http://danvillesanramon.com/print/story/print/2008/01/25/designed-for-distinction


DanvilleSanRamon.com

Cover Story - January 25, 2008

Designed for distinction

Prospector Square brings beauty and grace to retail hub

by Jordan M. Doronila

Delightful designs adorn an elegant building that enchants East Prospect Avenue in Danville.

"By putting a beautiful building there, you're elevating the street," said Kim Williams of Pearson & Williams, developer of Prospector Square.

Prospector Square has the appearance of multiple buildings but is actually only one structure, 12,600 square foot and two stories high, with solar panels. It has latticed gables, colored stucco and a dark patina copper roof.

"When you're going to make a multimillion dollar building in town, you're going to get three times the traffic and recognition on the street," said architect Blair Barry, of Barry and Volkmann on Hartz Avenue. "Every building on that street has gone up in value."

Williams and Barry began working on Prospector Square in 2000. She said she was looking for a long-term, interesting project in Danville in the pedestrian heart of town.

"My husband and I were looking for a good real estate investment," she said.

Williams, who comes from Danville, Ill., had already renovated the town's historic Vecki House on Front Street. She wanted to develop another piece of property and the 18,858-square-foot lot that had housed Davis & Daughters carpet store around the corner on Prospect Street became available. That building had also served as the post office.

When Williams purchased the property, she said she started from scratch, which gave her the freedom to implement her ideas. She wanted to create an edifice that had the look and feel of the cozy shops in Carmel by the Sea, which sit on stone-paved streets and look like cottages welded together. She chose Barry as her architect because she liked his designs for retail businesses such as Forward Motion on Hartz Avenue, and she had worked with him before.

"Why go to somebody else?" she said. "He was the right architect for the job."

She told her ideas to Barry.

"I wanted something beautiful," she said. "I didn't want something ostentatious."

Barry delved into research and conjured up designs. He looked at photographs of buildings in Carmel but didn't want to copy them. He perused structure designs in Nevada City, which has western building patterns similar to some in Danville.

Barry also had to work within the Town of Danville's vision.

"It's a straitjacket," said Barry, about conforming to the town's building design concepts to maintain its small town character and western look. "The town sees itself as a static image. Things change. The Town of Danville is just realizing that."

"These buildings are a struggle to get," Barry said. "It's takes a huge commitment and time and money."

"Nobody likes seeing the same house over and over again," he added.

Mayor Candace Andersen explained that although buildings in Danville have to be compatible with existing buildings, many structures downtown have their own unique image, such as the Shuey-Podva House, now occupied by Branagh Development, on the corner of School Street and Hartz. There are buildings that look Victorian and others that appear like cottages.

Councilman and architect Newell Arnerich said all architects face the challenges of working within parameters.

"I don't think we have great resistance from property owners and developers," Arnerich said, noting they have supported the town's vision in their projects.

Regardless of differing views, the town was excited with Barry's designs.

The project was expensive to build. This means rents are 30 percent more in Prospector Square than at other places in town. Her tenants pay the highest rent in Danville at $4 a square foot, said Williams.

Williams also said it was a struggle to get a loan. She wasn't the typical developer, and she only had worked on one project, renovating the Vecki House.

"It's an uphill battle from the start," she said.

Also, most developers are men and she is a woman, which may have added to her difficulties.

"It surprises some people," she said.

But she believes in the end bankers saw her credibility rather than her gender.

She was articulate in her plans, had owned a tech start-up company, and she had a master's degree in business administration, which was enough to convince a banker to give her the loan.

Danville town staff, the Design Review Board, the Planning Commission and the Town Council liked the Prospector Square renderings and approved the project. Barry said having a thorough blueprint helps immensely in getting a project approved in town, without any fudging in the design. If the designs are rushed and poorly done, it will be a struggle to get through the planning process, he said.

The design was finished in a year and a half; and the construction of Prospector Square took another year and a half.

"You take the risk and hope and pray," said Williams.

For now, with the real estate market suffering, Prospector Square's chances of making a profit immediately are bleak.

"I'm not going to profit for 10 years on this project," Williams said. "I'm left with the eventual appreciation of the property."

Prospector Square may go up in value because its attractiveness raises the value of the surrounding stores. Or Williams may make a profit when a new owner purchases the property at a high price.

She said location, space and image helps her tenants' businesses even

though the rent is expensive. The ambiance and the flow of pedestrians make the area attractive.

Williams said she is doing her best to accommodate her tenants and help them become successful.

"I'm scared for them because it's hard," she said. "They are taking a big risk in their personal finances."

But the tenants say they are doing fine. Prospector Square now houses retail stores Flaunt Boutique, Mi Piaci - All Things Beautiful and Christina's Fine Women's Clothing as well as offices on the second floor.

"We love the space," said Ashley Barry, manager of Flaunt Boutique. "There's everything you need in this building. We do well. It's worth the high price."

"It's a great space," said Brad Roberts, floral designer and manager at Mi Piaci - All Things Beautiful. "It's well built. We do get quite a few clients - many are by referral. Business is going well."

Lori Fernald, a customer at Mi Piaci, enjoys the structure's texture.

"I love the building," she said. "It's very creative."

Barry said he tells his clients to focus on quality of life instead of money.

"You've got to get beyond the dollar-in-and-dollar-out mentality," he said, noting he has been in the business for more than 25 years and has seen slips in the economy before. "Bigger is not better but quality is better."

He said other developers focus on the bottom line of money and their projects are often bland and generic. His clients have an entrepreneurial spirit and are often willing to spend money to create something different.

"You've got to think outside the box," he said.

The Town of Danville recognized Prospector Square's excellence, giving it the Architectural Design Award at the annual Mayor's Installation and Community Service Awards ceremony in December.

"It's wonderful," said Mayor Andersen. "It has some elegant elements."

"It's nice to know the town appreciates the level of time, effort and money we put into this project," said Williams.

Prospector Square also won the Gold Nugget Award for best retail project, sponsored by the PCBC and Builder Magazine. The award honors creative achievement in architectural design and land use planning for residential, commercial and industrial projects. Prospector Square competed against entries from 14 Western states and other countries.

"It was an honor," said Barry. "It was great. It was a huge surprise (to win) on this scale. We were competing against huge shopping centers."

Councilman Arnerich noted that architects have been successful in integrating the local vernacular and the town's small town charm in their designs.

"Prospect Avenue is a hot market in retail in Danville," he said. "I think the community owes a lot to Kim Williams. Her investment is huge in downtown both economically and her personal commitment."

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