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Base closure? One city says ‘bring it on’

As towns across the country await word about which military bases the Pentagon wants to close, a San Francisco suburb is hardly on edge. It’d be happy if the government included the Concord Naval Weapons Station on its list of proposed closures.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As towns across the country nervously await word about which military bases the Pentagon wants to close, this San Francisco suburb is hardly on edge.

It’d be happy if the government included the Concord Naval Weapons Station on its list of proposed closures being released Friday.

In a letter to Navy officials, Mayor Laura Hoffmeister spoke of “tremendous benefits for the city of Concord and the Department of Defense” if the 63-year-old installation is shuttered.

About 35 miles northeast of San Francisco, the base covers thousands of grassy acres that Concord officials believe is ideal for homes and businesses near an existing commuter rail station. A shortage of new homes in the San Francisco Bay Area has contributed to the region’s soaring real estate prices in recent years.

“We think we are the only city in the nation that’s asking for their base to be closed,” said Jim Forsberg, Concord’s director of planning and economic development.

States are worried because losing a military installation could be a blow to the local economy — and they’re doing whatever they can to try to spare them. At least one state, Illinois, is threatening to go to court.

Bid to save billions
The Pentagon wants to close and downsize some of its 425 major U.S. domestic bases as well as smaller installations to save billions of dollars a year. The Concord base already has been drastically downsized since 1999, today employing only about 100.

The base, a division of Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach in Southern California, opened in World War II and was the site of tragedy on July 17, 1944. An explosion killed more than 300 men — most of them black sailors who loaded munitions onto ships, a dangerous job that was one of the few open to blacks in the segregated military.

After the blast, more than 250 black sailors refused to return to duty until safety issues were addressed. Most eventually were forced to return. Fifty who held out were court-martialed, found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to prison and hard labor.

The Navy acknowledged in a 1994 review that the sailors were victims of racial prejudice but did not overturn the convictions. In 1999, one survivor, Freddy Meeks, was pardoned by President Clinton.

From weapons to weeds
These days, the turbulent times have been replaced with deterioration. Weeds are sprouting up in what used to be parking lots, and empty weapons bunkers are crumbling.

The station’s property consists of two sections, 5,000 acres in a fast-growing suburban corridor and a tidal region in Suisun Bay that includes a deep-water port the Army uses for weapons shipments.

Concord officials are most interested in the land adjacent to the city, particularly since the area’s commuter rail line has a nearby station. They want to see about half the area developed, with 13,500 new homes and other developments that could create about 15,000 jobs.

City officials say the homes are vital in an area with high housing prices. The median home price in Contra Costa County, which includes Concord, was $514,000 in March. In neighboring Walnut Creek last month, couples camped out for a chance to buy into a development with new townhouses ranging in price from $489,000 to $719,000.

Obstacles remain
Still, there are a few obstacles to the city’s vision.

Over the years, toxic substances seeped into the land, including some from chemical plants that operated before the Navy moved in. There are 22 active cleanup sites, said Gregg Smith, public affairs officer for the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach.

City officials said a lot of work has been done identifying problems at the base over the past 20 years and they are optimistic they can address the environmental concerns.

“Most of what’s generally out there is known,” said Forsberg, the planning director.

And some groups that want to preserve the area’s open space and wildlife say Concord can meet its housing needs by looking to smaller sites within the city limits.

‘Growth is inevitable’
“It’s a beautiful way for people to be in touch with what’s left of nature in this county,” said David Reid of the nonprofit Greenbelt Alliance.

Even if the weapons station is on the Pentagon’s closure list, it will be several months before the decision is final and years before development can begin.

In the meantime, Mayor Hoffmeister said, people are moving farther from the city, enduring grinding commutes and creating urban sprawl in once-rural areas. She said the trend will continue unless cities find room for home builders.

“Growth is inevitable,” she said. “We just have to manage it well.”