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Artists, Navy Square Off in ‘Battle of Mighty Mo’

Times Staff Writer

In the annals of great military battles, there has never been one quite like the Navy’s fight to reclaim “the Point.”

It pits the battleship Missouri--the same Mighty Mo on which Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur accepted Japan’s surrender in 1945--against a most improbable and ragtag army of artists, metal workers, cabinet makers and assorted other small business owners, including a mushroom farmer.

Simply put, the Navy wants to turn Hunters Point, once the world’s largest naval shipyard, back into a Navy base by making it home port for the Missouri and nine or 10 escort ships.

In order to do that, the Navy believes it must evict the tenants. Attracted by large spaces and low rents, these tenants moved into old barracks and warehouses during the 15 years since the Navy closed most of its operation and began leasing out the space.

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Cites Only One Incident

“Security. That is a primary issue,” said Lt. Cmdr. George Farrar, a Navy spokesman here.

But Jacques Terzian, a sort of modern-day Medici who subleases five buildings to artists, helps organize showings and acts as unofficial historian, can recall only one incident that might be vaguely considered a security breach. That involved two artists who were spotted in an embrace under the stars on one of the off-limits docks. For the most part, however, there has been a quiet harmony, and the tenants do not want to leave.

Questions of security aside, Margie O’Driscoll, a consultant to the city whose job it is to find space for artists, is worried that if the artists are forced off the Point, there may be no other space for them in this crowded and costly city.

“Where are they going to go, Emeryville?” she asked, referring to the small industrial city at the other end of the Bay Bridge.

“I don’t think the city wants artists,” said Linda Hope, who has been making ends meet for two years as a painter--but just barely and only because the monthly rent for her 1,000-square-foot studio is $315. She would have to find another job if she had to pay more rent for her studio. “I budget. I know if I’ve got enough extra money to buy a box of crackers,” she said.

The Navy has considerable political support. Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) believe that the Missouri will boost the city’s economy and provide needed blue-collar jobs.

But as the Missouri leaves the California coast for its expected tour of duty in the Persian Gulf area, there is no telling which side will win the battle of the Point.

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In this city, a self-proclaimed “nuclear free zone,” the Missouri’s home-porting already is deeply divisive. Environmentalists have concerns about the effect of the ships on San Francisco Bay. Some officials are concerned that the Navy will discriminate against gays in hiring. Congress has yet to appropriate money to keep the ships in the port. Now, the artists and business owners have opened a new front, and they do have firepower--in the form of votes.

This is an election year here and no politician wants to be responsible for an exodus of businesses and artists. San Francisco has long been known for its love of the arts; the loss of artists is no small matter.

“People come to San Francisco for three things: beauty, food and the arts,” said Claire Isaacs, director of cultural affairs for the city Arts Commission. “The loss of artists means the loss of the leading edge of vitality that makes the city sing, and makes it unique.

“My worst fear is that we’ll see hundreds of artists leaving San Francisco . . . and we’ll have a city of nice middle-class people who invest in the stock market and run regularly.”

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Almost everyone agrees that Hunters Point is a most unlikely spot for an artists’ colony. It is set behind a gate manned by armed guards, often in the shadow of ships in port for repair. The run-down warehouses that house studios and shops need paint.

“It’s the only place like it that exists,” artist John DiPaolo said, surrounded by large canvases in his $600-a-month studio. He estimates that his rent would probably triple anywhere else in the city. “San Francisco should pay attention to its artists and not let them disappear.”

In addition to more than 300 artists, local rock ‘n’ roll bands have found rehearsal space in large vaults that some think were once some sort of high-security area. There are antique restorers, auto repair shops, sail makers, film studios, woodworkers, metalworkers, a business that makes herb-flavored popcorn, and, of course, the mushroom farm.

“All you have to do is follow your nose to know there’s a mushroom farm there,” Farrar noted.

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Tom Lacey, who owns Miracle Mushrooms, is a farmer whose problems are not at all like those of farmers in the Midwest or the San Joaquin Valley. But then, his farm is rather unusual. It is not just the only food-producing farm in San Francisco; it is no doubt the only mushroom farm in the country, maybe the world, that is located on a Navy base.

Weather Is Ideal

For his crop, weather at the Point is ideal--cool and often foggy. There is no shortage of workers, he has no debt, and while some farmers worry about the depressed price of farm products, Lacey’s mushrooms are sold at premium prices to gourmet food stores.

When Lacey moved here 10 years ago as a novice farmer from Chicago, the base had been in disuse for years. He thought he had a 20-year lease, as did most of the tenants, so he learned about mushrooms, invested and added to his operation. Now, he values his business at $1 million.

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“I’d have to close. I’m just not prepared after working for 10 years to get out of debt to go right back into debt. I just don’t have the money it takes to rebuild,” he said on a tour of the darkened climate-controlled rooms filled with thousands of mushrooms in various stages of growth.

Besides, there are not that many places in San Francisco that would welcome a mushroom farm, Lacey said, standing by his specially formulated piles of steaming compost.

“There’s a lot of talk about how important small businesses are. Well, here is a chance for the Navy to shine, for the city to shine,” said Tony Dominski, a Point business owner who specializes in metalwork, such as staircases.

Navy Opposes Idea

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The base covers 600 acres. The Navy could simply set aside 40 for the small businesses, Dominski and other business owners suggested, although the Navy does not like the idea.

The city will help the tenants find space in San Francisco, Deputy Mayor James Lazarus said. But he added that it “also is important to have this waterfront property used for its highest and best use for all of the city.” Citing Navy and city estimates, Lazarus said the ships will produce as many as 5,000 blue-collar jobs, with an additional payroll of $170 million.

But at the same time, displacement of the businesses would take a toll on the local economy, said Paul Wartelle, the tenants’ lawyer. The 200 businesses employ 1,000 people and have gross receipts of $30 million, he said. One company makes computer equipment and one supplies asphalt to San Fran cisco International Airport.

He called the area an “enterprise zone” in what has long been a ghetto with high unemployment.

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The Navy took over Hunters Point in 1939, turning it into the world’s largest shipyard by the end of World War II. In the postwar years, the need for ship repairs dropped. After several layoffs, the Navy stopped basing ships at the Point in 1973 and leased out the on-shore space. Now, the only Navy vessels docked at Hunters Point are there for occasional repair jobs performed by private contractors.

Leases Up Soon

“Whenever you move onto government property you have to realize that you are there at the pleasure of the government,” the Navy’s Farrar said, adding that some rental agreements end in October, while others expire next March and June.

Congress, meanwhile, has yet to approve the first $22 million of a total $93-million price tag to prepare Hunters Point for the Missouri. One reason for the delay may be the mixed signals sent from San Francisco. While Feinstein wants the Missouri, the Board of Supervisors has not taken a stand, and Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), who chairs a subcommittee with spending oversight, opposes it.

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A Board of Supervisor’s committee hearing last month was packed to overflowing with Hunters Point business owners and some supporters of the Missouri. After three hours, Supervisor John Molinari, a candidate for mayor and a supporter of the Missouri, postponed a committee vote on the issue until later this month. His leading prospective opponent in the mayoral race, Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) spoke on behalf of the artists.

Wartelle has caught the city’s attention and has been meeting weekly with Lazarus and others in an effort to find the artists a home. With or without such a cease-fire, the Feinstein Administration remains confident of victory.

“We have counted enough votes to approve the memorandum of understanding between the Navy and city, whether the vote happens next week or next month,” Lazarus said.

Regardless of the outcome in Congress and at City Hall, the businesses must leave, Farrar said. It is, he said, the “intent of the Navy to make Hunters Point a fully operating naval station. . . . Long-term coexistence with the Navy will not be a viable option.”

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