Since William Coblentz’s death on Sept. 13, the San Francisco firm that bears his name has remained a powerful fixture in California real estate.
Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass has been involved in the proposed $1 billion new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers football team and in developments along San Francisco’s waterfront that are changing the face of the city. It had a hand in major legal disputes, including the settlement of a class action against Dish Network LLC, and has grabbed a piece of the market helping emerging companies obtain financing.
Founded in 1890, the firm as it is known today began to take shape when Coblentz joined during the 1950s. His clients would include the late concert promoter Bill Graham and musical groups Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. He represented Catherine and Randolph Hearst in their dealings with the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had kidnapped their daughter, Patricia. Today, the firm has 68 lawyers, half of them partners. Its attorneys focus primarily on real estate, litigation, corporate and tax matters.
Preparations for Coblentz’s departure actually began years before his death. In 2008, the firm reorganized its management structure, placing power in the hands of three co-managing partners, each focusing on a different aspect of the firm’s future. One acts as chief executive officer, another serves as chief operating officer and a third as chief financial officer. The idea, said Richard Patch, head of the litigation department, was to allow each partner to maintain a full law practice while managing the firm.
“It was my idea,” said Patch, who ran the firm as managing partner between 1994 and 2003. “They work together as a group but they have very distinct roles.”
All three managers — Alan Gennis, Danna Kozerski and Jeffrey Knowles — are younger partners, chosen in a conscious effort to pass the leadership torch to the next generation.
“We have great mutual respect, so if one of us decides something, we never second-guess it,” said Gennis, who oversees the finances. “We work really, really well together, and that helps a lot.”
Gennis declined to talk about finances, but he noted that Coblentz Patch was spared layoffs during the recession.
The 49ers hired Coblentz Patch to serve as lead counsel in the land use, environmental, entitlements and lease negotiations for their proposed new 68,000-seat stadium, one of the largest projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. Voters in the city of Santa Clara, Calif., approved a ballot measure last year endorsing the deal, which would move the team from Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The stadium is scheduled to open in 2015.
Coblentz Patch is no stranger to sports deals. It was instrumental in the development of what is now AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants baseball team, a project that moved development of the city’s South Beach district into warp drive. Pamela Duffy, the lead partner on the 49ers project, likened the enthusiasm for the stadium to that for the privately financed Giants’ stadium, which opened in 2000. “People from all walks of life come to these places,” she said. “The public purpose to them is real interesting.”
Coblentz Patch beat 14 other firms for the job, said Patty Inglis, executive vice president for the 49ers. Coblentz won in large part because of the firm’s proven ability to weather the unique challenges of such a complex undertaking, she said. “In large, complex projects, there are both complexities and there is just the sheer time commitment and volume of work it puts you in,” she said.
Those complexities already have emerged. During the past year, the project’s cost has escalated to nearly $1 billion. Financing remains in question, particularly given the recent National Football League lockout of the players’ union and, more recently, Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to eliminate California’s redevelopment agencies. The Santa Clara Redevelopment Agency was supposed to provide about $40 million for the stadium.
“We’re trying to figure out how all this is going to play out,” said Duffy, adding that sports facilities have multiple means of financing opportunities. Case in point: The 49ers recently sold $138 million in luxury boxes at the new stadium.
Coblentz Patch also represents the Exploratorium, a science and educational museum that is moving to the newly reconstructed piers 15 and 17 along San Francisco’s waterfront boulevard, The Embarcadero. The 330,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in 2013.
Another major development is Mission Bay, a 300-acre mixed-use project anchored by the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center’s campus. The firm negotiated the sale of more than $87 million in related residential units during the past year. The project has attracted tech and biotech companies, including the headquarters of Salesforce.com Inc. “That’s been the focus, partly because of the synergy with UCSF,” Duffy said.
Not all of the firm’s big work has been in real estate. On Sept. 18, Patch negotiated a $60 million settlement in a nationwide class action brought against his client, Dish Network LLC, a division of Dish Network Corp., the former media and entertainment arm of EchoStar Communications Corp. More than 20,000 retailers of Dish’s satellite service sued in 2000 to challenge various changes to their contracts. Patch joined the case, which was pending in Arapahoe County, Colo., District Court, less than two years ago, after 13 sanctions rulings regarding discovery had been issued against Dish. Dish faced $2 billion in damages, Patch said. The parties settled one month before the Oct. 12 trial.
The firm sees another area for growth in representing emerging companies in obtaining venture capital. Clients include JiWire Inc. and Solazyme Inc.
“It started out with smaller, more closely held companies,” Duffy said. “But we developed out of that companies that came through our other practices, through litigation or real estate, and began to build this baseline corporate practice.”
Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at email@example.com.
Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass