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How closing bases can be good for our communities

How closing bases can be good for our communities

March 21, 2004

MONTEREY - With the federal government poised to begin another round of military base closures, California politicians from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on down are moving into position to argue against shutting any of the state's 62 remaining military installations.

To do otherwise would be considered political suicide. Nobody ever got elected by agreeing to move jobs, even low-paying government jobs, out of their community.

But closing a military base and converting it to civilian use doesn't have to be something to fear. True, in remote areas with little else going for them, a base closure can be a local economic disaster that creates a ghost town. In areas with more economic diversity, however, the transformation, while still difficult, can be a good thing.

I recently toured the former Fort Ord Army base near here, which was closed in 1994. What I saw showed both the pitfalls and the potential of closing a major base and reshaping it for other uses. While the transition has been tough on two small towns adjacent to the base, the greater region is surviving, and the future looks bright.

Fort Ord covers 45 square miles, roughly the size of the city and county of San Francisco. It began as a training base for the cavalry and artillery around 1914 and blossomed during World War II, peaking with about 50,000 soldiers at one point. By the time Congress voted to close it, 15,000 soldiers and 17,000 dependents were living on the base. About 3,800 civilian employees also worked there.

That's a lot of jobs and people to move quickly from a community, and it wasn't easy. The two small towns near the base, Marina and Seaside, lost 18,000 people in four years, and unemployment soared. Monterey also suffered, and the county's jobless rate remains one of the highest in the state.

Driving along former Fort Ord roads still named for famous generals - Sherman Street, Abrams Drive - your first impression is of how little seems to have changed in the ten years since the Army left this place. About 12,000 barrack units stand vacant, windows boarded and paint peeling from their clapboard siding. An entire neighborhood of more than 1,000 single family homes are abandoned, even as the region cries out for more affordable housing. Most of the housing that remains here has been condemned and will be torn down.

My guide, planner Steve Endsley, explains the slow pace of the transformation. More than 50 federal, state and local regulatory agencies have a hand in the process, and disputes over environmental, water and housing issues have stalled progress.

Contaminants and unexploded ordnance left behind by the Army have also been a hindrance. The base's future is guided by voluminous plan drafted by a board that includes representatives from eight cities and Monterey County.

"It's a grand compromise," Endsley says.

There are signs of vitality. The biggest is the new California State University campus, which is housed in a collection of former Army buildings and new structures built for the school. The campus has an enrollment of more than 3,000 students and eventually plans more than 10,000 here. With its prime coastal location, it's not hard to imagine CSU Monterey Bay becoming one of the more popular CSU campuses within a decade.

Other educational institutions are also moving in. The University of California, Santa Cruz has a center that will focus on incubating high-tech small business. Golden Gate University is here. And a local community college plans a regional police training facility on the grounds.

New single-family housing priced at more than $500,000 is going up in Seaside, and Marina plans a major senior citizen housing complex. A mixed-use community of commercial and housing envisioned as a showcase for the latest methods in environmentally friendly "sustainable" design and construction is on the drawing boards. And the historic core of the base, known as the East Garrison, is slated to be restored into a new community with an artist's colony at its center. Elsewhere, resort hotels, condominiums and golf courses will soon be under construction. Across Highway 1, sand dunes once used as a firing range will become a new state beach.

Eventually, the former base is expected to have 6,100 new housing units and a total population of more than 35,000. That's just a few more than were here before, but the new mix of public and private uses promises to be far more vibrant and dynamic than a walled-off military base ever could be.

If there's a lesson here for today's politicians, it might be that losing a military base doesn't have to be a disaster. Time and money spent fighting closures might be better directed at figuring out which communities could benefit most from a conversion, then embracing their fate and making sure the transition happens as quickly as possible.

About the Writer

Reach Daniel Weintraub at (916) 321-1914 or


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Re: How closing bases can be good for our communities

It's about time the resources of these closed down military bases gets put to use. In a time when our own economy produces jobs that don't even come close to paying wages that could be considered poverty level we need some kind of low income communities to help people get some self respect back. And what better to set up such a community than these used to be self suficiant military instalations that are just taking up space. Believe you me the hazards of what the military left behind weighed against having no prospects of a future at all most people are willing to take. What a step in eliminating homeless. I was stationed at fort ord and no that to allow these resources to lie empty to the point of no return is nothing more than criminal. A decaying building to sleep in is sure alot better than a freeway overpass.


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