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Fearing job losses, Vallejo plans ... and waits
By Andy Walton
VALLEJO, California -- When the Navy closed the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, it ended one of its oldest West Coast traditions and left this city north of San Francisco with a potential disaster -- and a potential windfall.
The Navy built ships at Mare Island, its first Pacific coast shipyard, for more than 140 years. The shipyard's first commander was David G. Farragut, who would later become a Civil War hero and the country's first four-star admiral. In its long career, Mare Island built 392 ships and repaired 4,560.
At its peak, during World War II, the shipyard had more than 41,000 employees. That number had shrunk to 10,000 by the time the base was marked for closure in 1993; even before the closure was announced, the Navy had plans to cut the work force to 6,000.
In addition to the loss of 10,000 direct jobs, the city of Vallejo estimated that the closure would mean the loss of 15,000 indirect jobs at the video rental stores, restaurants and other services that would no longer have a market without the shipyard's employees as customers.
The city estimated that its unemployment rate would rise from about 7 percent to more than 15 percent. In fact, economic growth absorbed most of the losses; Vallejo's unemployment rate peaked at 9 percent in 1993, and was down to 5.7 percent last August. So the city now looks on Mare Island in terms of growth rather than damage control.
Red tape, green concerns
Vallejo contracted EDAW, a San Francisco-based land-planning company, to develop a plan for the city's use of the island. That plan was completed in 1994, but the city didn't start moving in until 1996. It was the first of many bureaucratic and environmental delays that still frustrate many of the city's plans.
Any city seeking to use a former military base faces obstacles -- the military is not bound by many local environmental laws, so base properties must be cleaned up before they can be handed over for civilian use. At Mare Island, the Navy will spend an estimated $157 million to remove chemical and nuclear waste by the year 2010.
"We developed a six-year plan for the cleanup of the island, meaning that the Navy developed it and we agreed to it," says Gil Hollingsworth, the city's conversion program manager. "But that six-year plan required that we get $30 million a year (for the cleanup). ... The government has actually been providing about $9 million."
"Our six-year plan is probably closer to a 20-, possibly a 30-year plan by the time we finish," Hollingsworth says.
Other complications also have hampered the city. Other federal agencies have first pick of former military sites, and several agencies have exercised that claim; an Army Reserve training center will move onto the island, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken over 670 acres of wetlands as a wildlife refuge.
Rather than wait for the remainder of the island to become available all at once, the city and Navy divided it into parcels. Each parcel is leased to the city as it becomes available. Seven of the 13 parcels have been leased to the city, which in turn can lease them to tenants.
The federal government is a demanding landlord, and its restrictions have slowed the process. "A normal industrial lease is on legal-size paper, maybe a page and a half," Hollingsworth says. "Ours are well over 300 pages. ... That's the [federal] government lease. Then I have another lease, which is 36 pages, which I put on top of that."
None of the island has yet been handed over to the city, but the city hopes that will change soon -- Vallejo has filed its final Economic Development Conveyance, and if the Navy accepts that document, it could start handing over title to the city as soon as April.
Open for business
The city's top priority is simply stated: Jobs. "What ... will determine the success of our redevelopment ... is, 'How many jobs do we re-establish on Mare Island?'" Hollingsworth says.
Most of the tenants that have moved in thus far reflect this priority. In the waterfront area designated for heavy industry, a company called XKT Engineering is working with steel on a massive scale in a building once used to make nuclear submarines.
"There are very few facilities in the world like this," says XKT's president, Al Bottini. "With the size, location to water, the available assets, I'm not aware of any others that are like this. It's a heavy steel fabricating facility, primarily used in the past by the Navy for fabricating submarines, which is very similar to the type of work that we do."
XKT starts with steel plates, which are rolled into tubes and welded together. The resulting tubes are used as structural supports; XKT counts the recent renovation of San Francisco International Airport among its projects. On Mare Island, XKT has direct access to the water.
"Location near the water of a fabricating facility is a primary concern. Most of our parts are very large, and we have to ship them by barge," Bottini says. "We've had load-outs of 400 to 500 tons directly to barges."
Another tenant, Womack International, has leased both space and hardware. The company, which builds industrial filtration equipment, moved into a former Navy warehouse and is also renting some $2 million worth of machine tools the city inherited from the Navy.
"The Navy had established one of the largest machine facilities in the Western United States here on the island," company president Thomas Womack says. "We had the opportunity to select specific machines that met the needs of our business to move into this building."
Smaller-scale projects have also gone forward. A former Navy hospital, more recently used as the Navy's Combat Systems Tactical School, is scheduled to become Touro University's School of Osteopathic Medicine, which is moving from San Francisco. The school says it will have more than 25 students in the fall, and more than 2,000 in 10 years, when the university moves other programs to the island.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent $3.1 million to renovate the base's medical and dental clinic as a primary care clinic for veterans. Much of that money was spent to add a heating and air conditioning system -- the building was heated by the yard's central steam plant, now gone -- and to improve phone lines and accessibility for the handicapped.
Some of the island's industrial space has been converted to more glamorous use. The underwater scenes for the movie "Sphere" were originally to be shot in one of the base's dry docks but were moved to a smaller indoor tank on the island. Part of Eddie Murphy's "Metro" were shot here, and three Robin Williams projects -- "Jack," "Flubber" and "What Dreams May Come" -- used the island.
Along the river sits an eerie sight -- the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, in the process of being gutted. The Navy first sold the carrier for scrap in 1995. Two companies bought the carrier, but both went out of business. The two companies also removed enough metal from the ship that it is now unseaworthy and can no longer be safely towed. The Navy is looking for a third buyer to scrap what is left of the carrier.
The ship itself has not been entirely idle. In the filming of "What Dreams May Come," the Oriskany served as the set for the main character's passage into hell.
Among the industrial trappings, the island has a ready-made community with everything but residents. The island has a school, two day-care centers, three fire stations, a nine-hole golf course, three swimming pools and riding stables. Long rows of barracks will be demolished or gutted to make room for less Spartan housing.
The city plans three residential districts; one of them, designated area 10, was planned to have a marina for pleasure boats. That plan has been postponed, again because of environmental concerns. "We have found out that this is going to be a 20-year project to clean this area up," Hollingsworth says. "We probably won't build housing and a marina for an awful long time."
The centerpiece of the island's historic district is Alden Park, which resembles an ordinary park at the center of any small town, but with naval hardware. Captains were encouraged to bring back trees from their travels, and 35 trees from all corners of the Earth, many of them more than 100 years old, dot the park. A gazebo at the center of the park is surrounded by cannons from older Navy ships, and a Polaris missile serves as a memento of some of the last ships built here.
The mansions on Captain's Row, formerly homes for senior officers, are being leased as corporate offices. But environmental concerns arise here, too -- the Navy has warned these tenants that they may have to move out for as long as six months while the buildings are stripped of lead-based paint.
St. Peter's Chapel, built in 1900 for a congressional appropriation of $5,000, is one of the government's great bargains. The little church has 26 Tiffany stained-glass windows, seats 200, and has become popular as a wedding site since the base closed.
The southern end of the island is planned as a park, with the golf course expanded to the standard 18 holes. Two other recreation areas are planned elsewhere on the island, one for organized athletic fields, the other as open space over the base's former landfill.
Vallejo's plans are elaborate. Walking around the island, it may look like a relatively simple matter for people to move in. But appearances are deceiving; much of the environmental damage is invisible, as is the bureaucratic blockage. After years of effort, Vallejo finally may have overcome enough obstacles to begin its next phase. But the island's military traditions will always remain as landmarks in its new neighborhoods.