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Close-up: Richard Vann, Daniel Feldman & Uri Feldman

Sunroad Enterprises marks third decade with diversified portfolio

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Sunroad Enterprises is embarking on its third decade of real estate development with an array of high-profile projects and a bright leadership team.

While founder and President Aaron Feldman is the sole owner of Sunroad Holding Corp. -- an investment company with interests in real estate, auto sales and entertainment that includes Sunroad Enterprises and dozens of other assets -- long-time right-hand man Richard "Rick" Vann, along with Feldman's two sons Uri and Daniel, work as top executives at Sunroad Enterprises.

"Aaron is still the leader and sets the tone for the company. He comes into the office daily and works directly with his group of managers for each business," said the 63-year-old Vann, executive vice president and president of the real estate division. Vann is one of the first and perhaps most tenured of the company's approximately 700 employees.

Rick Vann

Since its founding in the mid-1970s, Sunroad Enterprises has developed 1.5 million square feet of Class A office space, along with residential, retail and resort projects, and currently manages a portfolio of more than 2 million square feet. Among its real estate holdings scattered throughout the county are Sunroad Plaza East and Sunroad Plaza III, two of the tallest buildings in Mission Valley; the popular Maderas Golf Club in Poway; the Sunroad Resort Marina on Harbor Island; the Sunroad Centrum 1 on the former General Dynamics site in Kearny Mesa; and the Sunroad Corporate Centre in University City.

In addition to these real estate developments, it also owns seven auto dealerships in San Diego County and two in Mexico -- a Toyota franchise in Tijuana and Honda outlet in Mexico City.

"We're the only company that owns Toyota dealerships on both sides of the border," said Dan Feldman, 35, a vice president and the younger of the two sons. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, he concentrates mainly on real estate development, acquisitions and leasing.

His older brother Uri, 37, also a vice president and a Stanford University MBA, is involved with both real estate and auto operations, which includes the upcoming opening of another Toyota dealership in Baja California's booming resort town of Cabo San Lucas. Uri Feldman is also project manager of the Harbor Island redevelopment project.

Both born, raised and schooled mostly in La Jolla, the brothers still live only blocks away from each other and only miles from Sunroad's corporate headquarters in nearby University City.

Sunroad's 'long suit'

The serene and well-manicured Sunroad Corporate Centre is comprised of four, four-story buildings, three of which are owned by the local company. The campus-like setting features meandering pathways, lush landscapes, gushing fountains and prominent artwork.

Uri Feldman

According to Dan Feldman, land development and Class A office projects like this one just north of University Towne Centre are Sunroad's "long suit." He proudly points to a display wall of brightly lit photos illuminating many of its notable commercial office projects, most of which contain the Sunroad name as well as prominent business addresses and high-end amenities.

From its first retail strip center built in 1978 to the swanky Sunroad Galleria in downtown La Jolla and now its most recent Sunroad Centrum 1 office tower in Kearny Mesa, the photomontage chronicles how the company has quietly and confidently grown in the last 30 years to become one of the county's biggest real estate development players.

"Our view is that we build them like we'll hold on to them forever," said Vann, adding that the company never turns over property management to a third party and only a few of its properties -- "for strategic reasons" -- have ever been sold.

"We have tremendous pride of ownership, and this is reflected in our extraordinary relationships in the brokerage community and our high levels of tenant retention and satisfaction," he added.

This high approval rating also swings from its commercial office buildings to the Madera Golf Club, which has been ranked five years straight by Zagat Survey as the No. 1 public golf course in San Diego and the fifth best in California.

"We bought that land in the late '90s, then designed it, developed it and still manage it today," said Vann, noting that a spacious ballroom was recently added to the facility for banquets and other special events.

As a private company, Vann said Sunroad is not beholden to Wall Street investors or influenced by other external pressures. "We do things for the right reasons, not because we've got to answer to a board of directors or meet quarterly earnings projections."

Sunroad is "well enough capitalized" to hold on to its real estate holdings until market conditions and prevailing political winds are best for a project.

"We've had some of our real estate holdings for 15 or 20 years," said Vann. "We bought them right, entitled the land and then we'll do the project on our own time in a way that makes the most sense for current market conditions and for the long-term investment."

Calling the shots

While most developers have some skin in the game, "all of the skin is ours," Vann said. "It is riskier, but we get to call all of our own shots."

Daniel Feldman

That game plan includes several projects currently in the pipeline. Sunroad has for more than 20 years had major holdings in Otay Mesa, where it has been trying to get property rezoned for 1,400 homes. Now, however, the land use is being further studied and revaluated, said the younger Feldman brother.

After receiving a Federal Aviation Administration hazard designation for an initial plan, Sunroad has gone back to the drawing boards and is in the process of "developing a concept" and conducting a number of studies for a hotel development near San Diego International Airport. Preliminary plans call for a resort hotel, restaurants and a yacht club on the east side of Harbor Island, public property run by the San Diego Unified Port District.

Sunroad has worked with the Port since 1985, when it was selected to build and manage a 600-slip resort marina. It also is the master lessee of the Island Prime and C Level Lounge site, and is working with local architect Graham Downes to design another new restaurant and lounge concept for the waterfront space once occupied by the Rueben E. Lee paddlewheel restaurant.

The company also is focused on the final countdown for Sunroad Centrum 1. The controversial building near Montgomery Field ran afoul of FAA rules for exceeding height limits and had its top floors removed at the request of top city officials.

According to the Sunroad executives, the 275,000-square-foot Class A office tower in Kearny Mesa nonetheless "represents the ultimate in forward-thinking design and amenities that will set the standard by which all future office developments in San Diego will be judged."

"We believe it is our responsibility as one of San Diego's leading commercial real estate developers to continually strive to set new standards to enhance the experience of our tenants and the communities we serve," Vann said. "Building to minimize impact on the environment and to create an even healthier work environment is a win-win for everyone."

The 11-story LEED-certified green building, scheduled for completion in May, is the first phase of development in Sunroad's master-planned, urban infill community that will include 1 million square feet of office space, 1,000 residential units and a 2-acre park.

The nearly complete office building designed by BPA Architecture Planning recently served as a firefighter-training center. In early March, teams of fully uniformed and heavily equipped firefighters raced in and out of the empty building during high-rise drills.

The use of its office building isn't the company's first move to support the region's public safety services. Following the wildfires in October 2003, Sunroad Enterprises formed the nonprofit Sunroad Fire and Rescue Foundation and pledged to donate $1 million to boost San Diego County's effort to buy a helicopter to fight fires.

For five years, every car sold at its U.S. auto dealerships, every boat slip rented at its marina and every round of golf sold at its golf course resulted in a contribution to help fund the county's $3.5 million expansion of its fleet of helicopters.

"This program has been a source of pride for our employees, who understand that we're not just a business, but also a part of the greater community," Vann said.

Charitable giving has always been a vital part of the ownership's philosophy, as has its endearing employee relations and enduring recognition programs.

Like its many long-time real estate holdings, Sunroad Enterprise prides itself on its strong employee retention record.

"At every company function, we say thanks to our hard-working and loyal employees by recognizing their many years of service," Vann said.

Employees who achieve the 25-year mark -- and there have been many -- are rewarded with a "dream trip." One such recipient took his son fishing in Alaska, while another returned to his homeland of Vietnam, 50 years after fleeing.

"Through thick and thin, we've never had to lay off any of our employees," Vann said. "We hire good people and then we hold on to them. It's the right thing to do."

Esterbrooks is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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