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Air Force Plan for Housing Assailed

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From an eight-acre patch of rustic land that overlooks the ocean, San Pedro residents have been able to peacefully savor spectacular sunsets while strolling through the wild grass.

But the bucolic environment is now in peril, the object of a tug of war that has erupted between residents who want to keep the land undeveloped and the U.S. Air Force, which wants to start bulldozing it in April to make way for new roads and military housing.

“This is the last scenic site left in San Pedro,” said Rodger Paige, who lives about 75 yards from the bluff area and is president of the Palisades Homeowners Assn. “That’s all there is left.”

The land, which is next to White Point Park, has been owned for decades by the Navy, which more than 30 years ago built 78 housing units on an upper 16-acre portion of the property. But the Navy is vacating it because the Long Beach Naval Shipyard is being shut down. It will be turned over to the Air Force, which needs housing for its personnel working nearly 20 miles away at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo.

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The Air Force plans to knock down all but two of the aging Navy housing units and replace them with 75 units spread out over the entire 24-acre ocean view property. About 15 of the new units, single-family houses in Craftsman and Victorian styles, would be constructed on the now-untouched eight acres.

The Air Force maintains that this is the best site to build homes for its personnel, who are stationed in Los Angeles for an average of three to four years. Military officials have looked at building several miles away near the Korean Bell at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro, but it doesn’t have the roads and sewers that are already in place at the Navy site. White Point is also near two other Air Force housing projects--Pacific Heights and Pacific Crest--off 25th Street. Air Force officials said they can better combine maintenance duties if all the housing structures are near each other.

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“This is the most viable option,” said Brig. Gen. John L. Clay, vice commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at the Los Angeles Air Force Base.

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Residents knew the Air Force would be moving in when the Navy moved out. Little did they know, however, that their new military neighbors would be building on the lower eight acres. In fact, many residents believed the land belonged to the city of Los Angeles and was safe from development.

Three weeks ago, the Air Force sent Karla Bittner, a past president of the Palisades Homeowners Assn., a copy of the project’s environmental impact assessment. She turned it over to Paige and together they discovered what was happening. Then they told their neighbors.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook from 7 a.m. to 10:30 at night,” Paige said. “It has been a tough few weeks.”

Residents were infuriated that the Air Force hadn’t notified them earlier because the public comment period on the project was ending on Jan. 23.

After calling up their elected officials, City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. and U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), residents were able to get the Air Force to extend the public comment period to Feb. 7 and to hold a public meeting last Thursday night at White Point Elementary School. Nearly 150 angry people packed the school auditorium to bombard the Air Force with just one message: “No new development.”

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“This is where we live. This is our community. This is not your community. You are transients,” one angry man told a row of Air Force officers seated at a table in front of the auditorium.

“We hope you can preserve the eight acres for both us and you,” Yvonne Grea said.

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Air Force officials said they will try to be good neighbors and look at the alternatives before a decision is made in February.

Originally, the Air Force housing project was planned for the upper portion of Ft. MacArthur. But then the Navy land became available.

Congress appropriated $15.4 million for the Air Force to tear down 76 of the Navy’s 78 housing units, built in 1966, because they contain asbestos and lead paint. Plans call for them to be replaced by 75 one- and two-story homes that will have at least three bedrooms. Because the Air Force homes are bigger than the Navy housing, more land will be needed, which is why the military believes the eight acres are necessary.

Nearly 300 additional Navy housing units at John Montgomery Drive near San Pedro are in the process of being vacated. But the U.S. Coast Guard is applying for that housing.

Critics of the White Point plan are concerned that the Los Angeles Air Force Base may eventually close, forcing the military to abandon the White Point housing project. If that happened, the property might be turned into housing for the homeless or sold for a commercial development, neighborhood residents fear.

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But Air Force officials said they believe the military base will be around for some time. Currently, it employs 1,645 military employees and 1,136 civilians who oversee the purchasing, design and construction of almost all of the Defense Department’s space systems, including satellites and launch vehicles.

But the base, which has no runway, no control tower and no aircraft, has had an uncertain past, having been threatened with closure in 1995 and earlier. Over the years, Air Force officials cited a lack of affordable housing and the area’s problems with crime as reasons for relocating or closing the base. There are 103 Air Force families waiting for military housing.

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If the project is approved after Feb. 7, bulldozers would begin digging up the eight acres in early April, Air Force officials say.

Demolition of the Navy structures would begin in May, and the new Air Force houses would be completed by early 1999.


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