When you're renovating of one of the largest rental properties in California's Bay area, it's important to think big. And, in the Richmond, Calif., of the late 1980s, it didn't get much bigger than the Hill top Bayview Apartments, a garden-style, 1,008-unit complex comprising 42 buildings spread over 50 acres in scenic Contra Costa County.

Unfortunately, the “dream-big” mentality of that era peaked with the techno-bubble bust, and the Hilltop, like much of the Richmond area, suffered. The property was foreclosed on in the mid-1990s and was institutionally owned for nearly a decade.

But in 2005, along came the next big thing.

HILLTOP BEAUTY: This sprawling property, nestled in the hills less than an hour from San Francisco, Sacramento, and the Napa Valley, was extensively overhauled. New features include security systems, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and a new name to reflect its beautification: Bella Vista at Hilltop. The Hilltop made headlines when GMH Capital Partners, a Newtown Square, Pa.-based company, and joint venture partner Fidelity Real Estate Group acquired it for an estimated $114.5 million in 2005. The deal was touted by the Wall Street Journal as the largest acquisition of such a property in the nine-county region since 1997.

That wasn't the only record the Hilltop would set. The $8 million renovation that followed included energy efficiency upgrades that earned the apartment complex the largest rebate ever awarded by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The resulting savings, along with a slew of updated amenities, has had a huge impact on residents and the surrounding community. Today, living large on the property is easier than ever.

HILLTOP VIEW Hilltop's location was one of the property's literal and figurative high points when GMH Capital Partners purchased the ailing apartment complex in May 2005. The area of Richmond that inspired Hilltop's name always enjoyed a more prestigious image than the rest of the city—and it also enjoyed panoramic views of San Pablo Bay as well as easy access to the Eastshore Freeway and BART system.

Those advantages, however, had been largely overshadowed by the property's age, rundown appearance, and lack of amenities, especially when compared with the competition. Among the first steps in the renovation: renaming the property Bella Vista at Hilltop, emphasizing its beautiful view—the literal translation for “bella vista.”


The physical part of the renovation began in June 2005. Despite the building's age, curb appeal was not a problem. “The buildings themselves were very attractive and in decent shape,” says Gary Holloway Jr., president of Newtown Square, Pa.-based GMH Capital Partners, which owns and manages the property. “There are some things you can't change with an older building, but the floor plans were great as-is, so we could compete with the newer properties in the area. The major issue was the amenities were lacking in a large way.”

Remedying that shortfall was critical to GMH's goal of positioning Bella Vista as an inviting, yet reasonably priced, place to live. “We saw the opportunity to be competitive in pricing,” Holloway says. “We could take this property, renovate it, and stay below the two other major properties in the region in terms of rents.”

But to stay competitive in terms of appeal, “we wanted to be able to offer the same amenities on a grander scale,” says Holloway. The expansive property already had five pools in three buildings and four tennis courts (plus two ancillary courts). GMH refurbished these and added a playground; a 2,000-square-foot fitness center that, when completed, is expected to compete with any commercial gym; a business center, and a clubhouse. “Having places to go is important on a property of this size,” says Holloway.