Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Family Oriented Island

Family oriented island
Former naval base reaches turning point as new residents flock to new neighborhoods
By CHRIS G. DENINA/Times-Herald staff writer

Tim Baskerville and Susan Nichols of San Francisco compare notes on the kitchen of a Gardner's Glen model home in the new Lennar development on Mare Island in Vallejo. The couple, who have specific requirements, including counter space in the kitchen and separate offices for their careers, are finding the models well-constructed and laid out. (Mike Jory/Times-Herald)

There's plenty to see from the windows of Mare Island's new homes.

To the west, a national wildlife refuge filled with geese, hawks and salt harvest mice.

To the east, historic old mansions once occupied by military officers and their families.

And next door, children playing ball at an elementary school that's set to reopen full-time this fall.

All around is change - workers building new homes, restoring old buildings and transforming the 150-year-old former shipyard into a new community within Vallejo.

"You kind of witness history," Jennifer Turnicio of Vallejo said on a recent afternoon touring the model homes. The 22-year-old is among many home shoppers lured by the prospect of being among the first to repopulate the old base.

So far, Lennar Homes has had little trouble finding families to buy into that vision - or in some cases paying more than $700,000 - to be a part of the new Mare Island. Some 1,400 homes are planned over the next decade.

In June, people began moving into the first batch of new homes. And in July, Lennar opened model homes for its third subdivision.

But it may take years to realize the community they envisioned when they bought into the dream of a new Mare Island.

Cleanup efforts to remove environmental contamination left by the Navy are ongoing. The future of Mare Island's north end is up in the air, with the city trying for the third time to get a company to redevelop boarded-up stores and warehouses.

And work on upgrading the old base's infrastructure, including the sewer system and roads, may take years to complete.

But Tangi Banks, who's looking out the model home window with her partner, looks at all that in a different way.

"You get to watch everything be built up around here," the 25-year-old said, as construction workers bustled outside, building new homes.

The pitch

They're lured by billboards and radio advertisements, enticed by brochures and a promotional DVD. They drive onto Mare Island, over bridges leading to sometimes bumpy roads.

They follow signs pointing past warehouses and buildings surrounded by newly planted trees and lawns.

What they find is a new neighborhood, built on the site of old military housing razed more than a year ago. The new homes, some as large as about 2,900 square feet, sit along curved streets and are of such architectural styles as Victorian, Spanish and bungalow.

For home buyer Bobby OJha, who moved to Mare Island in June from the Glen Cove area, it's a friendly neighborhood that's unique to Vallejo and surrounded by naval history.

"I feel that it's not going to be another typical suburb where you go to work, commute and come back to bed," OJha, 33, said. "Here, there's still a sense of back from the '50s and '60s, where neighbors actually talk to you."

He and his wife Sejal bought their house last year, before any models were built and the area was bare. They were sold on Lennar's pitch that this wouldn't be like any other suburb in the Bay Area.

The pair said they liked the idea that Mare Island would become a little community of its own, separate from the rest of Vallejo. It would feature a promenade of shops and restaurants in an historic district where ships were once built. A regional park at the south end would offer hiking and recreation.

A map by Lennar also shows a proposal that ferries bound to San Francisco may one day make stops at Mare Island.

The OJhas also accepted that there's a lot of work ahead in revamping the former naval shipyard for civilian use.

"Again, it comes with the territory," OJha said. "Those were the tradeoffs I had originally in order to be part of this momentous occasion."

So far

The based used to be a city unto itself before it closed in 1996. Military families living there could get everything they needed on-base and rarely need to leave for the mainland.

They could buy groceries at the base commissary or buy clothes at the exchange store. They could see movies or bowl at the recreation center. They could fill up their cars at the gas station.

When the shipyard shut down, families moved away, most of the personnel left and many warehouses, stores and offices sat empty.

A year later, the city chose Lennar Mare Island LLC to serve as the master developer to convert the base to civilian use. After years of planning, in 2002 Lennar took control of the east side of the shipyard and began renovating buildings and cleaning up much of the contamination, such as underground fuel tanks, left by the Navy.

Since then, the base has started to rebound.

More than 75 businesses have opened shop on the base, leasing from Lennar, and a handful even have bought property to house their operations, Lennar officials said. Regulatory agencies have signed off and cleared a third of nine areas being investigated for cleanup, said Lennar Project Manager Todd Berryhill.

"It's always been a goal of the city to bring Mare Island back to life as quickly as possible," Berryhill said, adding that Lennar shares that objective.

Lennar figures it may take years to reach its goals. Someday, the company envisions more than 8,000 people working on Mare island in buildings totaling about 7 million square feet.

"Our expectations are not short-term here," Berryhill said.

It may take years to reach that point.

So far, things look nice, said Councilmember Joanne Schivley, who began her first term after the base closed.

"It's coming along," Schivley said.

Near the causeway entrance many buildings have been repainted and grass and trees planted.

"Considering when it closed that we were told it would be fast-tracked and that closure has been - what, nine years ago? - it's wonderful to see the changes that are occurring," Schivley said.

"It's going to be beautiful," she added.

More work

There's another view to be seen from the model home windows.

To the northwest, an old landfill that may be landscaped as a park.

To the west, empty dredge ponds slated to reopen to store material from the bottom of area waterways.

And to the far north, blocks of old warehouses in an area that the city has struggled to get a company to develop.

It may take a while before the vision of Mare Island as a community is realized, said Myrna Hayes, a member of the Mare Island Restoration Advisory Board. The citizens group makes suggestions regarding the reuse of the base.

As community co-chair, Hayes has been following the conversion of Mare Island for more than a decade.

"I don't see adopt-a-street signs yet," Hayes said. "I don't see people picnicking in the grounds of the various parks yet. I don't see a community."

For now, Mare Island is just that, an island unto itself, she said. Until the old base is better integrated into Vallejo, and more mainlanders venture there, it will remain a separate place, she said.

Mare Island needs basic services like retail centers, where people can buy a latte or grab a meal. Even then, the old base will resemble other suburbs in California, she said.

The main difference is Mare Island still is an active industrial center. Tenants include a lumber yard, wood shop and crane business. Reuse plans call for turning the former shipyard into an active employment center, bringing more jobs to the city.

Residents are bound to share the roads with trucks hauling materials and have to put up with ongoing construction, Hayes said.

Still, it's a slight improvement over some other neighborhoods in industrial zones, she said.

"It's a lot better than living next to a refinery," Hayes said.

The future

On a recent afternoon, dozens of visitors toured the model homes.

Ray Dempsey and his wife Anneke drove in from Palo Alto after hearing radio commercials for the homes.

"It is beautiful," Dempsey said of the neighborhood, standing outside one of the models. Up the street, stood the wood frames of new houses.

"You can see through it and what it can become," Anneke said, noting all the construction.

Even after all the homes are built and the neighborhoods are finished, you still must remember it's an old military base that operated for nearly 150 years, Dempsey said.

"That's something you have to think about really," he said.

- E-mail Chris G. Denina at or call 553-6835.

* * * *

Mare Island

history 1854 - Mare Island founded as a military base. Scores of war ships, nuclear submarines and support vessels were built on the 650-acre island over the next 142 years. 1996 - Naval Shipyard closes several years after the end of the Cold War. 2002 - Lennar Mare Island LLC takes ownership of about 650 acres to redevelop for such uses as housing and office space. 2002 - The last tenant of Mare Island's Farragut Village moves out after Touro University in July tells about 70 students, employees and their families to leave the old homes that are slated for razing to make way for a new housing project. 2003 - Mare Island Elementary is named in a list of suggestions for possible school closures to cut about $325,000 a year from the school district budget. 2004 - Lennar begins construction on new housing. 2004 - The city closes the guard shack at the causeway entrance, no longer requiring visitors to check in. Mare Island is treated as any other part of Vallejo that's open to the public.

June 2005 - New homeowners move in after a year of construction

The future - Lennar and city staff are working on deal for Lennar to acquire Mare Island's north end and develop it.

Sources: City of Vallejo, Lennar Mare Island LLC and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control

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