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Disney team's moving plans bring more magic to Hamilton

Walt Disney Studios is branching out with a 3-D computer animation complex at Hamilton early next year as redevelopment of the former Air Force base into a residential and commercial hub continues.

Disney's ImageMovers Digital studio has outgrown a San Rafael site and hopes to set up shop for 180 employees in 90,000 square feet of office space in Hangars 7 and 9 by Christmas, an ImageMovers executive said.

"We're growing pretty fast," said Doug Chiang, ImageMovers Digital executive vice president. "We're pretty excited about Hamilton because of the community there and the base's historical significance.

"We've always been attracted to that."

Chiang said the company has special plans for the landmark air control tower in Hangar 7, but he declined to elaborate.

Disney Studios will start interior construction as early as May or June, said Richard Johnson, executive vice president of finance for Hamilton developer Barker Pacific Group.

Five other hangars - with tenants including Sony Imageworks, Visual Concepts Entertainment, Smith & Hawken and Birkenstock Distribution USA - have been renovated by Barker Pacific Group. All seven hangars provide more than 450,000 square feet of office space on the 22-acre site for approximately 850 employees, officials said.

"We have a tremendous mix of tenants, and what we've done has been very well received, especially by the creative types," Johnson said.

Terms of the deal with ImageMovers Digital were not disclosed. "They've made a substantial economic investment at this location," Johnson said. "We won't have the actors and actresses up here, but I guess we'll see how they put the rest of the movie together."

More than 175 employees for ImageMovers Digital work at a studio at 1 Thorndale Drive in San Rafael. The studio uses "performance capture" filmmaking techniques in which an actor's movements and gestures are transferred to the digital realm. The result: computer-animated characters.

ImageMovers Digital is working on the Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol," starring Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge. The movie is an adaptation that will feature 3-D stereoscopic animation and is planned for release later this year.

Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis was brought on board to work with ImageMovers Digital. He wrote the screenplay and will direct "A Christmas Carol," which is in production at the San Rafael studio. Zemeckis and Chiang joined forces on other ImageMovers Digital films, including "The Polar Express," featuring the voice of Tom Hanks in a number of roles. The studio recently released "Beowulf."

The new digs at Hamilton will allow for company growth, up to 300 employees, and help with the development of other new filmmaking techniques, said Chiang, who also worked with Zemeckis on "Forrest Gump."

Having cutting-edge filmmakers working alongside a variety of biotech and software companies at Hamilton is a great start for the neighborhood, city officials say, noting the area's redevelopment plan follows years of community debate.

"We envisioned those hangars as state-of-the-art places for people to work, especially creative folks," Novato Mayor Pat Eklund said. "We've been fortunate to have saved the buildings and put them into effective use today.

"Getting Disney here was a dream come true."

"With all the historic buildings we've saved, combined with all residential, we're in essence completing the master plan developed in the 1990s. It took a lot of people to put this together."

Hamilton Field was decommissioned in 1974. Various development plans were proposed, prompting a decade of controversy, political upheaval and an alphabet soup of ballot proposals ranging from a commercial airport to a "solar village." None came to fruition.

Airport use of the old base was ultimately rejected, the federal land was transferred to the city and, in 1998, the hangar sites were purchased by Barker Pacific. Five hangars are owned by Hamilton Marin LLC, a joint venture of Prudential Real Estate investors and Barker Pacific.

Barker Pacific director Michael Barker called the Hamilton hangar project "a $150 million investment."

"What we have here now is the vision of Michael Barker and his team," Johnson said. "These hangars could have been torn down. But I think keeping the character of the base, renovating the hangars proved to be a good decision."

Each hangar has about 60,000 square feet of space and feature two stories. Telecommunications and heating and cooling systems are housed under raised flooring, making air conditioning more efficient. The floor panels can be popped out and reconfigured to accommodate changing office needs.

Development of the community, called Hamilton Landing, includes more than 1,000 single-family homes and includes affordable housing. In addition to the housing, the project features more than 70 acres of parks and open space and 50 acres of community facilities, including a library, art center, theater and sports fields.

In addition, the West Coast's largest wetlands restoration project is under way at Hamilton. The $200 million, eight-year project is funded by state, federal and local money. It will use 7 million cubic yards of dredge sludge from the Port of Oakland estuary to bury the old runway complex and restore marshland at Hamilton. The dredge material is enough to cover 700 football fields three feet deep.

Beyond the marshland restoration tract, more than 30 high-tech, biotech, entertainment and retail companies and nonprofits have moved into Hamilton, soon to include Disney's digital team.

Novato Realtor Mike DiGiorgio, a former mayor, said the vibrant community blooming at Hamilton has been a long time coming.

"I don't think we've lost any aviation or architectural heritage, and the diversity of the companies ... how great is that?" he said.

"I think it's a great place to live, work and play."


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