Banking on Tainted Ground 

The Navy balks at cleaning up its old Alameda base, but if it accepts the city's latest plan, houses may bloom there yet.

Last month when the Pentagon recommended closing the Concord Naval Weapons Station, Mayor Laura Hoffmeister was pictured in the San Francisco Chronicle sucking cake frosting off her index finger. There was good cause for her to celebrate. If Congress approves the closure, Concord hopes to oversee the development of 13,500 new homes on the site, plus schools, business parks, and open space.

But if the experience of other Bay Area cities is any indication, Concord officials should temper their excitement. Before ground is broken, they are in for a tedious process of compromise, toxic assessments, and cleanup negotiations.

At least that has been the case in Alameda, which has been itching to build on the former Alameda Naval Air Station since 1993. The base boasts 1,600 acres of developable waterfront property right in the center of the Bay Area. When the area now known as Alameda Point was chosen for closure, the community was terrified by the proposed loss of four hundred jobs that had helped sustain the island's economy since World War II. The city immediately mobilized and began working on a redevelopment plan. It was approved in 1996, but the project is still on hold.

The Navy has surrendered only about eighty acres since it officially ceased operations at the base. The remaining 1,520 acres have been ensnared in toxic cleanup negotiations. "It has been a long process because of the environmental issues," Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson said of the former base, which was put on the Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup list in 1999. "We can't do anything with the property until it's cleaned up."

Bound by the federal Environmental Protection Act, the Navy cannot transfer the land until it is reasonably cleaned of toxic hazards. And the sticking point in transferring the base has been agreement on what a "reasonable" cleanup would cost.

The Navy rejected the city's 2003 transfer proposal because the city wanted $370 million more for cleanup then the Navy was willing to give. It took the city two years to regroup and submit another proposal that would only transfer about four hundred acres. The land in question was used for Navy housing, and requires little cleanup compared to the rest of the property.

The Navy has agreed to respond by June 30, and Alameda Point planners are on pins and needles as they await its decision. City officials and the project's master developer, the Alameda Point Community Partners -- a partnership of the Centex Corporation and Shea Homes -- said they believe they can reach agreement with the Navy over the cost of cleaning up the four hundred acres.

If the Navy says yes, the city hopes to break ground sometime next year on 1,200 new residential units, 695,000 square feet of commercial space, a $10 million sports complex, and 134 acres of open space. If the answer is no, plans to create new housing on the base could be set back by two years, and possibly much longer.

"We are cautiously optimistic," said Alameda's base reuse and redevelopment manager, Debbie Potter. A Navy spokesman also was positive about the proposal. "We are looking forward to conveying the land and having development begin," Navy base closure manager Ron Plaseied said. "I know there is a level of frustration, but wait and see the redevelopment plan they have in mind. It's beautiful, and I think they will forget the past. Just wait."

Alameda Point Advisory Committee chairman Lee Perez, who has worked on the reuse plan for thirteen years, is ready to see some progress. "The process has been considerably frustrating," he said. "At first they told us our group would be around for four years, five at the most. But the toxicity problems on the base persist and the negotiations have gone on and on and on."

Plaseied said his agency also has been frustrated by the seemingly endless details. Out of the 23 major military bases closed in California in the last fifteen years, Alameda Point has some of the most extensive contamination. Finding agreement on cleaning it has been unexpectedly difficult because of the multitude of agencies involved. Besides the Navy, stakeholders include the city of Alameda, its master developer, the US EPA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, and the nonprofit environmental organization Arc Ecology.

"When I first became manager in 1999, I had no idea of the extent of necessary cleanup and no idea of the time it would take to reach agreement," Plaseied said. "But the more people you have in a room, the longer it takes to reach agreement."

The level of contamination at the base is commensurate with its importance during World War II. When war broke out in the Pacific, the Navy rushed to build hangars, housing, and airfields, and often took short cuts with construction of storm drains and other infrastructure. Once completed, the base became one of the navy's busiest air stations, facilitating critical air support to Pacific convoys and West Coast patrol operations.

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