New vision sought for Mare Island
Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series on the 10-year anniversary of the closing of Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
By CHRIS G. DENINA/Times-Herald /Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Vallejo Times HeraldToday's Mare Island isn't the same place city officials dreamed it would be back in 1996, the year the military base began morphing toward civilian control.
A decade later, just as former shipyard workers are readying to celebrate Saturday's 10-year anniversary of the base closure, residents and activists are seeking a new vision for the former military base.
Instead of dredge ponds, they want wetlands. Instead of a liquefied natural gas plant, they want a regional park.
And instead of a ghost town, they want a bustling community - a dream that's nearing reality, now that hundreds of people have moved into new houses on the old base.
Some say it may be time for a new reuse plan for converting the military base to civilian uses.
"We just need to look at everything we're doing on Mare Island to make sure it's updated, it's where we want to go as a city, and it's the best for all of Vallejo," City Councilmember Stephanie Gomes said in a recent interview.
In the early 1990s, the community and area lawmakers were lobbying for the federal government to keep Mare Island open in the wake of the end of the Cold War.
People worried the loss of the naval base would plunge the city into a recession from the hit the closure would have on local businesses.
Later, their fears were realized, when shops struggled or closed, and the school district lost funding as students from military families left, and families tied to the shipyard moved away.
"It was a very traumatic time when it closed," said former Mayor Gloria Exline, who was on the council at the time.
"I wish I had been smart and invested in real estate," Exline added. "At that time, a lot of people had to leave and they sold their homes. Real estate went down. You could have made a fortune."
When word came down that the base was on a federal list of assets slated for closure, the city had to change gears. City officials called for residents to work on a reuse plan for the base.
The reuse plan was good as a general plan, but it failed to provide details about how to accomplish those goals, said Ken Zadwick, president of the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation. The nonprofit runs a naval museum on the old base, and offers tours of island sites including St. Peter's Chapel.
"People weren't thinking that much into the future," Zadwick said. "They were thinking more about the fact things had to be done to create the transfer of the property to the city."
Residents threw out numerous ideas, settling on a broad vision including houses, warehouses and offices - much like what developer Lennar Mare Island LLC is working on today. But it also called for reopening the dredge ponds, which were viewed as a way to make money for the city.
At one point, it was estimated the city would net more than $30 million from allowing sediment from local waterways to get dumped on Mare Island.
The reuse plan was developed based on the economic realities of the time, Mayor Tony Intintoli Jr. said.
But the realities of the situation changed last year when buyers of the first batch of new houses moved in. Those new homeowners quickly rose in protest over a plan to reopen dredge ponds once used for sediment taken from the Mare Island channel.
Military personnel and their families for years had lived by the dredge ponds when they were in use. When the reuse plan was drawn up, no one apparently realized that people spending more than a half-million dollars for a new house would object.
The dredge ponds may have been appropriate when the reuse plans were drawn up a decade ago, but today they're not a feasible idea, Gomes said.
Lennar apparently agreed, choosing to pay an undisclosed sum to dredge pond developer Weston Solutions Inc. to drop the project. The company also said it would pay $2.7 million to the city and local community groups to get Vallejo officials to OK the change in plans, since the city was expecting to profit from the dredge ponds.
The dredge pond shift is just one example.
Just as the city's budget is revised during the year, the reuse plan for Mare Island will be updated, Intintoli said.
"It is an expected process because if you make something too rigid like the constitution of the United States, you expect a change to be necessary as a society develops and evolves," Intintoli said.
"The reuse plan was a broad brush," Tom Sheaff, regional vice president of Lennar Corporation, which formed Lennar Mare Island venture. "I think there's much more detail in terms of what actually works and can work and how you implement that."
Lennar, however, is sticking to the basics of the reuse plan, which includes building as many as 1,400 houses. The company also expects as much 7 million square feet of commercial office space to be built.
When the project's finished years from now, Lennar hopes more than 6,000 will be employed on Mare Island.
The city's goal for Mare Island has long been to create an economic engine for Vallejo. It's the vision for accomplishing it that's changed over the years.
Progress has been as bumpy as the roads on the old base.
In 2002, city officials promoted an energy plant as a fit for Mare Island's south end and were caught off guard when many residents stood up to fight the project. Gomes, who was new to Vallejo at the time, joined in the successful fight to drive off the project.
Other potential ideas also floundered or died.
City officials in 2003 turned away an American Indian group's pitch to build a casino, hotel and convention center that would have brought as many as 10,000 visitors a day to Mare Island's north end.
That same year, the city also rejected a proposal to create a residential community of buildings with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and residences above. They deemed it too similar to the downtown renewal project that was approved last year.
After the base closed, a company called Legacy Partners Commercial Inc. wanted to take on the base conversion project but backed out because of a dispute over district taxes.
The city later picked Harvest Properties and Weston - the same company that dropped the dredge pond project - to tackle the job. But in 2004, the team backed out from developing Mare Island's north end.
The companies cited issues including the area's poor infrastructure and the city's requirement to put up more than $2.5 million in earnest money to show they were sincere about working on the project.
The city's vision for Mare Island is subject to change over the years, Councilmember Gary Cloutier said.
"Nobody ever said the reuse plan was set in stone," Cloutier said. "Generally, the departures we've had from it have caused unfortunate controversy but rightly so."
Just because the dredge ponds didn't pass muster doesn't mean the reuse plan is outmoded, Cloutier said.
"It just means that particular part of the plan didn't work," he said.
If the reuse plan covers the broad strokes of Mare Island's future, it's the details that need work, said Myrna Hayes, community co-chair of Mare Island Restoration Advisory Board. The group monitors the base conversion's progress.
"Is there an opportunity to open up the process to be a little more creative, to get a little more spontaneity out of it?" Hayes said.
The public could help decide what to do with specific buildings, she said. For instance, she noted an old military building at Tennessee Street and Wilson Avenue, near a Mare Island entrance.
"Why not say, 'Hey folks, here's a building that we're going to put out a request for proposals on,'?" Hayes said. "Instead, what is it? It's boarded up, graffitied and fires set in it. Instead, it's a huge monolithic eyesore."
"Where is the art gallery?" she added.
There's apparently no shortage of ideas.
Mare Island could use a flower mart, more bio-tech firms and the return of more shipbuilding activities, City Councilmember Tom Bartee said.
The old base has plenty of space for a wholesale flower operation. Touro University has plans to expand its campus and may add more students. And as a former shipyard, Mare Island has infrastructure like dry-docks needed for building ships.
"That would be a huge boon to the island," Bartee said of his ideas.
Mare Island's future may lie in the people who live there.
So far, they've been the ones who've been the most vocal in criticizing the decade-old reuse plan.
Wendell Quigley, for one, helped lead a band of residents in protesting the failed dredge pond project.
He said he bought his Tisdale Avenue house last year because he saw the potential for Mare Island. Shortly after the purchase, he learned of the plan to reopen the dredge ponds just over his backyard fence.
The reuse plan needs to be revised, Quigley said.
"Vallejo doesn't need to be known as a dumping ground because we're really actually a diamond in the rough," Quigley said.
Vallejo offers commuters access to ferry boats and living here is more affordable than in San Francisco, he said.
In a way, Mare Island is still like a blank slate, its future still evolving, he said.
"I think in the future the potential's, sky's the limit," Quigley said.
Monday: Thoughts for the future.
- E-mail Chris G. Denina at email@example.com or call 553-6835.