for the project, which embraces many of the ideas promoted by Berkeley architect and planner Peter Calthorpe, were submitted to the County Planning Department late in August. They drew somewhat less than rave reviews from that quarter.

Jim Ray, the county’s chief traffic engineer, recently wrote Angelides, raising concerns about the project. He expressed a “cautious enthusiasm” for the concept of a community that mixes single-family homes and apartments on tree-shaded streets and where everyone can walk downtown. But he listed 25 concerns about things like narrow streets and traffic flowing.

County Planning Director Susan Ziegler says she shares many of Ray’s concerns and also wants assurances that what happened in Laguna Creek will not be repeated.

“When the Laguna Creek Community Plan was approved, it was on the basis that we had a substantial amount of acreage set aside for job-generating uses as well as a mixture of housing types,” she says. “The first commercial center is just now being built and we’ve probably been under construction on homes for three years. We have none of the jobs.”

Ziegler hopes to prevent the same thing from happening in the new old-fashioned town. “We feel very strongly about putting some conditions in there that will mandate phasing, that will mandate that we get some of the other kinds of facilities in there that are necessary to make the community work,” she emphasizes.

She admits that the planning staff failed to persuade the Board of Supervisors to place conditions on the development of Laguna Creek. “But the board more and more is expressing that same concern, that we are not getting the full range of uses,” she adds.

Despite their differences over planning issues and economic realities, Ziegler describes Angelides as “one of the most aggressive and innovative” developers. “We don’t always agree,” she says. “But I don’t think we should, because a better project comes out of constructive conversations about how something ought to work.” 

One economic reality that led to disagreements between planners like Ziegler and developers like Angelides is that businesses do not open until they have a customer base. Another is that people follow jobs; not the other way around.

Although he was not aware of Ziegler’s reaction to his Laguna Creek project when interviewed, Angelides feels the development meets the need for a range of housing.

According to Angelides, the developers’ goals were to give the south Sacramento area something other than just entry-level housing and apartments. “One of the things I’m proudest of today is that, if you look at these new master-planned communities around the region, you’ll find that most of them tend to be fairly income-restrictive,” he says. “In Laguna Creek today you can buy an 11- to 12-hundred-foot home for about $90,000. Within that same community, you can buy a 3,500-square-foot home for $300,000. That’s a tremendous range of prices.”

Angelides and Tsakopoulos also made a deal with the Housing and Redevelopment Agency to develop 24 units for families that have incomes of $10,000 to $15,000 a year. This despite objections from Laguna residents who may favor low-income housing, but not in their backyards. A similar deal has been cut by Angelides in Olympus Pointe, where developers wanted his help in obtaining approval for an apartment project. Instead of taking the equity interest they offered him, he got them to commit 10 percent of the units to low-income families as payment for his help.

Another Angelides objective is to establish a non-profit development corporation here like the one his former boss, Don Turner, then director of HCD, has created in the Bay Area. This would make housing available to families that have less than 50 percent of the median income.

Like other movers and shakers, Angelides rattles a few cages. But he seems to have a clear view of his personal and business objectives. “I’m a native and I understand that this place is evolving very quickly,” he says. “No matter what you or I do about this, before we bat our eyes, this will be a community of two million people… The question is how this place will look and feel. Will it be like the community that all of us like.”

Hometown boy Angelides went to Alice Birney School for seven years and then to the private Brookfield School. Then he was shipped south to the Ojai Academy, whose alumni include KCRA anchor Stan Atkinson. Wife July also is a native and they have three-fifth of an all-girl basketball team: Megan, 11; Christina, 5; and Ariana, 1.

Although his hands-on political experience has been behind the scenes, Angelides did once present himself to the voters. While still a schoolboy, he ran for a seat on the Sacramento City Council against incumbent Councilman Burnett Miller in the 1970s and forced a runoff. He does not rule out the possibility of another run for elective office someday. 

As might be expected, Angelides has an arm-long list of civic activities to his credit. Among them are serving as a member and two-term chairman of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission and as fund-raising chairman for Sacramento Neighborhood Housing Services.

Whether he stays in the private sector or returns to public service, Angelides intends to nurture his social concerns. “I always ask myself if I’m doing the most god I can possibly do, given the position I’m in,” he says. 

This story originally ran in the November 1989 issue of Comstock’s magazine. In recognition of the magazine’s 30th anniversary, the article was reproduced online exactly as it appeared in print.

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Still Going Strong: Catching Up with Phil Angelides

In the 1989 cover story, “Phil’s Fresh Perspective,” Phil Angelides talked about the Southern Pacific railyards project in downtown Sacramento and a proposed 800-acre “pedestrian-pocket” village that would become Laguna West. He’s pictured on the cover at the historic rail station on I Street in downtown Sacramento.

Jul 1, 2019 Tom Couzens