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League of Women Voters of Oakland
Waterfront Study

Chapter 8. The Stealth Waterfront

The Naval Supply Center and the Oakland Army Base occupy nearly eight hundred acres of the Waterfront in West Oakland. The future of these installations is in doubt - bringing great risk or, perhaps, important new opportunities for Oakland.

The threat of closure has hung over the Oakland Naval Supply Center and other closely related facilities in the Bay Area for several years. Recently, the Defense Department placed this installation on the 1993 base closure list. While local officials have argued that this facility should be retained as a ship pre-positioning service center, there is a strong likelihood that this facility will be closed in the near future, regardless of the fate of other Bay Area bases. The Oakland Army Base is not on the current closure list, but its long-term future remains in doubt with the continued reduction in the nation's military forces.

The local military installations provide a large number of relatively well-paid blue collar and service jobs. The closure of one or both of Oakland's bases would not only sacrifice these jobs, but would also damage the supply, security and other local businesses which serve the bases.

If either of these bases were closed, there is little doubt that, given the pivotal position of this land on the Waterfront, the area could ultimately be restored as a valuable asset. The Port of Oakland, for example, has prepared a plan for conversion of the Naval Supply Center if closure is ordered. However, during the time required for planning, environmental clean-up and conversion to civilian use, Oakland's economy would suffer greatly.

The dilemma, then, is whether Oakland should make contingency plans now, particularly in relation to the Oakland Army Base which is not presently faced with a specific closure threat, or whether such planning might actually make conversion more likely. By exploring future opportunities, are we increasing the immediate risks?

The Military Role of the Bases

In 1939, the Navy purchased five hundred acres of marsh and submerged tideland from the City of Oakland for one dollar and combined it with land acquired from two railroads to create a place for the Naval Supply Depot. Three-and-a-half-million cubic years of fill were dredged from the Bay and more was brought in from the Oakland hills to prepare the site. The Depot was activated only eight days after the raid on Pearl Harbor, and it quickly grew to an enormous logistical machine for the Pacific Theater. The Oakland Army Base was established in 1941 to provide a similar facility for the Army.

Today the Naval Supply Center supports naval operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It maintains a "surge" capacity in emergencies, such as the Persian Gulf War. Customers include repair facilities at the Alameda Naval Aviation Depot, western Pacific supply centers, such as Pearl Harbor, and the aircraft carrier USN Abraham Lincoln which is stationed at Alameda. Since 1990, the Defense Logistics Agency, servicing all branches of the military, has managed distribution from the Center. The Center now houses more than 50,000 different items valued at $2.5 billion and provides world-wide customer service.

The Oakland Army Base is headquarters for the Military Traffic Management Command which coordinates Department of Defense passenger and freight traffic in the twenty western states. It controls all sea-level cargo between the mainland and Pacific Basin. It also operates ocean terminals and outports, including the Bay Area Military Ocean Terminal. In addition, the Oakland Army Base monitors airlift traffic and manages shipment and storage of personal property for the armed services. Two of its largest tenants are a warehouse operation supporting Army and Air Force Post Exchange stores in the western states and Pacific and the Navy Public Works Center which constructs and maintains military facilities in the Bay Area.

Economic Impact of the Bases

Naval operations in Oakland and at the Alameda Naval Air Station currently employ 8,605 civilian workers, causing the Navy to be Alameda County's largest employer. The Army employs approximately 2,750 civilian and 570 military personnel at its local facilities. The civilian figures include Oak Knoll Hospital, the Naval Supply Center, the Alameda Naval Air Station and Treasure Island.

Subsidiary economy benefits come from contracts and supply purchases, which totaled $124 million at the Oakland Army Base and $27.5 million at the Naval Supply Center in 1991. Mainly due to federal procurement policies, Alameda County has the highest per-capita minority and women-owned businesses in California. Many contracts go to Oakland maritime, transportation and security firms.

According to a recent survey at naval facilities in Alameda, over half of the civilian workers are minorities, with an average age of 42 and an average of 16.5 years of service. The work force has unique and specialized skills, but has limited formal education. These data show that workers dislocated by base closure would experience great difficulty finding Stable alternative employment in the local economy.

The Uncertain Future of the Bases

The end of the Cold War and the federal budget crunch have led to down-sizing of United States military and closure of one-forth of our nation's military installations. To achieve this end, the federal government has developed a process for selecting facilities for closure and a procedure for converting bases to civilian uses.

The Alameda Naval Air Station and related activities at the Naval Supply Center and Oak Knoll Naval Hospital were initially included on the 1991 Defense Base Closure List. Only after intensive lobbying by local officials were these facilities removed from the list. The local effort was organized through the Alameda County Base Retention Tactical Committee, a coalition of elected officials and business and labor representatives. This facility was placed back on the 1993 closure list, along with the Naval Supply Center, Treasure Island, Oak Knoll Naval Hospital and Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Even if any of these installations are removed from the current list, they could be future base closure lists as could the Oakland Army Base.

 Presently, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission is considering the fate of local bases. After Commission review, a revised list will be sent to the President for final action. Congress will act on the list this Fall, but its action will be limited to approval or disapproval of the complete list as issued by the President. The same procedure will be followed in 1995 and possibly in subsequent years.

Representative Ron Dellums (D-Oakland), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has argued that, even if military expenditures are cut as much as fifty percent and the number of United States aircraft carriers is reduced from fifteen to seven, there will continue to be a need to base three carriers on the Pacific Ocean. He believes that the local bases offer the only West Coast facility with full operational support for the newest Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and presently certified to homeport three such carriers.

Despite this, there is fierce competition among West Coast ports and Bay Area bases remain at considerable risk. Nearly $200 million, of a total $485 million budget allocation, has already been spent for construction of an aircraft carrier base in Everett, Washington, the home state of House Speaker Thomas Foley.

Recent competition has also arisen over the location of logistical centers to serve the nation's newly reconfigured naval fleet. As part of Post-Cold War military down-sizing, the Navy plans to establish one or two ship pre-positioning centers in the United States to replace overseas military bases. Such centers would maintain and service supply ships which would remain at sea, ready for deployment. The Navy has four such ships afloat now and plans to increase the number to fifteen or sixteen.

The Bay Area and Charleston, South Carolina are the leading contenders for designation as this new type of logistical center. Existing facilities at the Oakland Naval Supply Center, Alameda Naval Aviation Depot and Concord Naval Weapons Center can be upgraded for this purpose at a cost of only six million dollars, while a similar capacity at Charleston would cost $60 to $80 million. Moreover, the local installations have superior land-sea connections. The Bay Area's success in this competition may decide the fate of the local bases.

Pitfalls of the Conversion Process

If closure of any of the local military installations becomes necessary, a major effort would be urgently needed to minimize dislocations and delays in the conversion process. Federal law provides for assistance, but the speed and nature of the transition is dependent upon the response of the local community.

In 1961 Congress enacted the Defense Economic Adjustment Program to help communities predict and resolve problems caused by military program changes. Thus far it has been applied to more than four hundred communities. Results in these communities offer hope that conversion can lead to long-term economic and social benefits. An average of more than 1.5 new civilian jobs have been created for every civilian job lost due to base closure, although it has sometimes taken as long as ten years for this adjustment. Some areas have fared much worse than others. In the late 1960's, Mobile, Alabama, lost more than twelve thousand jobs and gained only three thousand.

Most of the larger closures on which this record is based occurred before 1977, during a period of national economic expansion. Therefore, it may nę be valid to extrapolate from this experience to the 1990's economy, fraught with structural deficiencies and fewer opportunities for low-skill or less-educated workers. Moreover, local dislocations could be greater due to Oakland's high unemployment rate.

Based upon past experience with base closures, the following are some ingredients for successful conversions:

  • Avoid delaying pre-planning and community involvement.

  • If closure is required, negotiate as much lead time as possible.

  • Bargain hard with the federal government on price of the land and the costs and responsibilities which the local government must bear in conversion. In converting Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, the Navy sought to make the City responsible for nearly one million dollars in new police and fire equipment and over three minion dollars a year for police, fire and security services during redevelopment.

  • Beware of costly or complicated environmental hazards.

The presence of contamination is a critical issue, not only due to the cost of clean-up but also because it can delay re-use of the land. Only properties which are certified as posing no public health risk can be transferred. For example, a twenty-eight acre contaminated landfill at the deactivated Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato has delayed plans to build housing and commercial space. An impermeable cap and groundwater treatment system for this toxic dump will cost twenty-five million dollars. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board has questioned this solution, causing the dump to remain fenced and undevelopable for the present.

Usually very little federal money is available for investigation of environmental hazards until a base is actually scheduled for closure. Consequently, both Oakland bases have received only preliminary evaluations showing that:

  • The Oakland Army Base has no known dump/landfill sites, waste treatment facilities or PCB transformers. Groundwater monitoring wells have been installed, soil borings have been taken to test for contamination and to monitor possible trouble spots, such as from silver nitrate contamination from photography laboratories.

  • Potential problems loom larger at the Naval Supply Center, which has twenty-two sites under review. A closure plan for one hazardous waste storage area is being developed and an asbestos survey is being conducted.

  • Both bases are actively involved in identifying and correcting problems associated with underground storage tanks.

Planning Now for Conversion - Harmful or Helpful?

Local officials have tended to discourage discussion of conversion as counterproductive during lobbying efforts to retain the bases. Others question the validity of this position, sometimes even whether such lobbying should proceed at all.

Nonetheless, two limited local efforts have begun which explore contingencies in advance of any decision to close either or both of the bases. The first was initiated by the City of Oakland. At the request of the City Council Legislation and Long-Term Planning Committee, the Office of Economic Development and Employment has been compiling data from other areas undergoing base closure, examining their re-use strategies and gathering names of consultants.

 Ordinarily, no federal funds are available for contingency planning until a facility has been placed on the Congressionally-approved closure list. However, recent legislation, initiated by Representative Dellums, makes $500,000 planning grants available to four areas which could be severely impacted by future military cuts. If the East Bay qualifies for such funds, contingency planning could be undertaken locally.

A private community organization, the Arms Control Research Center (ARC), has also undertaken contingency planning, in the belief that closing the Bay Area bases could positively affect the Bay Area economy. ARC contends that civilian use could generate at least 14,000 jobs in the East Bay. The group has offered a five-year plan with various conversion options to save jobs and clean up toxic wastes at the bases, creating local environmental reconstruction jobs in the process. ARC's plan is based upon a lateral conversion concept whereby existing facilities would be re-used for similar civilian functions, wherever possible. For example, the Navy's fifty-foot aircraft carrier harbor would be converted to use as a commercial cargo facility.

Aside from a federal planning process, a limited degree of conversion may already be underway. By federal legislation, the Port of Oakland is authorized to enter into a long-term lease with the Department of Defense for up to 195 acres of the Naval Supply Center. The Port and Navy are presently negotiating the lease of land which would be cleared of the existing Naval facilities and devoted primarily to a new civilian marine terminal.

In many respects, this transfer of land would accomplish the same purposes as conversion of military facilities to civilian use, although the proposed transfer is too limited to impair continuation of the essential functions of the Naval Supply Center. However, completely aside from the merits of the present proposal; if this method were applied to a larger area by future legislation, the Oakland bases could be subjected to defacto conversion without the basic protections and community review process which are such a basic part of the military conversion legislation.

In addition, the Port of Oakland has argued that the process for conversion of the Naval Supply Center for civilian use can be avoided due to an automatic reversionary right which the Port holds in case the Defense Department abandons the land. The validity of the Port's legal position has not yet been determined. More importantly, if such an automatic right does exist, it is unclear what process, if any will be utilized for public review of alternative proposals for reuse and what federal financial assistance might be made available for clean-up, conversion and retraining.

A Pivotal Time for Oakland's Waterfront

The Naval Supply Center and the Oakland Army Base are, in many respects, the key to the future of the Waterfront in West Oakland. For fifty years they have provided a valuable base for employment and small business activity in the Oakland economy.

The safest, most predictable future for this area is its continuation as a logistical and communications center, with an enlarged role in the nation's Post-Cold War military structure. However, if this role is not achieved, Oakland will be faced with a painful transition.

Despite the pivotal point at which this part of the Waterfront finds itself, little consideration has been given to alternative uses of this vast area in the event that any or all of it is set for conversion. The range of possibilities is indeed great. The speed and the future opportunities which are realized as a result, if a transition were required, will test the effectiveness of our government leaders and our community's vision of its Waterfront.

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