Thursday, September 07, 2006

Developers Eye Huge Mare Island Mart

Developers Eye Huge Mare Island Mart
Exhibition Center, Flower Mart, Home for USS Iowa All in Plans
By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer
Vallejo Times Herald

Two well-established local developers have proposed a multimillion dollar project for Mare Island aimed at bringing tourists and international entrepreneurs to Vallejo.
Dubbed the Mare Island Marketplace, the project would include a flower mart, exhibition center, two former Naval ships and other businesses, city and company officials said Wednesday.

Lennar Mare Island has had the $37 million proposal for more than a week, said developer Robert Litwin. He said the initial amount is estimated construction costs only. The project's total cost is not yet known, he said.

Lennar is studying the proposal, but the project faces several challenges, company spokesman Jason Keadjian said.

"We're evaluating the timing of our ability to deliver some of the buildings for reuse, in terms of environmental remediation and moving them through the regulatory process," Keadjian said. "We continue to be committed to pursuing a dialogue with (the developers) and exploring the concept."

Litwin, who has worked for months to bring an expansive flower mart to the island, has teamed with Marin County-based developer Gabrielsen & Co. in proposing to expand the idea. The plan would include 30 acres on the island's east side to house an international trade show exposition center, the battleship USS Iowa, the last Mare Island-built nuclear submarine, USS Drum and related museums, retail stores and restaurants. The Iowa is now in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet and the city of Stockton has been competing to be its permanent home. The Drum is in Washington State.

Litwin said Mare Island Historic Park Foundation president Ken Zadwick's effort to bring the Drum to Mare Island is not a competing one, and Zadwick said he agrees.

And in any case, the mothballed ships are a large but "not essential" element of the project, Litwin said.

The hope is to "go green" with the project, running everything on solar power, Litwin said.

"The flower mart will be more of a distribution center, operating mostly at night," Litwin said. "We hope to bring the Iowa as our anchor tenant, and then have space for local, national and international trade shows."

Litwin said San Francisco's Moscone Center, the Bay Area's premier trade show location, is very expensive and rarely available. And that's where the Mare Island Marketplace comes in, he said.

The plan calls for completely renovating several historic Mare Island buildings including the 256,000-square-foot, glass-surrounded Building 680 and the one known as "The Pink Palace," which housed submarines and submarine parts. It also calls for "re-commissioning" two ships' berths and creating 2,000 parking spaces, Litwin said.

Gabrielsen & Co. owner Donlon Gabrielsen said he and his wife have personal connections to both Mare Island and the Iowa going back to the 1940s. Gabrielsen said he's optimistic about the plan going forward for sentimental and pragmatic reasons.

"Mare Island was a wonderful Naval base and I think it can become a wonderful historic attraction for the people of Vallejo and the people of the United States," he said.

Plan proponents are awaiting word from Lennar, Litwin said. He acknowledged it "will be a long process."

In an interview Wednesday, Vallejo Mayor Tony Intintoli called the concept "exciting," and said the city should approach it with "cautious enthusiasm," pending the outcome of financial feasibility studies.

Under the Marketplace proposal, the developers would own the land and buildings in question in exchange for spending millions to renovate the properties and improve infrastructure, Litwin said. The developers would lease space to the museum ships, which would not cost the city of Vallejo a dime, he said. The developers have already spent thousands on several preliminary surveys, he said.

Besides the environmental cleanup problems, the area, now zoned for light industry, would have to be rezoned for retail, Litwin said. But whatever needs to be done, it would be worth it, since the project would bring jobs, culture and prestige to the city, he said.

No one from the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, which was founded in 1996 to find the Iowa a home, could be reached for comment Wednesday. However, its Web site,, says the group is "passionately dedicated to preserving USS Iowa at the West Coast's first Naval installation, Mare Island, Vallejo, as a Premier Naval memorial and museum in the San Francisco Bay Area."

E-mail Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at or call 553-6824.

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