While Looking Forward, Keep an Eye on the Past

Back Commentary Feb 1, 2016 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

The Crystal Ice and Cold Storage building has been a part of midtown since a railroad spur line ran down the middle of R Street, servicing warehouses and distributors along the street that, at the time, was the center of Sacramento’s light industrial core. The plant sat unused since the mid-90s. Square and windowless, it was no architectural marvel. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Developer Mike Heller saw the inner personality of that bunker of a building.

Where other developers had merely seen the building, Heller felt it. In the Ice Blocks, as the project came to be known, Heller saw new uses for the heavy plank floors, brick walls and heavy sliding doors that were hidden behind the concrete. His plans to repurpose nearly 200,000 square feet of space into shops, offices and residential units would preserve the industrial character of the past while infusing it with modern life. Even the 2-block-long loading dock would be retained for outdoor dining.

But Heller’s plans went up in flames last November, just two weeks before construction on the project’s first phase was set to begin. The interior became quick tinder for an inferno that completely destroyed the blocks-long building before Heller received a gut-wrenching phone call at 5 a.m.

Heller was not the only one with an emotional investment in the building. The fire had to be a blow — not just to investors, but also to the neighbors who had fought to retain the industrial heritage of the building. The City of Sacramento and CADA had bought in as well, spending $3.6 million to turn that stretch of R Street from an unsightly pot-holed alley into a vibrant, modern street.

At $80 million, the Ice Blocks project is small compared to regional projects such as the $477-million Golden1 Center or the Railyards, which are estimated to generate billions of dollars in economic activity.  And there are other boutique developments that are at critical stages, including:

The E. Claire Raley Studio for the Performing Arts, a $5-million project that will transform the 93-year-old Fremont School in midtown into a 50,000-square-foot facility for dancers, musicians and artists; and the Power House Science Center on Jibboom Street, which will renovate the old PG&E powerhouse along the river. The City of Sacramento has already approved $29 million in bonds for new construction, two-thirds of which has been supported by donations and grants.  Another $40 million will be needed to renovate the power house.

At the end of January, Mayor Kevin Johnson gave his eighth and last State of the City Address. He chose the Crest Theatre for the event, a fitting place for a speech about transitions. Originally built as The Empress theatre in vaudeville days, the venerable film palace has survived quite a few transitions of its own; yet it remains a glittering anchor of life on K Street.

Eighteen buildings in the city core have changed hands in the last year alone, a sign of economic growth and investor confidence. An estimated $1 billion has been pumped into the downtown core in the last decade.

Mike Heller is determined to pick up the pieces and rescue what he can at the Ice Blocks. As we make the transition at city hall, it’s important for the new mayor to continue the city’s commitment to boutique projects like the Ice Blocks, so they don’t get overshadowed by larger regional developments.  

It’s not because they generate billions of dollars. These projects, the ones that repurpose small pieces of our history, drive our city’s narrative. They contribute to an identity that is rich with tradition while constantly evolving to face the future head-on. We cannot let the tragedy at the Ice Blocks be the final chapter in the site’s story. Instead, we must support stakeholders in crafting a tale of triumph and rebirth.


Moe (not verified)February 2, 2016 - 1:13pm

“It’s not because they generate billions of dollars”

Please. That is the ONLY thing that any real estate developer cares about. If it isn't profitable, they won't do it, and historical or social import has no bearing whatsoever on their decisionmaking – except to help market their project.