Alex Mehran's Bishop Ranch Business Park made San Ramon a crossroads of commerce, with 550 companies and 33,000 workers occupying the massive facility.
Now the principal executive of Sunset Development wants to create a new downtown for the East Bay city.
Mehran has fashioned an ambitious plan for what is dubbed the San Ramon City Center, complete with shops, restaurants, a hotel, plazas, open spaces and residences, all within Bishop Ranch.
"City Center is a major undertaking," he said. "It will have a significant impact on San Ramon, the greater Tri-Valley and Bishop Ranch."
The downtown is part of Mehran's vision for Bishop Ranch, which he wants to evolve beyond a collection of sleek office buildings, a place with a bunch of cubicles that's in business only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
"Bishop Ranch is a community, it is not just a project," Mehran said during an interview at his offices on Annabel Lane, a Bishop Ranch street named after his daughter.
Skeptics once lampooned San Ramon as "San Remote," due to its remove from San Francisco. However, Mehran and Bishop Ranch put the city on the map, and now it serves as home to an array of companies ranging from Chevron, AT&T, IBM and Toyota to tiny tenants that occupy as little as 200 square feet.
The park also hosts a farmers market, food trucks and an array of activities for its business tenants.
"There are all kinds of things going on at Bishop Ranch right now," said Andy Armanino, chief executive officer with Armanino Mc- Kenna, an accounting firm with its headquarters in the business park. "There are blood drives, there is going to be a walkathon, you have the foodie trucks. They had some Formula One race cars outside."
The proposal for a downtown San Ramon signals that Mehran is ready to push the envelope again. That's his nature, said Thomas Fehr, a Cornish & Carey Commercial senior vice president based in Walnut Creek.
"Alex has never rested on his laurels," Fehr said. "It's easy for a lot of people to rest on past successes. He keeps trying to embrace new technologies, innovations, amenities for Bishop Ranch."
"In any community there is change," Mehran said. "If a community is not changing, it is dying. Bishop Ranch will continue to change."
A future San Ramon City Center would include a mall with 650,000 square feet of high-end shopping, cafes, restaurants, a hotel, open spaces for performances and other public events, and 488 residential units.
Mehran hearkened back to a Silicon Valley triumph for what he'd like to see with the future downtown, pointing to the virtuous cycle between a legendary office park in Palo Alto and a landmark retail center nearby.
"Stanford Research Park was wholly different before the development of Stanford Shopping Center than it was afterward," Mehran said. "The same change will occur here in San Ramon."
The big problem for starting the project is the economy.
"We have to be careful to assure that we have the wind at our back when we develop the project," he said. "We need retail, hotels, residential to be in growth mode. But they are not in growth mode. They are suffering."
Still, Sunset is ready for the risk when the timing is right. The company has not hesitated to roll the dice on projects in the past.
"We have never developed a building with a tenant in hand," Mehran said. "Every building we have constructed was with the expectation we would find a customer later."
Bishop Ranch has been the scene of an array milestones.
In 1981, the first major occupant, Toyota, arrived. A year later, Chevron announced it would move a slew of operations to Bishop Ranch. The oil giant later shifted its headquarters there and left San Francisco. In 1983, Pacific Bell announced the largest corporate relocation in U.S. history, a defection from San Francisco that brought 7,500 workers to Bishop Ranch.
Bishop Ranch also paid for construction of the Interstate 680-Bollinger Canyon Road interchange, which in 1984 opened as the first privately financed interchange for a California freeway.
That event underscored Mehran's style, said Sunne McPeak, who was a county supervisor in 1984.
More than a quarter-century later, she remembers the Tonka truck she got from Sunset to commemorate the new interchange.
"That is emblematic of Alex," McPeak said. "He does everything first-class. He makes people remember the event."
Sunset executives sent out miniature baseball bats when Mickey Mantle -- who wore No. 7 as a New York Yankees star -- appeared to mark the groundbreaking for the Bishop Ranch 7 office building. In 2002, Sunset Development marked its 50th anniversary by distributing toy Radio Flyer wagons, a throwback to the 1950s.
Bishop Ranch's biggest rival is Hacienda Business Park, a short distance away in Pleasanton. However, the two parks have evolved differently.
With a few major exceptions, notably early property sales from Sunset Development to Chevron and Pacific Bell, Bishop Ranch is owned by Sunset Development.
Hacienda, like Bishop Ranch, was master-planned from the start. But the initial builders of Hacienda sold off numerous pieces to other developers, so no single firm steered its development.
"Bishop Ranch and Hacienda are both wonderful business parks," said Jim Ghielmetti, chief executive officer with Pleasanton-based Signature Properties. "But if you had to give an edge to one, I would say Bishop Ranch has had more continued success than Hacienda."
Yet Bishop Ranch nearly became a park that never was.
Initially, the Mehrans proposed a huge residential subdivision on the site. Masud Mehran, Alex's father, was fresh from success with a 1,260-acre residential development in Livermore called Sunset Town.
San Ramon insisted on offices, not homes. The Mehrans went back to the drawing board and came back with the concept of an office park.
Now, three generations of Mehrans -- Masud, Alex, and Alex's son -- are involved with Sunset, a name Masud picked because he and his wife loved Bay Area sunsets.
"My interest is to continue the legacy of Sunset Development, which my father started in 1951, and to create the best working environment that we can," Alex said. "My destiny was pretty clear to me in terms of doing something I like that would be good for the family."
Contact George Avalos at 925-977-8477. Follow him at Twitter.com/george_avalos.
City of birth: Oakland
Education: Bachelor of arts, Harvard University, 1972; law degree, Cambridge University, 1974
Profession: CEO of Sunset Development
Quote: "I never had any doubt about Bishop Ranch being