Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Mare Island Indicates Possibilities

Article Launched: 10/30/2005 08:00:16 AM

Mare Island Indicates Possibilities
By Chris Denina/Times-Herald, Vallejo

As developers and investors line up in hopes of finding a deal in the latest round of base closures, many may look Solano County's direction for an example of what to expect.

The revamp of the Mare Island in Vallejo is, by all accounts, progressing nicely.

New homes, an elementary school and revamped old mansions are filling up on the former naval shipyard.

So far, Lennar Homes has had little trouble finding families to buy into its vision - in some cases they have paid 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 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.

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.

The base 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 needed 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.

Reuse plans also call for turning the former shipyard into an active employment center, bringing more jobs to the city.

Reporter staff contributed to this report.

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