David Martin, The Developer as Social Engineer

  • Diablo Business
  • March 1, 1990
  • Megan Mills

Thirty years ago being a developer was easy. You found a piece of land, designed the project, went to you neighborhood banker for funds, to the city for a permit and built. Not so any longer. These days a developer must be a combination of banker, environmentalist, urban planner, promoter and politician.

David Martin, president of The Martin Group, is one of this new breed. After only four years as president of his own company he has left a significant mark on the Bay Area with the revitalization of Emeryville and his role in the development of Hacienda Business Park.

Now he is moving on to even more ambitious plans to create a downtown center in Peasant Hill – where none exists. In design, it will recreate a traditional town square. But in execution its innovative approach will test all of Martin’s abilities.

Martin began his development career in the early 1980s as a partner with Joe Callahan in Pleasanton’s Hacienda Business Park. During his time there, he developed the initial phases of about 2 million square feet of office/industrial space. After three years at Hacienda, he decided it was time to go out on his own and, with a group of associates from Union Bank, he formed his present company, The Martin Group. Pleasant Hill’s town center will test Martin’s financial mettle as well: With an estimated value of $250 million, the finished project will be owned completely by The Martin Group and its financial partner, Bordaloso America. They alone will either bear the responsibility for the development’s failure or realize the profits from its success.

Before construction can even begin, Martin will have to acquire approximately 70 parcels of land and install the necessary infrastructures. The bill for all of this could be considerable and so far, the City of Pleasant Hill has not assisted in any if the project’s financing. Yet for Martin the challenge is an exciting one.

Although his fifth-floor Emeryville offices are appointed with oriental carpets and wood paneled walls, the atmosphere in Martin’s suite is creative, casual and friendly. Martin himself is an energetic but quiet-spoken man who lights up with enthusiasm when he talks about development. He is youthful, and prefers sporty, comfortable attire to a suit and tie.

“I asked a friend of mine to describe the development business,” he recounts. “He compared it to taking 25 six-year-olds to the skating rink and trying to get them all home again in the same station wagon. By the time you get the 24th one in the car, the 25th one has to go to the bathroom and the 23rd one has left her sweater at the rink. Development is just good old-fashioned hard work, it’s getting all 25 of these kids in the station wagon at the same time.”

Martin’s current track record illustrates his talent for encompassing all the diverse elements which create a successful development project. Since 1984 The Martin Group has developed over 4.1 million square feet of commercial, retail, office and residential space, all of it is in the Bay Area.

The company’s specialty is redeveloping areas where land is underutilized by today’s standards. Emeryville, an old industrial warehouse area squeezed between the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Oakland/Berkeley corridor, was a prime location for Martin.

“We saw the valley (I-680 corridor) continue to overbuild and grow” says Martin. “so we began to look back over the hills into the intermediate East Bay at areas we’d skipped over initially, and looked for redevelopment opportunities now that land value in the intermediate areas were competitive. We ended up in the City of Emeryville.”

The Martin Group has become Emeryville’s major developer – accounting for approximately 80 percent of the commercial development activity in the city. Its success is due in part to the “total environment” concept, which unifies projects such as Emerybay, an 85-acre mixed-use community with residential housing, retail, office and general commercial space, a health club, a movie theater and a hotel.

The Emerybay layout with its long, wide streets, abundant parking, lively architecture and imaginative tenant mix is intended to create a fun atmosphere for shoppers and residents. It contrasts to high-density, piecemeal developments characteristic of the recent past that have created voter backlash around social and environmental issues.

Martin wants to apply that low-density community oriented approach to the Pleasant Hill town center. The City of Pleasant Hill has revitalized its program to create an identifiable downtown. Along with the site for a new City Hall-Civic Center facility, approximately 42 acres of land have been selected between Boyd Avenue and Gregory Lane to develop a town center of about 1 million square feet of mixed-use commercial and residential space. Strategically, the land sits on a location that takes advantage of the I-680 freeway. Contra Costa Boulevard will through the development. The center project is an experiment that breaks step with traditional planning styles such as appear in Pleasant Hill’s BART station development. (See accompanying article.)

“The city has the opportunity,” says Martin, “to take it (the land) today, look to the future and say, ‘What do we really need, what do the citizens need, what are the market needs, how can we do this and be different? We don’t want to be Walnut Creek, we don’t want to be Concord, we don’t want to be Pleasant Hill BART station.’

“The city has been very aggressive in the sense of knowing what they want and knowing what kind of image they want to create, then putting their shoulder behind it to take the steps to create it,” he continues. “In that sense, the city has been progressive in getting out there and doing what the thought was right. That’s what makes theses kinds of projects happen.”

Adds Gary Campbell, a redevelopment planner for the city: “The response from the community has been what I would call enthusiastically positive.” Still, Martin will need to maintain community involvement and approval to keep the ton center on track.

Jeff Heller, of San Francisco-based Heller & Leake, town center’s architects, says the project will be built around a traditional main street. “The whole thing is woven together with nice pedestrian ways that bring you to the main central space. That space is tied back to the Civic Center,” he says. “The whole experience, once you are there, is very pleasurable. The main activity space has the opportunity of being used for outdoor theater or other entertainment, night life or maybe a farmer’s market on the weekends.”

“It’s a 1990 version of the 1940s downtown with a European flavor,” says Martin. “It’s everything American and European that you would like to see in a downtown, Instead of going back and taking an older downtown and trying to fix it, this is an opportunity for us to come in and do it right the first time.”

Looking at the master plan it’s easy to see the unique mixture of cultural flavors. Broad tree-lined streets and red-brick pedestrian walkways flow through the project with one- and two-story shops on each side of the streets. The southern end near Boyd Avenue supports a 60,000 square foot health club, a 40,000 square foot grocery store and a drug store. Neighborhood retail stores, such as dry cleaners, barber shops and a post office will also be located at this end of the center near a 50,000-square-foot, 10 screen movie theater. Further up the street near Monument Boulevard will be shops if various sizes and architectural design housing ground floor retail and upper floor offices.

“You can blend designs and try to create some individual architecture,” says Heller. “so it doesn’t look like a strip of shopping center where there is consistency to the architecture. We will have a variety of architecture that will reflect the different kinds of character from all the different kinds of tenants. The buildings will be really people-oriented.”

A broad Paseo links these portions of downtown to the new 34,000 square foot split-level Pleasant Hill Civic Center. The Civic Center plaza will be a place for citizens to congregate in a park-like setting complete with pond and waterway.

The eastern side of Contra Costa Boulevard at Gregory Place is slated for two office buildings or an office and hotel with their own plaza. 250,000 square feet of space are estimated for this complex, the only mid-rise construction in the center.

No mixed-use project would be complete without some residences and the Pleasant Hill town center will have 100 to 150 large apartments in townhouse style buildings around the perimeter of the retail core. Parking structures for both residents and shoppers will be constructed at the outer edges of the project where neither shoppers nor apartment dwellers see them. Access to the shopping areas will be conveniently located along brick-lined walkways.

“The town center is unique because it tries to create the best people environment possible without sacrificing accessibility by car,” states Heller. “People want to use their cars but they don’t want to look at them.”

“It’s an opportunity to do a real downtown,” he says. “It has a unique image; that’s one of the things we’re after – having a sense of place. We hope to have a place that people find identifiable, a real magnet, a place to go to and when they get there, its really fun.”

“The David Martin magic is his grasp of the jobs/housing balance and his ability to create a unique development which helps put this balance back in place after developers have spent 25 years unbalancing it in the East Bay. Not only that, he can make a creative project with all these elements and still make economically feasibly.”

“The fun,” admits Martin, “is putting all the pieces together, blending the realities with the image and coming up with a successful project. People like a little bit of that mainstream environment like College or Telegraph Avenues in Berkeley or Union Street in San Francisco, which have those individual personalities that come out on the streets. It's something that we don’t have enough of, particularly in markets like the I-680 corridor.”