The long-range major transformation of the . headquarters in Novato into a multiuse complex with retail, commercial and some housing units is moving forward slowly despite the recession and despite that the property is for sale right now.
American Assets, the San Diego-based company that owns of the property just off San Marin Drive, continues to work with agencies such as the city of Novato, the Novato Sanitary District and the North Marin Water District as it seeks various approvals for new construction, said company CEO John Chamberlain.
The Commons is the largest planned development in Marin and is scheduled to open about 10 years from now. As it is drawn up now — prior to any approvals from the city — it would double the size of the complex from 710,000 square feet to 1.4 million square feet, but there would be about five more acres of greenbelt or open spaces areas than exists now because of the percentage of development that would be underground.
The rough-draft plans include leaving the three main Fireman's Fund buildings where they are and giving them technical upgrades to make them more sustainable. The plans also include more commercial space, a luxury hotel, shops, restaurants, underground parking, gardens, playing fields and some housing units, all using the greenest technology available. With the emphasis on renewable energy and sustainability, the development would return power to the grid, according to data from American Assets.
American Assets has been going through a transition of its own by taking its real estate company public. Chamberlain said part of the process of getting onto the New York Stock Exchange was transferring all properties into a real estate investment trust, and that step requires giving Fireman’s Fund the first right to acquire the property if the site is being sold or transferred.
“It’s a technical process of the lease we have with them,” Chamberlain said. “We were just proposing to make the transfer and keep moving forward.”
Fireman’s Fund, which leases the 710,000-square-foot complex at 775 San Marin Drive, appears to be holding tight and waiting to see what happens. It released a statement to Patch earlier this week that read, "Fireman's Fund is a high-net-worth insurer with a strong customer base in Marin and the Bay Area, and we plan to stay headquartered in this region despite a potential ownership change of our property."
The company's lease runs out in 2018. About 1,000 employees work out of the Novato headquarters.
Chamberlain said the traffic mitigation issues that came up during public workshops about the Commons more than a year ago are still being tackled. Many residents of the Partridge Knolls and San Marin neighborhoods spoke during the workshops about what a massive complex would do to traffic going on and off Highway 101.
“We’ve been hung up for a period of time, going around and around on some of the traffic mitigation plans,” he said. “A lot of the concerns raised where not specific to our project. If our project were moving ahead in a vacuum, we wouldn’t have a problem. But the city needs assurances that all those things will be provided for.”
Novato’s population — now at about 52,000 with the 2010 census — has grown an average of .7 percent per year for many years, Chamberlain said, but the model the consultants provided to his firm projected an annual growth of 3 percent per year. American Assets’ stance is that it shouldn’t be responsible for all the traffic mitigation in the area.
“We have a disconnect on that,” he said. “ … We’re coming up with very defendable, very realistic growth projections. We have patiently and cooperatively tried to work together to arrive at a formula that everyone can live with.”
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station that was scheduled to be built adjacent to the Fireman’s Fund property could be delayed because of the rail authority’s budget problems, according to reports from the latest SMART board meeting. The North Novato station is drawn up for a slice of land between North Redwood Boulevard and Highway 101, and a pedestrian walkway between the rail station and the Commons was a major part of the project’s design.
Chamberlain said he’s watching the SMART plans unfold from afar.
“Like any other commuter rail project, they never seem to have enough money to build them,” he said. “Hopefully plans for the station at some point in the future will remain if they decide to delay it. Obviously we’d like for it to happen sooner rather than later.”
Otherwise, Chamberlain said dealing with the city of Novato has been much easier than with some other cities where American Assets projects have been built.
“We’ve had a very pleasant interaction with the city,” he said. “When issues would arise, we’d put our heads together and work toward a resolve rather than creating more problems that don’t exist. … There is an extraordinary level of review, and I understand that it’s needed, but from that standpoint it’s been more complicated than most.”