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Developer Dave Martin: Helping Change Emeryville

  • The Tribune
  • January 11, 1988
  • Laura Evanson

Emeryville developer David martin had $7,000 in his pocket when he arrived in California during the height of the Silicon Valley computer craze in 1979.

Eight years later, the 32-year-old Martin’s net worth exceeds $10 million.

He has made his fortune as a developer, including a two-year stint as a partner in the 860-acre Hacienda Business Park in Pleasanton, one of the largest developments in California.

Now the golden-haired boy wonder from Alabama heads up The Martin Group, a company that is pushing the industrial backwater of Emeryville into the commercial mainstream.

Martin spends most of his time in the fourth-floor office in the $60 million, 200,000 –square foot Bay Center office development that he completed last year in Emeryville.

Across the street, he is bus building a 424-unit apartment complex that will include a health club and retail shops.

Through other developments he is fostering a natural evolution for Emeryville, a city geographically wedged between the academia of Berkeley and the business centers of Oakland and San Francisco.

He is forcing Emeryville’s business climate to live up to its location in the center of the Bay Area by turning a former steel plant into a biotechnology center.

He is also transforming a set of circa-1930s warehouses into a high-quality food market and a 10-screen United Artists movie theater.

And with the help of a San Francisco shopping developer, he is building a U-shaped retail plaza that will include such tenants as Circuit City electronics goods, New York Fabrics, and Rainbow Records.

Martin has critics

Critics give Martin mixed reviews for his work in Emeryville.

Paul Herzoff, past president of the Emeryville Artists Cooperative board of directors, still hasn’t forgiven Martin for building much of Bay Center out of darkly colored glass instead of the brick and wood approved by the Emeryville City Council. “I call that project the black plastic box,” Herzoff said.

In Martin’s favor, Herzoff notes, the developer apologized publicly for proceeding with the glass materials. The city’s redevelopment director had given him the go-ahead, he explained.

Emeryville city Council member Gregory L. Harper also has a mixed reaction to Martin’s work.

“To his credit, he does listen and elicit input from the community,” he said. “He’s young and energetic, but I wish he was just a little more seasoned because now and then his experience shows through.”

Martin himself marvels at his work in Emeryville.

“A 424-unit apartment complex is the size of a small city in north Alabama,” he chuckles. “The developments in Emeryville alone worth more than $200 million, and that’s the size of a good-sized bank back home.”

“But he is shy about revealing his net worth: “I’ve never been one to count my chips,” he said.

Nevertheless, he is swathed in accoutrements of success.

A slight man with a closely cropped beard, Martin wears the leather-pronged suspenders beneath his blue coat that are now in fashion among the Brooks Brothers set. His feet are shod in a pair of old alligator shoes he wears to tramp through the muddy construction sites of his projects.

Making money isn’t everything

A resident of Piedmont, Martin insists that making money isn’t the focus of his life. The focus, he said, is his two young daughters, Katherine and Megan, and his wife, Susan.

In fact, Martin has drawn on his wife’s talents – as a former chef and coordinator of such special events as a party for the NBC news team during the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco – to build the Emeryville public food market.

“This is the first time we’ve had a chance to work together and it has been very exciting for both of us,” Martin said.

Martin started out as a real estate lending officer for a good-sized bank, Central Bankshares in Birmingham, Ala., after he graduated in 1977 with a business degree from the University of North Alabama at Florence.

Anxious to escape the pressures and influences of his family, Martin eyed opportunities in New Your, Chicago and the Bay Area.

Martin chose a position at Union Bank in San Jose for two reasons: to build up a bank’s loan portfolio from nearly scratch, and to escape the winters of the east.

“Fortunately, the California interview was in mid-winter,” he recalled. “I played a golf game out here in short-sleeved shirts and then I returned to Alabama where the temperature was 20 degrees below zero. After that, the choice was simple.

Within 18 months of his arrival, Martin had transformed Union Bank’s paltry $7 million loan portfolio into a $300 million portfolio. His financial savvy attracted several offers from developers who wanted him their team.

He decided to take up Joe Callahan on an offer to help develop Hacienda Business Park, now an 860-acre spread in Pleasanton that hosts the back offices of corporate giants such as AT&T.

But it wasn’t easy convincing residents in nearby Livermore and the 32,000 residents of Pleasanton that bringing 52,000 new workers into vast tracks of land in Pleasanton would be a good thing.

“I remember seeing a sun come up as we emerged from many city council meetings,” Martin recalled.

Martin worked as an equal partner in the Callahan-Pentz Development Co. acquiring vast tracts of agricultural land in Pleasanton and getting city approvals for the Hacienda Park.

Along the way, he picked up an MBA from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. He also developed a few projects in the Shadelands Office Park in Walnut Creek.

On 1984, Martin decided to sell his interests in the raw land he held at hacienda and strike out on his own.

Why Emeryville was chosen

Martin came to Emeryville because of the city’s central location.

“I knew that the end of the Bay Bridge, the Port of Oakland and the Naval Base with terrible views of the backside of San Francisco was at one end and that the People’s Republic of Berkeley was at the other,” Martin said, poking fun at what he views as Berkeley’s anti-business climate. “What I saw in Emeryville was a small piece of opportunity between the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Ashby Interchange.”

While Martin keeps a staff of five in an office in Milpitas to keep tabs on his developments in Pleasanton, he has made his new headquarters in Emeryville.

Now he is focusing on building a $45 million biotechnology center called Shellmound Park in conjunction with the Emeryville-based biotechnology firm Chiron Corp. on 34 acres along Shellmound Street at the north end of Emeryville.

With San Francisco-based Terranomics, a firm known for its shopping center developments, Martin is building the $30 million Powell Street Plaza which will open in March.

He is cooperating with Public Markets of California to develop a high-quality food market east of the Powell Street overpass that will go head to head with a food market proposed by Storek & Storek in Oakland and famous Berkeley Alice Waters.

In addition he plans to build a 154-suite hotel in Emeryville to be operated by Hawthorne Suites, a division of Hyatt Corp.

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