As a standout pitcher at UC Davis many years ago, Paul Petrovich loved it when the seventh inning rolled around.
"I threw harder because I could smell victory," he recalled recently.
Now a prominent Sacramento developer, Petrovich, 53, said he's getting that late-inning second wind again. This time it's driven by a huge milestone in his decadelong quest to turn the once-toxic Union Pacific railyard near Sacramento City College into a commercial and residential project called Curtis Park Village.
After years of meetings, negotiations and plan revisions, not to mention $30 million spent on site cleanup, Petrovich is finally about to break ground on what he's calling his "legacy" project.
As early as this week, foundation work is expected to begin for a pedestrian bridge connecting the 72-acre project and the college's light-rail station. Infrastructure work – underground utilities, roads, sidewalks, landscaping – is set to begin around June 1. And soon after that the project's first 13 homes will be under construction.
"This is the satisfying part," Petrovich said of the imminent start of construction.
If Petrovich is feeling a little victorious these days, so are residents of the adjacent Curtis Park neighborhood, who have been engaged – sometimes contentiously – in virtually every aspect of the development process since the strong-willed Petrovich acquired the land a decade ago.
Over the years, they've wrung numerous concessions from the developer. Now, in a surprise, they appear to be getting the change they sought most of all: a reduction in the size of the project's retail space.
Under a new plan developed over the past month, commercial development at the village will be limited to 12 acres, down from 17. The number of single-family homes, meanwhile, is being bumped up from 193 to 268.
It's not a concession to neighborhood concerns but a bow to a changing economy, according to Petrovich, who argued for years that the project would need more retail space to be financially viable.
Now, with the residential real estate market sizzling, the developer figures to do better by adding more rooftops.
"When you're 10 years into planning a project, some things are going to change," he said.
It's great news for Eric Johnson, president of the Sierra Curtis Park Neighborhood Association, and many of his fellow neighborhood activists.
Johnson cautioned that plans could still change. But, he said, he's finally convinced that the huge project "is going to be good for the neighborhood."
A few years back, he added, "I would have been a little skeptical."
First homes coming
The neighbors are delighted with the cutback in commercial space, to 180,000 square feet from 260,000, Johnson said. They're also happy about a related design change that brings the project's senior housing and apartments into the "flex-zone" area that previously was earmarked for commercial uses.
Having those residential buildings closer to light rail and the college "is just what we wanted," he said.
Residents also seem pleased with the selection of local contractor Mike Paris to build the project's first homes.
Paris, a former executive with Kimball Hill Homes, has built about 30 custom houses, mostly in east Sacramento, since establishing his own company, BlackPine Communities, in 2010. He also recently started work on an 84-unit project in the Diamond Creek development in Roseville.
His first job at the Curtis Park project will be a 2,400- to 2,700-square-foot home at 21st Street and Portola Way, on land Petrovich had to acquire to gain access to the railyard site. The idea for the stand-alone house is to "set an example of the kind of quality we'll have here," Petrovich said.
Paris also will be starting soon on 12 smaller "cottages" – ranging from 1,550 to 2,150 square feet – at 10th Avenue and 24th Street on ready-to-build land on the project's eastern edge. These will be "smaller, quaint and whimsical," he said.
Paris said he was drawn to the project by the opportunity to build "the quality homes I'm passionate about."
As for the overall village, he said Petrovich has "a world-class project."
"In my mind, you couldn't find a more sustainable, durable infill project anywhere in the country right now," he said.
Paris said the Portola Way house he's building will probably be priced in the $700,000s, while the smaller cottages will be less.
"We haven't finalized our pricing, but I think they'll start out in the $490s," he said.
Petrovich said he's looking for the same sort of quality from the other home builders he will select for the remaining single-family lots after the first phase of his $22 million infrastructure project is completed toward the end of this year.
When the economy was slower, the developer figured he'd need to sell most of the lots to one or two national builders. But financing has eased to the point where smaller builders like Paris can now get back in the game.
Their involvement will "build more character into the project," Petrovich said.
'Top quality' promised
All builders will be required to provide a diversity of styles matching those now in Curtis Park, one of Sacramento's oldest and most picturesque neighborhoods. No single model can be repeated more than once every four homes.
That's something the Curtis Park residents demanded. And it's something Petrovich insists he'll follow in his commitment to developing a top-quality project.
"This is going to be every bit as good as I promised and then some," he said.
One other builder besides Paris is on board for the project. Sacramento-based Domus Development recently was selected to build the three-story, 93-unit affordable senior housing complex near the pedestrian bridge.
Domus President Meea Kang said the building will have a "Craftsman feel" with lots of amenities, such as indoor bike storage, for active seniors.
Her company has received awards for previous projects, including La Valentina, an eye-catching retail-residential complex that opened last August on 12th Street in the Alkali Flat neighborhood next to downtown Sacramento.
A selection of the builder for the 131-unit market-rate apartment building next to the seniors' building probably won't be made until next year.
Petrovich is simultaneously negotiating deals with potential tenants in the project's now-shrunken commercial area.
Those in lease talks include a grocery store Petrovich isn't yet identifying. He said he also would like to bring in an apparel store, a beauty shop and restaurants.
"It will be absolutely upscale neighborhood-serving retail done to at least the quality of R Street Market," Petrovich said, referring to his Safeway shopping center at 19th and S streets.
A movie theater and health club once planned for Curtis Park Village have been scratched.
"The market's just not there" for those kinds of uses, said Phil Harvey, a senior vice president with Petrovich Development Co.
Like other Petrovich development projects, this one will have a few quirks that reflect the developer's interests – and his taste in art.
Streets in Curtis Park Village will be named after some of the nation's railroad pioneers (Petrovich is an avid collector of model trains). One, Crocker Drive, the main entryway into the village from the south, will be lined with 45 brownstone homes.
Another street is Bedford Falls Way, named after the mythical town in one of Petrovich's favorite movies, the 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life."
"To me, that (name represents) the traditional 1930s neighborhood we're creating," Petrovich said.
The developer is also planning some public art. He said he hasn't decided whether the lineup will include the shiny chrome animals that have become a signature of his developments.
That prospect doesn't bother the neighborhood association's Eric Johnson, who admitted he's sort of a fan of the chrome horse at the midtown Safeway .
In any case, Johnson said he figures sculptures of that sort will be confined to the commercial area of the project – not the residential streets.
"I don't envision seeing ponies," he said, "striding down Donner Way."