To David Martin, Living is Art

  • San Francisco Examiner
  • September 17, 1989
  • Susan Burkhardt

Developer designs urban villages for work, play

David Martin can look out of his office window in Emery Bay and see more than the Bay Bridge. He can see his real estate developments present, past and future ringing the Bay.

Golden haired, bearded and sometimes wearing no shoes, the casual Martin represents a different generation of developer. Only 34, he grew up listening to the Beatles and watching the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates on television.

The ideals of the ‘60s burned themselves into his life forever: Martin wants to leave the world a better place.

“The mission of this company (The Martin Group of Emeryville) is to leave places better than we found them,” he said in an interview.

A transplant from Alabama 10 years ago, Martin has become an infill specialist, turning the Bay Area’s truck storage yards, warehouses and scrap steel yards into smooth flat urban villages by the Bay, where people can live, work and play.

A case in point is the new Emery Bay, once Emeryville’s ugly industrial Bay Front located between the foot of the Bay Bridge and Ashby Avenue, Interstate 80 and the railroad tracks.

Now the same 85-acre parcel of land sports a public market, the trendy jazz club Kimball’s East, unlimited shopping opportunities at Powell Street Plaza, 325,000 square feet of prime executive office space overlooking San Francisco Bay, lots of parking, a security force, a shuttle to Bart, 124 apartments, a 10-screen United Artists theater and a research park under construction – all 1.5 million square feet developed by The Martin Group.

But the Emeryville firm – the second largest commercial developer in the Bay Area in 1988 – isn’t through. Martin has turned his attention to South Richmond, where a new freeway is going in, creating more opportunities for redevelopment.

The city of Richmond has already encouraged new development of private housing and condominiums in the area, but The Martin Group is planning another urban village on the water, starting with 300,000 square feet of commercial development – shops and restaurants – on the 20 acres right next to the Port of Richmond.

More industrial properties are coming available in the area, and Martin hopes to build another million square feet by the water in South Richmond.

Clean industries like software, sales and research could be expected to locate in South Richmond’s business parks attracting workers from Marin, Berkeley and Richmond.

“We really see a sense of energy between downtown San Francisco, the Marin County executives, the University of California engineers and the labor force in Richmond,” Martin said.

It’s also part of Martin’s plan to help reduce congestion in the I-80 corridor. People live in the north and work in the south, creating one-way traffic problems at peak hours. But if the jobs are moved north and new homes are built south, Martin hopes to even out traffic snarls.

“I see lots of opportunity for infill development along Highway 80. It’s an overutilized piece of infrastructure. We’re going to have to take the jobs north and the residents south.” Martin said.

Martin’s firm is also bidding on a project involving Piers 24 and 26 in San Francisco underneath the Bay Bridge.

“I lived in San Francisco for three years. There is no real opportunity for San Franciscans to go to the waterfront other than Marina Green,” Martin said. He excluded Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 as being tourist hangouts.

On Piers 24 and 26, he’d like to develop a Pacific Rim Village with shopping and walking and eating opportunities designed specifically for people who live in The City. The village would include a public market and shops featuring silks, porcelains and food products from Pacific Rim countries.

Martin started his firm in 1984 and now has over 4.1 million square feet under management. Last year, he completed 1.47 million square feet.

But his projects fill up more than just space, they also create a total environment for work, fun and living.

“I painted for a while,” said Martin. I wanted to be creative. But to me development is the ultimate art form. Your canvas is the earth. You sculpt a building or paint a landscape and you don’t just hang it on a wall. Once you’re done you live in it, shop in it and work in it.