City of Bell, L.A. Unified Tussle Over Federal Land

Times Staff Writer

The place played a quiet but key role in World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War.

Fighting didn't reach Cheli Air Force Station southeast of downtown Los Angeles until after the last of its stockpiles of equipment and its squadrons of airmen departed its front gates, however.

For more than 40 years, the military depot in Bell has been the focus of a tug-of-war between those clamoring to own pieces of its valuable land next to Atlantic Boulevard and the Long Beach Freeway.

The base was a major military aircraft parts and equipment supply depot during WWII and the Korean conflict. After that, it was a radar training center for Strategic Air Command bombardiers who stayed aloft in atomic bomb-armed planes during the 1950s.

Pieces of the former 450-acre base have been chipped away since the Air Force phased out operations in the early 1960s. But now the federal General Services Administration is preparing to divvy up its last remaining parcels.

The Salvation Army is poised to be the big winner, gaining free ownership of 26 acres and two huge warehouse buildings that it has leased from the U.S. government since 1988. Part of the property is used as a 291-bed homeless shelter.

Another homeless services provider, Shelter Partners, is tentatively earmarked to receive nearly 6 acres and a smaller warehouse building, where it will stockpile supplies for Los Angeles-area homeless shelters.

The U.S. Army Reserve appears targeted to get warehouses and outdoor storage areas covering 38 acres. Bell city officials are in the running to obtain 25 acres for commercial redevelopment.

The last parcel -- 11 acres containing a huge warehouse in the middle of the old base -- is being considered for use by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Officials hope to open a vocational school there.

The GSA will decide just who gets what in the next six months, said Clark Van Epps, regional director of surplus property disposal for the administration in San Francisco.

For now, municipal officials in Bell and school officials in Los Angeles are jockeying over space not snapped up for the homeless.

"The city of Bell and L.A. Unified are contesting -- maybe that's not a good choice of words -- the allocation," Van Epps said. "The Bell application overlaps LAUSD's."

The Salvation Army had the inside track for the surplus land thanks to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, signed into law in 1987 by President Reagan.

That law specifies that surplus federal property be used to assist homeless people unless a competing request "is so meritorious and compelling as to outweigh the needs of the homeless."

Those fighting over the Bell land have tried to work out a compromise. A tentative allocation map suggests that the Army Reserve is the only entity so far to yield any acreage: It may offer a parking area totaling about 3 acres to the school district.

Board of Education member David Tokofsky said the Salvation Army offered to lease the district a piece of its land if school officials come up empty-handed when parcels are handed out.

Tokofsky, who represents the Bell area, said he didn't know whether to be angry or grateful.

"I withheld comment. It had ingredients of outrage and ingredients of pragmatism," he said.

Jerry Hill, a consultant in funding and project development with the Salvation Army, said any lease to the school district would have to comply with federal regulations.

The GSA's Van Epps said Tuesday that rules were strict. "A homeless provider must utilize property for the homeless, or it immediately reverts back to the federal government," he said.

At Bell City Hall, meanwhile, officials were asking why Los Angeles school officials were intent on establishing another campus in their city -- and in a prime industrial area at that.

"We've asked for whatever is remaining" for industrial park usage, said Robert Rizzo, the city's chief administrative officer.

"We're getting chump change. We end up with just 20 acres," added Mayor George Cole. "They want to take prime commercial property. This is beginning to impact the financial stability of the city, to lose this much land and the revenue from the land."

Such squabbling is nothing new to those familiar with the former Cheli air base site.

Outsiders were quick to see opportunity in the depot acreage when the Air Force began phasing out operations.

A 53-acre portion of the base was investigated as the potential site of Los Angeles County's Central Jail before the Sheriff's Department decided in 1958 that it was too far from the courts downtown.

In 1961, the nearby City of Commerce sent a delegation to Washington in a failed attempt to ask for 10 acres to use as a city park and library site, and for 77 acres for use as a junior college by the Montebello Unified School District. Bell, meantime, took steps to annex the entire federal site.

At the same time, California Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel proposed returning a portion of the base to the Santa Fe Railroad, which in the 1940s had sold land to the government for wartime use for a token $2 payment.

In 1979, the now-defunct California Bell Casino was opened at the site, and Bell officials produced an economic study calling for conversion of the base into an industrial park and regional shopping center. The industrial area was eventually built next to Bandani Boulevard. But the shopping center idea fizzled.

These days, the remaining WWII warehouses are used for government storage and offices by various federal agencies.

New streets created on the old air base bear such names as Amelia Earhart Way, Lindbergh Lane and Rickenbacker Road in recognition of its past. But there is no Cheli Street.

That's a shame to those who remember Maj. Ralph Cheli, the B-25 pilot and WWII Congressional Medal of Honor winner for whom the air base was named in 1952.

When the base was built in 1943, it was known as the 822nd Specialized Depot.

But it was renamed in honor of Cheli, who on Aug. 18, 1943, led his squadron in an attack on a heavily defended enemy airfield at Wewak, New Guinea. Twenty-five enemy planes concentrated their fire on Cheli's plane, which burst into flames two miles from the target.

Instead of parachuting out, Cheli used his blazing bomber to guide his squadron to the target before crashing into the sea. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and nine months later, the prison ship on which he was held was bombed and sunk en route to Tokyo.

Like the air base with his name, Ralph Cheli did not survive.

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