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Perfect Landing

Hamilton Landing's latest incarnation is bustling with all sorts of activity.

Around noon on a sun splashed Wednesday, the sidewalk across from Hamilton Landing is awash with elementary school-aged kids walking in bunches on the way back from a field trip. A pair of perfectly coifed mothers in designer fitness togs push deluxe strollers the size of SUVs (hold the ski racks). The parking lots at the adjacent hangers-cum-office buildings begin to drain with workers searching for sustenance and, failing that, lunch. This singular scene is peculiar to Hamilton and indicative of why it's become the go-to business address in Marin County.

What has Hamilton atop the office market heap? It isn't like there's no available office space in other parts of Marin. The Bel Marin Keys office park is a forest, with "space available" signs posing as trees. Go south to San Rafael Corporate Center, and there's plenty of space - with more on the way. Likewise, Larkspur, Mill Valley and Sausalito have vacancies for the leasing. What they don't have, however, is a neighborhood feel. They don't have the corporate cool cache of offices in buildings that use to keep the rain off P-38s. And they don't have an exit that makes it really easy for commuters from Sonoma County to jump off 101 before the freeway becomes a tribute to statues and other things that don't really move.

They also don't have dogs. "It's like a little community here," says Sid Hartman, an exec with the influential nonprofit Marin Community Foundation. "You look around here, and there are people walking and biking to work. There are dogs. It's a great place to work." Hartman should know, his organization was one of the first tenants to sign a lease at Hamilton in 2002.

Hamilton also courted longtime Marin stalwart Birkenstock last year from its quirky old home on Highway 101 in North Novato. The German sandalmaker moved is distribution operation to the East Coast and consolidated its Marin operation in a new space at Hamilton. Birkenstock joins the Republic of Tea, the Marin company that moved in earlier this year. These companies join another Marin veteran, Smith & Hawken, at the landing. The outdoor lifestyle retailer was one of the pioneers at Hamilton, taking space in 2000.

There are plenty of other things that set Hamilton Landing apart as well. For one, the largest wetlands restoration project on the West Coast is going on within eyesight of the office buildings. The former runway that saw B-17s, C-130s and other breeds of planes featuring letters and numbers as identification is being converted into a place where migrating birds can seek shelter. And the office buildings are more green than most, with environmental features that make the space more attractive than their county rivals.

As a result, the office park that sits almost in the middle of Marin's newest neighborhood has become a magnet for high-tech, software, entertainment and gaming companies, with Nihilistic Software, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Toys for Bob all hanging their hats on the campus. Biotech is also proving to be draw, as Diamics and Cytograft Tissue Engineering demonstrate. And financial companies are grouping here as well, with DeSantis Capital Management and Halcyon Investment Partners leased up.

Hamilton has become a haven for creative types looking for something that isn't another concrete edifice of tilt up construction and fluorescent lights. Talk to Brian Eisberg at Orion Partners, and he's only too happy to run the numbers - which works out well for me, since I got into the writing racket to avoid math. "Let's see, hang on a minute, I have that information," says the affable Eisberg. There's some tapping of computer keys coming through the phone. "That can't be right." More tapping. "Yeah, it's [Hamilton] 99.5 percent leased."

WHAT'S NEW?

All of that builds to this: Disney has decided it needs not one but two new hangars for its ImageMovers Digital division, a 3-D animation business that outgrew its San Rafael offices on Thornhill Drive. Disney had its pick of space, anywhere in Marin (and beyond), and the financial wherewithal to move its operation anywhere it wanted. The fact is, Disney made a choice to stay in Marin and to have a pair of hangars customized to fit is operation, including Hangar 7, the base's landmark control tower building.

Situated on 22 acres, Hamilton Landing is a collection of nine former air force hangars that form an office park of 465,000 square feet. Built by a partnership of Southern California-based Barker Pacific Group, Prudential Insurance Company and Baupost Group, construction on Hangars 7 and 9 for Disney is now underway. The existing buildings feature high ceilings (in some cases, as high as 38 feet), elevated floors that conceal energy-efficient air conditioning systems and provide ease of adjustment for communication wiring, diffused lighting and operable window systems. A separate, 58,000-square-foot building will break ground in September 2009. It will be similar in design to the original hangars.

The new building isn't the only commercial addition coming to Hamilton. Main Gate Plaza is slated to include five buildings adjacent to the historic old base's entrance. The development will total almost 31,000 square feet and be sliced into 22 commercial, for-sale condos. The project is being developed by Thompson Development and West Bay Builders.

And just around the corner, the Grosvenor Group is putting the finishing touches on a 100,000-square-foot neighborhood shopping center on 9.5 acres it acquired for $17.5 million in 2005. Grosvenor, an international real estate development company headquartered across the sink in England, represents the investment interests of the Grosvenor family (headed by the Duke of Westminster). Besides looking after the long green of the blue bloods, Grosvenor also invests on behalf of real estate funds in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. The Hamilton project is anchored by Safeway, which is building a 56,000-square-foot store as well as a gas station and mini-mart. There will also be a Wells Fargo Bank as a part of the 38,000 square feet of additional retail space.

While Grosvenor takes care of Hamilton's retail needs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tending to efforts to restore Hamilton's soul. The largest wetlands restoration ever attempted on the West Coast is underway, as sludge from the Port of Oakland is piped onto the runway of the former airbase to add to the natural wetlands and provide birds with a 760-acre addition. The project carries a $200 million price tag, which is being picked up via a variety of pockets belonging to federal, state and local agencies.

WHAT'S OLD: A HISTORY LESSON

Hamilton Landing's very existence is a tribute to vision, good luck and non-trust - not necessarily in that order. To begin with, the office campus and surrounding housing sits on land that, at varying times was Marin County Air Field; Marin Meadows Air Field; Army Air Base at Marin Meadows; Air Corps. Station, San Rafael; and Hamilton Army Air Field. Over the years, the base was used by the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the United States Coast Guard. The land belonged to Marin County, which sold it to the feds for $1 in 1932 in a fit of largesse that makes Oprah look tight with a buck. The base was named for First Lieutenant Lloyd Andrews Hamilton, a WWI flying ace who flew Snoopy's favorite plane, the Sopwith Camel.

Every military installation has its lore, and Hamilton is no exception, though it's best known for the exploits of a group of planes that only stopped over at the base for refueling and provisions.

A group of 12 B-17s, flying cross-country from New Orleans, stopped at Hamilton en route to Hawaii and then the Philippines. The planes took off for Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii on December 6, flying all night, only to come into Pearl Harbor at the same time as the infamous Japanese attack. In fact, some of the early Japanese attack planes were mistaken by Pearl's tower as being the Hamilton group. (Some of the Hamilton planes pushed on to a different air field, some landed despite the attack and one actually made a landing on a nearby golf course.)

Hamilton was an active base until 1974, when it was officially decommissioned by the government, though it continued to be used for housing by the Navy and by the Coast Guard for its Pacific Strike Team. The Base Realignment and Closure of 1988 began a complicated process of returning most of the base back to the city of Novato. The city and the federal government spent years debating how the base would be returned and what the armed forces would be responsible for cleaning up. Historically, the military has been better at packing than cleaning up, and Hamilton was no exception. Much of the wrangling was over who would be responsible for toxic clean ups. To its credit, the city hammered out an agreement that held the feds responsible for any clean up deemed necessary in the future.

The city also spent years figuring out how to reuse the base and how to entitle the land. Consider the fact that Hamilton is located in Marin, a place with a well-deserved reputation for careful consideration of any project that involves building things. The good people of Marin take seriously their duty to not only protect Mother Nature but also to follow a process that ensures deep reviews and time for adequate discussion (with "adequate" sometimes being compared to a light year in a galaxy far, far away).

WHAT'S OLD IS NEW

While the city of Novato put a plan together, developers began looking at what the former base might mean for them. While Marin has a no-nonsense approach to growth and building, there's also, at the very least, the appearance that denizens of the county known far and wide for its ability to abide a wide variety of beliefs and belt out a Grammy-winning version of "Kumbaya," are less enthusiastic when it comes to business and success of such. Building an office park that will generate more traffic for a freeway already choked? What a good idea. Why not build condos on Mount Tamalpais?

When Hamilton Landing creator Barker Pacific Group began sniffing around this project, the commercial real estate market was just beginning to show signs of climbing off the canvas, and the dot-com explosion was but a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye. Michael Barker looked at the hangars, so far from Highway 101 you needed a road map to get there, and thought, "What if we reused them?" The real estate investment company believed in Barker's vision so much, it committed to build the first structure on its own (Smith & Hawken came onboard as the first major tenant soon after).

The initial speculative project was a bit of a stretch for Barker Pacific, whose bread and butter was the development of Class A office towers in major metropolitan settings. But the land was acquired at an advantageous price, since the hangars were in terrible shape. "We had a lot of demo work, since the hangars were in disrepair," says Barker. "But the city was pretty supportive. We spent a lot of time with design review and came up with a project that, we thought, created a campus that was different in a market that was constrained for supply."

It wasn't an easy sell initially, but today, the tenant roster is full of high-credit tenants, available space is almost nonexistent and the new space should fill at per-square-foot rates that will top the Novato market. The latest study from the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (aka SMART) shows Hamilton as the likely Novato stop, which should make life easier for Hamilton's Sonoma commuters - should the measure pass at some point.

Regardless of whether SMART makes a connection in November, clearly Hamilton is on the right track. Err, it surely won't derail. Uh, the development has a full head of steam.

Bad train puns aside, Hamilton Landing has done the impossible in Marin: A business campus has been successfully built without freeway frontage, as a part of neighborhood, on a former military base with clean-up challenges. It's almost as if Hamilton Landing were "The Little Engine That Could."

I could have sworn I was out of train jokes.


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