A Base, a Neighborhood

Conditions in San Francisco are not ideal for typical military base conversions to business and industry. Why not create an ecotopia instead?

THE recent announcement that several major military bases around San Francisco would close hit the Bay Area with the force of a second Loma Prieta earthquake. The Base Closure Commission's recommendation would eliminate at least 20,000 jobs, triggering the loss of two or three times as many in indirect employment. Even politicians who have consistently criticized Pentagon pork barrel now plead for mercy, arguing that the region is being dealt a disproportionate blow in retribution for its contrarian poli tics.

But once the shock subsides, local politicians and the public may discover that this apparent economic catastrophe may actually be an opportunity for community renewal. Such a transformation will only succeed, however, if sufficient human and financial resources are invested in the process - and if the region's abundant creativity is harnessed to devise imaginative new uses for these obsolete military installations.

Current proposals include several ideas that have produced successful conversions in the past. Air bases have become airports. Storage depots have become industrial parks, vocational schools, and community colleges.

But the Bay Area is already glutted with schools, most starved for funding; and local high-tech industries are not in an expansive mode. Moreover, competition from low-wage Asian manufacturers renders a revival of heavy industry problematic.

While such conventional conversion possibilities are hampered by excess capacity and saturated markets, many critical community needs remain unmet. Chief among these is low-cost housing for the many thousands of homeless people currently living in heartbreaking indignity on the streets of this otherwise affluent area and for uncounted thousands of others, including many Central American and Asian refugees who endure desperate crowding in substandard apartments or dismal isolation in bleak single-room-occ upancy hotels.

Here, as throughout the country, military bases feature a great deal of well-maintained housing stock, including barracks for enlisted personnel and mixed apartments and single-family dwellings for officers and NCO's. California's Fort Ord alone accommodates more than 20,000 people in barracks and family units. While barracks are not desirable as long-term housing (though more so than city streets), they can readily be divided into apartments offering greater privacy.

But there is more to these bases than low-cost housing. They are self-contained small towns with stores, hospitals, schools, recreational facilities, meeting halls, and other public amenities. As such, they are ideally suited to become the core structures around which self-sustaining residential communities could be built. A little-known federal law called the McKinney Act facilitates such conversion by identifying excess federal property that is appropriate for housing the homeless. Local communities ca n acquire these properties at little or no cost.

Some may justifiably object to "ghettoizing" the homeless and the poor by setting them apart on bases that for strategic reasons have always been segregated from society's mainstream. Fortunately, the wide range of housing facilities makes it possible to include some middle-income residents to achieve a more naturally diverse mix - though the critical housing deficit dictates that the majority of homes be available to those most in need.

But the possibilities are greater still. Like no other public facilities in America today, these bases offer a unique opportunity to apply the principles and practices of an environmentally sustainable society on a scale never before attempted. They offer a large but still manageable infrastructure that is already integrated and self-contained, though not always in ecologically sensible arrangements. Sim van der Ryn, an innovative urban planner who was once California's state architect, spearheaded an ef fort in the 1970s to create a solar village on the site of Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County. Now he and his design students at the University of California at Berkeley have devised an integrated plan to convert San Francisco's Presidio into a model sustainable community.

One can imagine a transformed military base where energy is generated largely from renewable sources (solar, wind, biomass, and so on). People and goods are transported by fleets of electric buses and vans. All materials are recycled before leaving the premises. Food is grown for consumption or sale by the residents themselves in gardens planted on former parade grounds. Trees and vines transform the stark symmetry of military architecture into the lush contours of an ecological village.

Day-care centers, schools, job counseling, and a full range of social services could be offered on site. Other vacated buildings could be refitted as "incubators" for economic development where small businesses attracted by low rents could serve local needs and residents might find work. Residents could also help maintain community facilities in return for reduced rent or sweat equity toward the purchase of their homes or apartments.

Transforming obsolete military bases into self-sustaining communities can address several of the nation's most pressing crises - homelessness and hunger, unemployment, alienation, and crime. These afflictions may be socially linked. But then so are their remedies. Investing personal labor in maintaining a common neighborhood, the residents of a transformed base will naturally become protective of what they build. Living, working, planting and harvesting together, they may begin to recreate the kind of vi tal, convivial communities that have all but disappeared in recent years from mainstream America.

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