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Non-corporate atmosphere, creative work environment draw companies to Hamilton

Business is taking off at Hamilton Field in Novato.

The Hamilton Landing office complex is buzzing with activity as nine new tenants have moved in and several others expanded in renovated airplane hangars over the past six months.

The freshly-remodeled hangars offer a modern industrial look, the latest communication capabilities and large spaces for a creative work environment, while maintaining a historic feel that appeals to high-tech and traditional companies alike.

"The architecture of the old hangars is interesting with curved rooflines and all the glass. It is a very dynamic space É overlooking one of the nation's largest wetland restoration projects," said Novato City Councilman Jim Leland. "It is exciting for the city to get a mixture of high-tech companies. A number are internationally known and are recognizable tenants choosing Novato for their headquarters. Those software and bio-tech companies moving to Novato is exactly what the county wants to attract."

Newest tenants include Birkenstock Distribution USA, Oracle, Sony ImageWorks, Visual Concepts Entertainment, Halcyon Investment Partners, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Morre & Co. CPAs, the law offices of Ira Rothken and Munson/Dutra Construction.

Birkenstock relocated its headquarters and 65 employees last month from its distinctive facility along Highway 101 to Hamilton Landing. The company has a five-year lease for a 15,000-square-foot space and is almost settled in.

"We were looking for something that is consistent with us and who we are - kinda funky, not too corporate," Birkenstock chief executive Gene Kunde said. "We are more casual and connected with the environment and the community."

Kunde said the shoe company found its home in Hamilton Landing after a countywide search.

"We did not want to be a little group of ants in a big ant hill and that is how we felt as we marched around visiting office buildings in Marin," Kunde said. "We looked at several beautiful spaces - some new with accommodating owners - but the feel did not seem to be us. The look here is so much different than traditional office space. It felt comfortable and fit our personality."

Businesses expanding their operations at Hamilton Landing include Smith & Hawken, Cytograft Tissue Engineering and Nihilistic Software.

Outdoor retailer Smith & Hawken was the first tenant to move into Hamilton Landing in 2000. Its recent addition of about 5,600 square feet brings its total there to nearly 40,000.

It is the second expansion for Nihilistic since the company moved in at the end of 2003, most recently adding about 7,000 square feet for a total space of about 15,000 square feet.

"We are happy living here and we are growing," vice president Steve Thoms said, noting the company has 55 employees with room for about 70. "As a video game developer, we like something unique and fun and a hangar is definitely that."

There are 27 tenants so far. Others include the Marin Community Foundation, SpatiaLight Inc., Marin IPA, Scene 7 and Pride Institute.

Barker Pacific Group, developer and property manager of Hamilton Landing, has renovated five of seven hangars on the 22-acre site. Work is expected to begin on at least one of the two remaining hangars this year.

The site also has one parcel where Barker Pacific plans to construct a separate office building of up to 65,000 square feet.

When completed, Hamilton Landing will have a total of about 465,000 square feet of office space, "a $150 million investment," according to Michael Barker, managing director of Barker Pacific.

The base was built in 1934 and decommissioned about 40 years later. The hangars had been sitting vacant since the mid-1970s - dilapidated, with broken windows, "just a mess," Barker said.

The company bought the hangars in 1998, seizing an opportunity to convert them to "first-class" office space.

"We had the choice to tear these buildings down," Barker said. "They were not protected. They were not historic designations."

Instead the company chose to work with the structures, a move that presented challenges, including the thick concrete floors that once supported heavy aircraft.

"Certainly it was a risk and a significant departure from what people expected because office buildings require certain systems and features, and that can be limiting and very difficult to work with," Barker said. "In this case, we had floor size that made sense for office use and good window lines around the building so tenants have plenty of light. The building height was sufficient to have two floors of very tall ceilings."

"Looking back on it, I think it made a lot of sense but a lot of people thought we were not thinking straight."

Renovations began in 2000. Today, five renovated hangars provide 286,000 square feet of office space - and 96 percent of it is occupied.

"We have leases in negotiation for all remaining space and soon hope to announce 100 percent occupancy for the renovated hangars," said project leasing agent Brian Eisberg of Orion Partners, Ltd.

The five hangars are owned by Hamilton Marin LLC, a joint venture of Prudential Real Estate Investors and Barker Pacific Group. The remaining two hangars are owned by Barker Pacific and will be sold to the joint venture once they are renovated.

The vacancy rate for office space in Novato at the end of 2006 was 15.6 percent, down from the previous year when it was 20 percent.

"The fact that the rate in Novato dropped is a healthy move," Eisberg said. "The 15 percent means renters have plenty of alternatives and it is easier to find space."

Space has rented for about $2.50 per square foot but Eisberg said that will likely change.

"We are asking more for the new space in the new hangars," he said. "Those will be going out at $2.65 to $2.75 per square foot, full-service, when they get constructed."

The price is competitive when compared to office rents around Marin which can be about $3 per square foot in downtown San Rafael, $3.50 in Greenbrae and $4 in parts of Southern Marin, he said.

Eisberg said leasing activity has been strong for Hamilton Landing due to hangar features - diffused lighting, expansive windows, ceilings heights that range from 11 feet to 38 feet, and shower and locker facilities.

"We wanted a place that was open because we work better together in a collaborative sense," Birkenstock's Kunde said. "We wanted an open feel and this high ceiling, about 25 feet, helps give us that."

"We like an open working environment for communication reasons. No (cubicles). No offices. No walls around," said Thoms of Nihilistic. "Everyone from the CEO to the newest employee in one big room. A large open space that we have with an open floor plan is not easy to find."

Telecommunication and heating-cooling systems are housed under raised flooring, which is more energy-efficient and makes access for servicing and realignment easier. The floor panels are simple to pop out and reconfigure to accommodate changing office needs.

"Hamilton Landing is a pioneer in the private green building movement by recycling existing hangars rather than constructing new buildings and using materials such as low-emitting carpet tile and paint," Eisberg said. "The under-floor air system is eco-friendly because it allows energy to come up rather than forcing it down."

The sustainability feature was a selling point for Birkenstock, which sought a site in tune with its principles.

"We are concerned about the environment including reuse and recycling," Kunde said. "These buildings were built in 1934 for a very different purpose and instead of being destroyed and discarded, they are rebuilt and reused and that fits with our values as a company."

Much of the appeal for software developer ClairMail, a tenant for about two years, is the idea of working close to home. CEO Joe Salesky said about half of the company's 40 employees can walk to work.

"Marin has the advantage of having a pool of talented people who are tired of commuting," Salesky said. "Having to commute south on Highway 101 in traffic and traveling an hour and a half each way was not just a personal drain but a significant loss of time. Sooner or later, it wears people down."

He continued, "The ability to pop home, have dinner, put the kids to bed and come back if you need to is very different. É It offers a quality of life that attracts employees."

Plus, the office campus has on-site amenities and other tenants - Cafe Joel, the YMCA, A&J Cleaners, a Marin County Library branch - that create community.

There are views of wetlands and the East Bay and walking trails nearby.

Morre & Co. moved from Grant Avenue to a 3,360-square-foot hangar space in August, with partner John Morre saying the conveniences are handy.

"There is a cafe right downstairs. The Novato library is in the same building. The YMCA is one hangar over. There is a cleaners," Morre said. "I do a lot of hiking out there on the levees and I like the opportunity to go walking out there at lunchtime."

"It really comes back to É (the) vision that this is a place to live, work, play, belong," Salesky said.

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