In just over 10 years the former air force base at Hamilton Field in Novato has transformed from a forgotten and run-down piece of land into a vibrant residential community as well as a location for some of the most cutting-edge businesses in the state.
The base, named after Marin fighting ace Lloyd Andrew Hamilton, who was killed in World War I, was always special with its palm trees, Spanish-style construction and abundance of clear days perfect for flying but had fallen into disrepair. Hamilton was constructed by the military in the 1930s and returned to the city of Novato in 1974; most of it remained relatively untouched until the late ’90s.
“It was in wretched condition,” confirms Barker Pacific Group managing director Michael Barker. “There was no maintenance and there were animals in the hangars and broken glass; it was a hazard.”
Barker’s commercial development group has spent the last 26 years producing quality office space, but the concept of spending more than $100 million to create a first-class office community in seven of the nine large aircraft hangars on the former base took some vision and a leap of faith.
“It was a bodacious move; there was no perceived market depth,” he says. “We were out there on the edge of risk.” But the risk paid off and now the totally refurbished hangars are all leased — except for the space formerly occupied by the first client, Marin-based Smith & Hawken, which recently closed its doors — and accounts for 5 percent of Marin’s more than 8 million square feet of office space with a client list that is equally impressive.
“We build them out according to the company’s specifications,” Barker says of the custom office spaces for innovative companies like Birkenstock, Nihilistic, Sony, Take-Two Interactive Software and, more recently, ImageMovers Digital, a state-of-the-art digital film studio run by director Robert Zemeckis and owned by Walt Disney. “I think we have proven that if you create an interesting environment in a place like Marin County you attract creative companies and upscale talent.”
Hamilton offers much more than office space. It also boasts one of the largest wetland restoration projects in the country as well as more than 1,300 homes, a library, gym, pool, arts center, community foundation, schools, skate park, a nearby mall and even the base for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Team.
“Hamilton has come into its own,” says Spiro Stratigos, a Frank Howard Allen realtor who was one of the first residents to move with his family to Hamilton in 2000. “It has taken 10 years, but most of what was promised when we moved in has been delivered.
“I love that I can just step out the door and go for a walk or take the kids to the park or the Hamilton Cafe or to school,” he says. His family particularly enjoys the sense of neighborhood.
Another of Hamilton’s unique assets is the standout Marin Museum of Contemporary Art at the Novato Arts Center located in the base’s former administration buildings. The center also houses a gallery, two artists’ groups and 43 spacious studios with beautiful views of tree-lined streets.
“This space was started by artists, spearheaded by artists and is run by artists,” says part-time gallery director and full-time artist Sandi Miot. “This place is in my blood and in my heart.
“We all get stimulation from each other; the energy is so good here,” she says, and fellow artists are always willing to offer an impromptu critique to help a colleague out of an artistic jam.
But studio space in Marin MOCA shares a trait common to all of Hamilton Field: it is at capacity. “When property comes onto the market, it sells,” says Stratigos, who specializes in Hamilton Field and is president of the Hamilton Field of Marin Association of home owners.
Recent property sales averaged anywhere from around $200,000 in Lanham Village (condominiums built when the base was active) to between $400,000 and $700,000 for the neighborhoods of Hideaway, Hamilton Park, Bayside and Traditions, with Newport/Sunny Cove and South Gate cresting $800,000 and Inspirations selling for over $1 million. Although there is not much inventory on the base at this time, new homes at the Landing at Hamilton Field are being constructed right now and are expected to be available in April.