Hamilton a True Partnership

  • Marin Independent Journal
  • January 24, 1999
  • Kelly A. Zito

If the men behind the largest new housing development in Marin have a mantra, its community involvement.

And it is a motto they learned early.

Shortly after Novato voters in 1989 defeated a proposal by Skip Berg and Jim Revoir for 2,552 homes and almost 3 million square feet of commercial space on the sprawling former Hamilton Air Force Base, the New Hamilton Partnership then known as The Martin Group decided to host a bus trip.

We took 25 opponents of the (Berg-Revoir) plan out there, and we listened to their goals, wants and needs. We translated that into a vision and helped them articulate that vision, along with strong economic underpinnings, said Todd Wright, project manager.

The 25 then sketched out what they imagined on a large pad of paper, and that's what's being built today, said Peter Palmisano, in charge of marketing and sales at the New Hamilton Partnership.

Quartet a close group

The four men who make up the New Hamilton Partnership, often finish, or elaborate on, each others sentences.

And though they may not see each other regularly face to face, this a tight-knit group. Among themselves they have shorthand titles. Wright is the construction guy; Palmisano is the marketing guru; Thomas Gram is the legal guy.

The New Hamilton Partnership, based in San Francisco, is actually an alliance. The alliance involves The Martin Group, a 15-year-old Bay Area real estate developer which, through the city of Novato, has raised $25 million for the project through a Mello-Roos infrastructure bond and the Whitehall Street Real Estate Partnership, an investment fund managed by Goldman Sachs, which has infused the project with $31 million.

But its these men who have labored on the Hamilton-as-a-small-town vision for eight years, battled the Pentagon and won over some harsh critics of the plan.

Susan Stompe, a former Novato City Council member who sat on the original committee to look into uses for the base, was one of the foes of the Berg-Revoir plan.

A local politicians view

She says while she does think the New Hamilton Partnership project will have some negative impacts on traffic, they did meet with a lot of different groups around the community for input.

But community involvement is only one of three pillars that support a successful development project, New Hamilton Partnership principals say. The two others are environment and economics.

Early on, the partnership realized it needed some kind of corporate anchor at Hamilton to help reduce the prices of the residential units, because many were to be designated affordable housing.

Autodesk in, then out

Autodesk, the San Rafael software giant, signed on in 1991. But new management at the company reconsidered the decision and pulled out in 1993, according to Palmisano.

To offset the Autodesk loss, the partnership reconfigured the plan to include more homes. That same year, the Army finally agreed on a price for the base $13 million. But the New Hamilton Partnership wasn't out of the woods yet.

With $25 million in cleanup needed at the site and no funding it took the federal government two years to clear out landfills and other waste at Hamilton.

The delay was costly. People thought Hamilton was dead, that there was nothing going on, Palmisano said.

In the mid-1990s, the partnership focused on building infrastructure and negotiating with homebuilders. But because Hamilton at the time wasn't very appealing to the eye, the partnership had a difficult time selling a cohesive vision to commercial tenants.

Wright remembers standing on a hill trying to woo a busload of engineers from software maker Fair, Isaac & Co. Were out there, doing our arm-waving, trying to show them what it would look like, and it was all demolition, it was all rubble, Wright said.

The commercial portion finally came on line last year. In addition to 950 new homes, Hamilton will have a Marriott hotel and Lucky supermarket. San Francisco developer Barker Pacific Group bought seven hangars in the hopes of creating a retail and commercial center called Hamilton Landing.

Each element of the project has finally fallen into place. Would the team do it again?

The answer is no.

And it doesn't help that the money the New Hamilton Partnership will make from the deal isn't as much as we originally thought, Gram said.

Its more a work of love at this stage, Palmisano added.