A Jan. 17 meet-up with Ali Youssefi started as they usually did. The prominent developer took me on a driving tour of his projects, starting at his newly-completed office a block from the Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street in Sacramento. WAL, which created affordable housing for over 200 creatives, breathed life into a struggling industrial center and kicked the historic R Street corridor rebirth into high gear. We talked about ideas for the still-vacant spaces nearby. We then drove to his sites on L and K streets — some nearing completion, some just getting started, all of them changing the downtown landscape in unprecedented ways. When we passed the Sutter Club, where he’d recently become a member, I chided him for being too young and Persian to join such an “old boys club.” He laughed and said someday he’d convince me to join.
Afterward, we discussed his illness, his certainty that he would overcome it and how excited he was to tackle even more ambitious projects once this difficult period was over. When he dropped me off at my next appointment, I told him to get some rest and I’d see him soon. That was the last time I saw him. Ali lost his battle with cancer on March 10.
Ali and I met as students at Jesuit High School, then reconnected years later after both returning to Sacramento from colleges on the East Coast. We had similar goals of entrepreneurship, mine in art and his in real estate. His desire to elevate Sacramento via new models for urban revitalization was evident. The type of people who understand the context of a city and drive culture aren’t always the typical target demo for development: artists, retirees, the elderly, young people just starting their careers. Ali wanted to build projects serving the vibrant communities that make Sacramento a great place to live. These are not easy projects to push through and seemingly not the most lucrative, but they will support a thriving city. His vision excited me and anyone with whom he shared it.
When he told me his idea for WAL, a mixed-use development that would pair market-rate apartments with affordable housing for artists, it was the most exciting project I’d heard of since returning to Sacramento and something that, growing up, I wouldn’t have thought would emerge here. To call the infill project unusual is an understatement. Repurposing a historic warehouse and transforming it into housing was rife with challenges, as was juggling the varied relationships necessary to take a risky concept to reality. (Perhaps even I posed a challenge, eventually convincing him to hire me as art curator.) Yet, Ali staked his reputation on showing Sacramento a new approach to development. On Oct. 28, 2014, the day before WAL began accepting applications, artists camped overnight to claim their place.
Ali, himself a risk-taker, empowered collaborators to reach beyond what they felt capable of to create something impactful and enduring. I had never curated a project as visible and permanent as WAL prior, but Ali was savvy enough to see potential in unusual places and help ensure it blossomed. His faith in me compelled me to stretch myself. It’s something I will always carry with me — a confidence to take risks, and encourage others to do the same.
Ali was a gifted businessman. He didn’t adopt unconventional strategies because he was a nice guy (and he was the nicest), but because he understood that cultivating community and empowering creative thinking is actually a shrewd business strategy. In our society, we are tempted to focus solely on short-term gains. For developers, the idea of the long game, especially given market volatility, can seem far too risky. Ali offered a lesson I hope others adopt as we attempt to fill the immense void his death has created.
Ali, for all of his gentility and grace, was a true badass not afraid to stand up for an idea. This distinguished him as not just a developer, but as someone with commitment and vision. It enabled him to quickly become one of the most well-known real estate developers in our region. It also made him an indispensable resource to the community he loved so dearly, and an invaluable mentor to me and other entrepreneurs still carving their path. Where most creatives are used to hearing That’s not how to do this, Ali said, Show me how.
It is really tough to lose someone you love and admire, especially at such a young age and when many of the dreams you have for a region depended on him. I find it hard to imagine Sacramento capitalizing on its momentum without Ali, but that inclination runs contrary to everything he represented. He wasn’t in this for personal glory, but to see Sacramento determine and reach its authentic potential.
It’s up to us to bring Ali’s vision to reality. Sacramento can’t afford to slow its momentum if we are to truly honor the legacy Ali left. He was as comfortable taking a meeting at the Sutter Club as he was strolling through Art Street — his role as a connector cannot be overstated. To honor his legacy is to hold onto the idea that a city’s assets go beyond lot lines. Everyone needs to be part of building what benefits more than just a class of development heirs like Ali — which he understood so deeply and was visible in his projects and in his relationships.
Since his passing, I have talked to many of the artists at WAL, and heard many stories about how supportive, respectful and genuinely interested in people Ali was. It is unusual for someone of his prominence to prioritize the needs of artists and vulnerable people in his life and work. Ali understood that for anyone to win, the marginalized artist, the fixed-income retiree, the relocated refugee, and the well-capitalized entrepreneur all have to win. That is when we create a Sacramento that is sustainable and recognizable to its residents. That is the charge we are left with.
We got this, Ali. Love you.