Deal Would Trade Land for Military Upgrades

Times Staff Writer

The federal government plans to give away half of the 113-acre Los Angeles Air Force Base to private developers as part of an unusual swap that would help pay for upgrades at the military facility.

Supporters of the deal believe it will make the facility less of a target when the Department of Defense begins a new round of base closings in 2005. Over the last decade, several large Southern California bases have closed, including the El Toro and Tustin Marine bases.

But some residents worry about dense housing developments scheduled to be built on the base land.

"None of the alternatives are being evaluated, including paying the necessary funds from the federal government to renovate the facilities without making this terrible development in our community," said Guy Hocker, 61, a former mayor of Hawthorne.

Under the deal, the Department of Defense would transfer ownership of about 58.7 acres to three developers, who in turn would demolish several buildings that don't meet earthquake standards and construct new ones for the Air Force. The base sits on two lots in El Segundo, three miles from Los Angeles International Airport; it also encompasses two smaller facilities in Hawthorne and Sun Valley. Unlike most air bases, it has no runways, hangars or barracks.

Its nondescript buildings house the Space and Missile Systems Center, which develops military communications and weather satellites and is responsible for a global positioning system.

Built mostly in the 1950s, none of the 30 base buildings has undergone major renovation. Many don't have fire sprinkler systems, and most have poor heating, air-conditioning and electrical systems.

Lt. Col. William Kitch, director of the public works department, described the base in terms of a dying car: "We're always standing on the side of the road and calling roadside assistance."

Each morning, a mechanic in a golf cart drives from one building to the next to manually turn on heaters or air conditioners, said Randall Muir, a civilian mechanical engineer.

At times, the mechanic must adjust the valve of a boiler or air chiller throughout the day to control the building's temperature, Muir said.

It takes an additional hour and a half to turn off the heat or cool air at the end of the day.

On top of that, a 1996 Army Corps of Engineers study found that the structures were vulnerable to pancake-like collapse in case of a Northridge-magnitude earthquake, according to Lt. Col. Aaron Bridgewater, an Air Force civil engineer.

"We're just about out of gas," said Col. Brian Kistner, the base commander. "No one is going to devote large amounts of money to continue to maintain old infrastructure."

There have long been concerns that the base could close, in part because of its decrepit condition and the high cost of fixing it.

Two years ago, special legislation gave the Air Force clearance to pursue the complicated land deal.

Experts said it marks a novel attempt to rehabilitate the base without federal funding and said they could think of few projects of its kind. In the early 1990s, a similar swap involving Fort Belvoir in Virginia fell apart when the real estate market stalled, lowering the value of the federal land, said George Schlossberg of the National Assn. of Installation Developers.

Essentially, the Los Angeles Air Force Base plan involves four parcels. Three developers -- Kearny Real Estate Co., Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund and Catellus Development Corp. -- would build state-of-the-art military facilities totaling 560,000 square feet at El Segundo Boulevard and Douglas Avenue in El Segundo. Construction is to begin this fall.

After that's completed, in late 2005, the developers would take ownership of about 42 acres nearby. Additionally, they would take over 13 acres of base land in Hawthorne and 3.7 acres in Sun Valley.

Proceeds from the swap won't completely pay for construction of the new base buildings. One proposal under consideration is to use property taxes from the private development to help make up the difference. Because the Air Force pays no property taxes on its land, El Segundo is not losing revenue, said Mayor Mike Gordon.

"We do not believe there is a project more important to the economic future of our community than the modernization of the Los Angeles Air Force Base," he said.

The community has been debating exactly what should be built on the land being turned over to developers. A proposal for an 11-story hotel and an IKEA store in El Segundo was opposed by area residents.

Now under consideration is a project calling for about 850 units of townhouses and condominiums in a gated community.

"I would love to see low-density, first-class homes, rather than a bunch of condos," said Hawthorne Councilman Mark Schoenfeld.

There seems to be no disagreement about the base's economic importance in the South Bay.

The Space and Missile Systems Center pumps about $8 billion in military contracts to local aerospace firms, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and TRW.

"Every time they go to lunch, we get a piece of that," Gordon said. "Every time they buy something, we get a piece of that."

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