The battle is over a piece of ground, a tiny swatch in the vast patchwork that is Southern California.
The abandoned Navy hospital, fenced off and locked up, sits on the northeast corner of Long Beach, another casualty of military downsizing. It is here, where the stakes amount to a mere 30 acres of land, that one of the most contentious disputes the Navy can recall over reuse of military land is unfolding.
On one side is Long Beach, which is being portrayed by its foes as the bullying friend of the Navy. On the other side is a coalition of smaller communities in Los Angeles and Orange counties, with solidly middle-class Lakewood playing the most active and voluble role. Simply put, the fight boils down to how the land will be used. The outcome could be worth millions of dollars to the winner.
Long Beach wants to tear down the hospital structure and build a 1-million-square-foot mall to hopefully rake in tax income. Lakewood and neighboring Hawaiian Gardens--along with four other nearby communities that have closed ranks behind them--contend that another mall is the last thing the area needs. They fear that new business for Long Beach means less business for them, fewer customers for their own stores and shopping centers.
And that is what they want to stop, using both threats of lawsuits and claims of a higher moral ground, in an attempt to get their way.
So bellicose has the dispute become that some wonder how many years it will take before the feud is forgotten. Residents of the surrounding communities have been worked into such a froth that hundreds of angry people have shown up for public meetings that, in other circumstances, would have attracted only a handful.
“The Long Beach hospital issue is one of the few sites that have had that kind of acrimony,” said Navy Capt. Burt Streicher, who oversees base transitions for the Department of Defense. “The one thing you can say for sure is that when you do not have regional consensus, it makes it very difficult.”
This was supposed to be a turnover that would serve as an example of how military property should be disposed of, a textbook case with none of the rancor that has surrounded other base closings around the country in recent years. It was not, for instance, supposed to be like the George Air Force Base fiasco. After the Mojave Desert base was ordered closed in 1988, four small California cities located nearby spent $15 million in lawsuits before a compromise was reached that would make the base a cargo airport. Instead, the Long Beach dispute has become much like the George case, with lawsuits promised.
“It’s like life and death stuff,” said Long Beach City Councilman Les Robbins, whose district includes the abandoned hospital. “It’s a product of economic times, the way local government is now funded, the financial pressures that are put on cities and counties.”
The story of how this all came to be is fairly straightforward. In 1991, the Navy announced that because of its shrinking forces and funding, military bases and other facilities around the country were being closed. The hospital was among them.
Since 1991, there have been two more rounds of closures. And this month, it was recommended that two dozen bases and 80 smaller facilities be shut down. Among them was the Long Beach Naval Ship Yard, which employs 3,100 people. Robbins said the possible loss of the yard made Long Beach city officials even less inclined to negotiate with other city governments wanting to have a say on how the hospital land will be used.
The hospital was closed last year. But a Long Beach committee has been working since 1991 to determine how the land might best be used. They might have done that work uninterrupted if the hospital had been located in the heart of Long Beach, rather than on the far northeast corner of the city, adjacent to both Lakewood and Hawaiian Gardens.
As Lakewood officials describe it, they had no notion of what Long Beach was up to until March, 1993, when a young city employee heard discussions about the mall at a public meeting in Long Beach and passed the word on to his superiors. What he heard was that Long Beach planned to build a shopping area that would include both factory outlets and warehouse membership stores. The Long Beach rationale for building a mall, rather than something else, was the need for a major infusion of sales tax revenues.
Since then, relations between the two cities, long close neighbors, has been on a downward spiral that hit bottom this month with a hearing in Lakewood at which 900 people showed up to vent their anger about the Long Beach mall plans. Hawaiian Gardens has also joined the fray, along with Artesia, Buena Park, Cypress and Garden Grove. They dubbed themselves the Southeast Area Military Facility Reuse Alliance of Cities.
At the meeting, Lakewood City Administrator Howard Chambers accused the Navy and Long Beach officials of making a back-room deal to clear the way for the shopping center.
“Get out of bed with Long Beach,” he scolded Navy Capt. Bob Kiesling, who is overseeing the conversion of the site. Kiesling said in an interview that there was no back-room deal, but that the Navy had been working only with Long Beach on a reuse plan simply because all the hospital property was within its city limits.
Adding to the complications, the Los Angeles County Department of Education, which has its headquarters in Downey, wants to move to the abandoned hospital, thereby saving about $1 million a year in rent. Not only is Long Beach against the move, but so is Downey, which would stand to lose the economic benefits of hundreds of jobs within its community.
“We are still interested in the hospital,” said Frank Kwan, a spokesman for the Education Department. “We saw it as an opportunity to make use of a building that had already been bought and paid for.”
After all the agitation, the Navy did reopen the case to allow more input from outside Long Beach. That opening has allowed Lakewood to mount a campaign aimed at protecting its own economic lifeblood, the Lakewood Center Mall, which draws half its customers from Long Beach. Among other things, Lakewood has stressed that introducing more retail businesses may bring in sales tax dollars, but will provide only a limited number of good jobs.
The delay also allowed Hawaiian Gardens to register its complaint that the Long Beach mall would do serious economic damage to the small, largely Hispanic community, in violation of President Clinton’s call for “environmental justice” for disadvantaged areas that are made up largely of minorities. Furthermore, Hawaiian Gardens civic leaders have charged that Long Beach sought retribution because of the debate, going so far as to put up a gate on a street linking the two cities. (The gate was opened after a court fight.)
And it has allowed the other opposing cities to express their opinion that Long Beach should not be allowed to make the call alone about the fate of the hospital land.
“You have a federal asset that is now surplus and it should be used for the benefit of all,” said Garden Grove City Councilman Mark Leyes. “The Navy thought it had a model project, but it was a model of how not to do something.”
Long Beach, meanwhile, claims that the dispute is nothing more than neighboring cities trying to protect their own sources of tax dollars. Mayor Beverly O’Neill said Long Beach needs the retail business and should not be deprived of it because another city objects.
“Cities have to be competitive and have to have a say over their own lands,” she said.
Long Beach officials also scoff at other objections, including one by Chambers, Lakewood’s city administrator, that a deal had been cut with the Navy to give the city exactly what it wanted.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Jerry Miller, Long Beach’s economic development manager.
The Navy is expected to make a decision on how the hospital will be used sometime this summer. Capt. Kiesling, based in San Diego and in charge of base closures in the Navy’s Southwest Division, said this kind of infighting is bad for the Navy because it lengthens the amount of time it takes to move the facilities off its rolls. And he said the Navy worked only with Long Beach at first because the land is within its city limits and therefore subject to its zoning laws.
“We couldn’t argue that Lakewood had some sort of zoning control over Long Beach,” he said.
After all the bickering, the Navy has narrowed all the proposals for the land down to two--the Long Beach mall and the Department of Education relocation. (There were many others, from a smaller medical facility to an aquatic recreational park, but all were dismissed--unfairly, in Lakewood’s view--by the Navy.)
Robbins, the Long Beach councilman, said that if the Education Department is selected over the mall, the city would do its best to make life as difficult as possible for the new tenants. He said the City Council was fed up with all the squabbling over what is seen as a clear-cut case: Long Beach sold the Navy the land in the first place, so Long Beach should decide how to use it.
“They’re going to have a real problem with zoning,” he said. “If they think they’ve given us fits, they haven’t seen anything yet.”
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Land Feud The city of Long Beach wants to build a mall on the site of the naval hospital, but the neighboring communities of Lakewood, Hawaiian Gardens, Artesia, Buena Park, Cypress and Garden Grove all oppose such a move.