By Christina B. Farnsworth. Once they were hives of activity, command centers for patriots busy defending the country. Today, many are ready and able to perform a new duty: housing the country. They are former military bases, now decommissioned, and they offer a tantalizing bounty of buildable land, especially near metropolitan areas. But what looks easy often isn't. Various obstacles confront developers, including environmental contamination, social mandates, and density issues. The rewards for clearing these hurdles, however, can make the development process worthwhile.

Clean and sober

In 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995, more than 450 major and minor U.S. military bases were decommissioned during four waves of worldwide base realignment and closures, or BRACs. Today, California alone has 27 closed bases in some stage of resurrection. So far, only about half of the 464,000 acres of BRAC property determined by the Department of Defense (DOD) "to be excess," have been sold, or given, to development authorities (which may be a city or a government division), according to government reports. Nonetheless, the opportunities for builders seem obvious. Many retired military bases occupy fabulous sites--oceanfront, lakefront, and upscale areas surrounded by luxury housing. But the glamorous sites also have serious flaws, like brownfields, and their cleanup has slowed the transfer process.

The federal government must meet the same strict environmental cleanup standards as anyone else who owns brownfields. Still, developers and builders may find unwanted surprises on BRAC land, such as buried munitions or other contaminants. If the problems are serious, such as chemical contamination, however, the government must come back and clean them up, says Lauri Moffet Fehlberg, planner for the San Ramon, Calif.-based Dahlin Group. (Dahlin, an architectural and planning firm, has developed a subspecialty in military base reuse planning and design.)

Photo: Jan Ingve

Duplexes mix with single-family detached homes along the same street at The Glen, just as they do in the city. As the base closures progressed in the 1990s, a learning curve arose for both the government and those who wanted to redevelop. In the first round of closures, the government sold parcels along with a social agenda mandated by federal law, including housing for the homeless, affordable housing, and housing for the elderly. Some of the sales fell apart when developers couldn't get approvals because of issues like contaminants or insufficient density. Others failed when buyers didn't embrace the social mandates. The failed parcel sales led the government to renegotiate the sales or simply cede the bases to local communities in later rounds of closures. Even with the giveaways (which include cleanups), DOD has estimated its net total savings from not having to operate excess and underused properties to be $14 billion through 2001. (Thereafter, DOD projects that the annual savings will exceed $5.5 billion.)

Among the successful sales, circumventing the social mandate led to at least one lawsuit that delayed project approval and construction. When plans to set aside housing for the homeless were ignored at Lowry Air Force Base near Denver, Catholic Charities and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless sued The Lowry Redevelopment Authority, holding up construction projects for a year. In October 2000, the charities settled with the Authority, guaranteeing housing for 70 homeless families--30 units in an existing 92-unit apartment complex on the former base and 40 units to be set aside in a new 120-unit apartment community.

Plan of attack

Following the rules, finding and solving potential environmental problems, and planning the sites and building on them is complicated. But if builders make it over the hurdles, they often find strong demand.

So, just how complicated are these projects? Read on.

In 1932, Marin County, Calif., had acquired most of the property for what was to become Hamilton Air Force Base and sold it to the federal government for the princely sum of $1. The government officially decommissioned the base in 1974 and parceled it out to other military and government branches in 1975. The Army got the 722-acre airfield, the Navy received 554 acres of housing and recreational facilities, and the General Services Administration (GSA) got 415 acres for a public sale.

In the city of Novato, part of Marin County, Hamilton is now very desirable real estate, and GSA wanted a lot more than the original $1 to sell the land back to the county, despite the chemical contamination and poor infrastructure the base had incurred after more than 50 years of government use. The GSA's proposed $45 million sale to Berg-Revoir Development Group in 1985 failed, however, when a Novato community referendum overturned plans to build 2,500 to 3,500 high-density housing units and three million square feet of commercial space. The discovery of a landfill also helped deep-six the original deal.

Berg-Revoir turned around and sold its option to the Martin Group, which later became part of the New Hamilton Partnership. The Partnership spent four years working with Novato to develop an acceptable plan for the GSA site. Final approval was for 955 single-family detached homes and duplexes, 95 units of affordable rental housing for the elderly, 535,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, and 200 acres of open space and recreation areas.

Reduced development dictated a lower sales price than the original $45 million, but it took federal legislation in 1993 to change the initial price. Finally, in 1995--20 years after it had been authorized to sell--GSA sold 150 of its 415 acres to the New Hamilton Partnership for $18 million in what it called a "non-BRAC transfer." After landfill remediation, GSA in 1997 conveyed another 250 acres to the city of Novato via a long-term lease for $1.

On top of that, GSA, the California State Office of Historic Preservation, and various other parties involved in the redevelopment also signed a memorandum of agreement, required by section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires developers to follow general historic preservation guidelines during redevelopment. Many of the historic buildings on the site have been rehabbed and reused under that agreement. The historic districts include the hangars and the senior housing; Hamilton's theater, hospital, and pool; and "Spanish housing."

Even after the Hamilton sale was finally completed and a plan accepted, there was still the matter of cleanup, which is expected to take until 2003 to complete, at an estimated cost of $18 million. Problems include methane gas and some underground water containing the gasoline additive MTBE.

Meanwhile, the Army airfield portion of Hamilton was part of the first round of BRAC transfers and in many ways was a guinea pig for transfer procedures. The airfield had problems, including the fact that it lies 2 to 7 feet below sea level and was home to a tank farm that required cleanup.

The airfield required three miles of levees and three pumping stations run by the Army Corps of Engineers at an annual cost of $300,000 to $500,000 to keep it dry. Though the long-range plan included making the airfield wetlands, if the Corps were to stop pumping, adjacent properties also would be vulnerable to flooding. The projected cost of new levees to contain the airfield wetlands and protect adjacent properties ranged from $30 million to $40 million.

As for the Navy, in 1996 it vacated its Hamilton housing, which the federal government sold to the city of Novato for $8.13 million in a deal that took three years to negotiate. The government also retained 150 acres for the Coast Guard that include 282 housing units and two hangars and reserved 6.5 acres for homeless-housing providers on which to rehab housing or build new units.

Moving forward after the GSA and Navy sales, Novato in early 1999 issued an RFQ (request for qualification) for a master developer, the group or firm that oversees the entire redevelopment. (RFQs are now standard procedure in base closings.) Seven groups responded, and Novato selected five to proceed to the RFP (request for proposal) stage, also now a standard procedure. Three teams participated in final negotiations. Novato ultimately chose Novato Community Partners (a partnership between Shea Homes and Centex Homes) in October 1999.

Finally, civilian life

Of the areas of Hamilton formerly owned by the Navy, Rafael Village/Capehart, designed and planned by the Dahlin Group and being built by Shea and Centex, is now under construction. Planner Fehlberg describes the process to plan and execute such deals as "keeping a lot of plates spinning in the air." She wanted to maintain a reference to the historic Spanish-style buildings preserved elsewhere at Hamilton, provide cohesion in design and planning for the old buildings, and yet have "soft edges" that blend with the rest of the community of Novato.

It turned out to be more economical to demolish the 503 existing housing units, originally built in 1948 and vacant since 1996, rather than remodel them. The plan approved 275 low-density units, 125 medium-density units, and 100 multifamily units.

Among Fehlberg's challenges at Rafael Village was keeping most of the site's 24-inch-diameter sycamore trees, which created the feeling of a mature neighborhood. Another challenge was keeping the community informed; communication and lots of meetings are key to the success of these projects. Getting the community on board helps the master developer orchestrate and get funding for new infrastructure.

From headache to success

Ultimately, the decommissioned Hamilton base required massive improvements and new infrastructure. The government declared much of the existing infrastructure unusable and estimated that BRAC parcels alone would require $43.7 million to fix. Mello Roos bonds (tax-exempt bonds used to fund public improvements) issued by the city of Novato paid for $26 million of the improvements in the area built by the New Hamilton Partnership. Needed throughout the community were roads, sewer and water lines, new utilities, and a two-mile levee and pump system to take the property out of the 100-year flood plain.

Other challenges included asbestos-removal costs of $3.2 million ($7.50 per square foot) and lead paint. What could be recycled on the property was, including 8,000 tons of wood (shredded into landscape mulch) and between 80 and 100 tons of old asphalt and cement (pulverized for use as road base).

Despite all the red tape and false starts, Hamilton is an undeniable sales success, though the New Hamilton Partnership is on record saying it would not likely do such a project again. So far, more than 650 homes (330 in the first year) have been sold since sales began in 1998. Home prices quickly escalated; a house by Greystone Homes (part of the Lennar Family of Builders) sold for $299,000 and resold less than a year later for $421,000.

Full speed ahead

Reuse and development have gone much more smoothly and more quickly at some of the BRACs that occurred after Hamilton AFB's retirement, such as at the Glenview Naval Air Station, in Glenview, Ill.

When asked if The Glen, the former Glenview air station, took longer than a typical community, David Smith, vice president of Cambridge Homes, says, "not really." It took the Libertyville, Ill.-based firm, a division of the Cambridge Cos., three years to develop and build out the site's 231 homes. Smith says he would do it again "in a heartbeat." The Glen was a rare opportunity to build new homes in a well-established, upscale area of existing houses.

The Cambridge Cos., itself a division of D.R. Horton, came into the Glenview redevelopment midstream. The city of Glenview chose to be the project's master developer starting in 1995. A three-year public approval process resulted in a cohesive master plan in 1998. Cambridge entered the picture at the former air station after its reuse plan was in place at the RFP phase.

Many who bought Cambridge homes at The Glen were city dwellers who wanted to live the urban experience in a suburban environment--Cambridge's building parcel was adjacent to the new Metra commuter train stop. Other buyers wanted to downsize. Cambridge used The Glen to test some urban building ideas it hoped to use in city developments and asked for and received some variances from the initial plan, such as combining detached housing types along the streetscape.

Smith worked with architect BSB, of Des Moines, Iowa, and local architect HKM, of Arlington Heights, Ill. It was important to Cambridge that the houses not look as if they had been designed by a single architect. So the builder mixed 12 models in three housing types--large detached, small detached and attached, and townhomes--that appear to have evolved over time as urban streetscapes do.

Photo: Jan Ingve

Townhomes by Cambridge Homes with bay windows and front porches re-create an urban street scene at The Glen, formerly the Glenview Naval Air Station in Glenview, Ill. Plans range from 1,198 square feet for one of the flats in the "two-flat" (so named because two housing units are stacked on top of each other in a single building, sold as one unit) to 4,667 square feet for the largest home. Prices ranged from the low $400,000s to $655,000. Once the project opened, half the houses sold in 60 days; 90 percent sold in six months. Cambridge was careful to balance releases and save the largest product for last. "We could have sold them all at once based on demand, but then owners might have been in the pipeline waiting two years to move in," Smith says. Setting sail

Other decommissioned bases are still in the middle of the redevelopment process. For those involved in Treasure and Yerba Buena islands, Calif., located between San Francisco and Oakland, the timeline may prove to be far longer and the challenges greater than anyone can now imagine. But, as Stephen Proud, director of development for the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA), says, "The laws have changed, allowing communities to acquire a site at no cost."

In 1941, Treasure Island became an important naval base crucial to winning World War II. The Defense Department closed the base in 1993, but the Coast Guard installation at Yerba Buena continues to use approximately half that island's southern side.

At first glance, Treasure Island is a place of mesmerizing beauty: a palm-fringed island with panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, Marin County, Alcatraz Island, the East Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The preliminary master plan from the master developer, Treasure Island Community Development, released this summer, proposes 2,800 homes (one-third of them affordable) in six distinct San Francisco neighborhoods on the islands. Sixty percent would be for sale in the $400,000-plus price range, and the rest would be rental.

The plan also calls for keeping half the area open. The preliminary price for the project comes in at $317 million. Treasure Island Community Development, a partnership among Troon Pacific, Interland, Kenwood Investments, and Lennar, is one of only two groups to apply to take on the project, and the only one San Francisco considered truly qualified to handle such a complicated development.

Sinking site

As beautiful as the site is, Treasure Island is fraught with difficulties. The first of these is its provenance: At 404 acres, it is one of the largest man-made islands in a seismically unstable region. Once 12 feet above sea level, it is now only 9. Experts say earthquake activity would result in liquefactions of land and lateral spreading and could cause substantial damage if the area is not improved. Experts predict that shoring up Treasure Island for redevelopment will cost $100 million.

As might be imagined, the Navy, which will have to remedy the site, and the city of San Francisco, which is managing it through TIDA, have different views on the interpretation of the expert studies. (The Navy believes costs will be less than the city of San Francisco thinks is necessary.) Thus far, remediation the government has agreed to should be completed by 2004 at a cost of $105 million.

Steady as she goes

The Treasure Island site now includes a Job Corps training program for 850 people, 908 housing units, nine barrack-style facilities, a public elementary school, a clinic, and 314 acres of submerged land. Originally, the Bureau of Land Management transferred Yerba Buena Island--350 acres of uplands and 243 acres of tide and submerged land--to the Navy for disposal. The property was declared surplus in May 1996. Yerba Buena includes a fire station, an officers' club, 105 housing units, and 10 military buildings.

In January 1999, TIDA contracted with the John Stewart Co. to rehabilitate, rent, and manage 766 of the existing military housing units on Treasure and Yerba Buena islands. Renters include city of San Francisco employees (teachers, fire fighters, police officers) and students from Bay Area colleges and universities. The John Stewart Co., a subsidiary of Southern California Edison, specializes in affordable housing. The firm also manages similar projects at San Francisco's Presidio and Alameda Naval Air Station.

Proud says San Francisco has taken seriously its commitment to offer housing opportunities to those who are economically disadvantaged by signing a sublease with the Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative (TIHDI), a coalition of organizations. In December 1999, the first 50 families moved into TIHDI's newly renovated units. Ultimately, Catholic Charities, Walden House, and other TIHDI member organizations will share 225 units dedicated to housing the homeless. When asked if housing the homeless, a subject that has caused controversy at other decommissioned military bases, such as Fort Sheridan in the northern suburbs of Chicago and Denver's Fort Lowry, would cause any problems with upscale development plans, Proud scoffs. These people are no longer homeless, he simply says.

Treasure Island's developers expect build-out to take 10 years, but it is already almost 10 years since the base officially closed. As all the preceding stories show, patience and partnership are virtues for those who choose to redevelop decommissioned military bases.