riverwest investments

Developer very active after buying Angelides’ company

March 27, 2000

Sacramento Business Journal

A dozen bright abstract paintings hang on the walls of developer Brian Vail’s office. “They’re at work,” he explains, “because my taste is different from my wife’s.”

Vail’s artistic tastes might baffle his wife, but they make some sense for a land developer. He also collects blocks of land. On them, he draws the abstract lines for new communities.

Vail, 36, bought River West Investments from Phil Angelides in January 1999 when Angelides took office as state treasurer. Since then, Vail has collected some valuable pieces of land where he and his partners aim to design new developments.

Those purchases include:
A 115-acre parcel along Highway 65 near Rocklin that Vail envisions as a 1.2 million-square-foot business park.

Five hundred acres near Elverta where he would craft a community of 400 ranchettes and 350 conventional homes.

Land in Rancho Murieta where he aims to draw the lines of a 66-home, upscale housing development.
On top of that, he has four projects that came with his purchase of River West. It’s all enough to keep him busy for years.

The Tsakopoulos model: In 1998, Vail became aware that Angelides was looking for someone to buy the company. “I was probably the most logical buyer because I was involved in most of the company’s projects,” he says.

River West is not itself a landowner. It designs land use and pursues development entitlements for landowners. Often, Vail and other River West executives are in the partnerships that own the land.
It’s the standard pattern for Sacramento land development used by the likes of Angelo Tsakopoulos, another longtime partner in many River West projects. But beyond some similarities with his mentors, Vail is known for doing things his own way.

“He is an excellent engineer and has the ability to understand things like drainage better than most developers I’ve seen,” says Scott Mende, a senior planner with the city of Sacramento, who notes that Vail also seems to have a grasp on the financial side of the business. “He’s a one-man band. Most developers rely on a team for that kind of information. Brian seems to have a lot in one package.”

An Angelides protegé: The son of Sacramento developer Mel Vail, he started his own career by schussing and schmoozing. Back in 1986, he was about to graduate from California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo with a degree combining business and engineering. That winter the Vails were skiing with developer Bruce Bell in Utah. Bell, then with River West, suggested Vail see Angelides about a job.

“I talked to Phil,” Vail recalls. “I took my last final on a Friday and started at River West on Monday.” Vail probably voted for Angelides. “Phil is the most intelligent person I’ve ever met,” he says. “He’s dynamic and brilliant.”

He worked on some well-known Tsakopoulos-Angelides projects, including a large part of North Natomas, as well as Natoma Station in Folsom, Olympus Point in Roseville, plus Laguna West and Laguna Creek in South Sacramento.

Vail’s career started in the booming ‘80s. “There was so much going on then, it was incredible,” he recalls. “I looked forward to going to the office every day.”
He still does.

“I get to go from a piece of property with nothing on it, to a design on a piece of paper, to homes for people,” he says. “I see people buying their first homes and the excitement they feel and their kids playing in the front yard. It’s very neat to know you’re part of that.”

South of Folsom is next: “The physical constraints here are less than in the Bay Area—there are no oceans or mountains here,” he explains. “I see the valley becoming the focus of development in years to come.”

In Sacramento County, he says, the next big development area could be the 3,585 acres that the city of Folsom is trying to annex south of Highway 50.

Although environmentalists may oppose the development of the area’s oak-studded grasslands, real estate pundits generally expect Folsom will be allowed to expand south. “It’s just a matter of time,” Vail says.

He’s also putting his money—literally—on growth prospects near Highway 65 in Placer County. He and retail developer Mark Friedman, head of Fulcrum Capital Corp., last month purchased land on the northeast quadrant of Highway 65 and Whitney Boulevard. It’s the site of a future interchange. He estimated the land can hold 1 million square feet of office space and 200,000 square feet of retail, with Friedman developing the stores.

Vail is trying to get the land annexed to Rocklin this year or next so that building can start by 2003. The land is adjacent to the Sunset Ranchos tract, which The Grupe Co., based in Stockton, is also trying to get annexed to Rocklin.

Rocklin is currently processing the annexation and it could be completed by next year, says Terry Richardson, the city’s planning director.

Last summer, Vail and partners bought 500 acres in the 1,734-acre Rio Elverta Specific Plan Area in northern Sacramento County, which is proposed for 4,500 homes.

Vail’s land is planned mostly for 1-acre ranchettes, and he is planning to seek entitlements for 400 of those, plus 320 single-family homes on 80 acres—a total of 750 units. He is drafting his land-use plan and expects to submit a development application to the county shortly.

The Elverta plan could be through the entitlement process by next year, says Surinder Singh, a Sacramento County planner.

Frustrations and philosophies: Like most land developers, Vail is irked by environmental regulations, particularly federal and state protections of seasonal wetlands.

“There’s a piece of land the size of a table, and because of that you can’t provide housing for people,” he frowns. “It seems like the priorities are a little backwards.

“I think it’s the developer’s responsibility to do quality growth, and not rely on agencies to make us do quality project,” he adds. “I don’t want to plan something my kids couldn’t live in. A developer needs to do things that are good for a community.”

He attributes that outlook to one of his mentors, Tsakopoulos. “When I first met Angelo, he said, `Real estate is like a natural resource. You can’t continue taking from an area without putting back.’ “

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