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[whitespace] Michael Houlemard
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Swords to Plowshares: Capitola resident Michael Houlemard heads the effort to turn the former Fort Ord Army base over to civilian control.

Bay Watch

Will the development of the former Fort Ord draw Santa Cruz County into a stronger Monterey Bay regional identity?

By Kimberly Jean Smith

IT'S HARD TO SAY if Santa Cruz should rejoice or worry at the changes taking place just a 40-minute drive to the south in Monterey County. Either way, it will be hard to ignore what Congressman Sam Farr, who represent both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, has referred to as the largest development project in California.

In 1994, the California Legislature created the Fort Ord Reuse Authority and charged it with creating an economic plan for the area. If FORA, along with city and county planners, has its way, by the year 2015 the former Fort Ord Military Reservation will house a community of 35,000 civilians, create 18,400 new jobs, offer more than 50 miles of hiking and biking trails and extend the Silicon Valley economic boom to the working-class cities of Marina and Seaside.

At the same time, those changes could also drive up housing costs, squeeze out longtime residents and increase auto traffic and other pressures on communities around the bay.

So far, Santa Cruz County community leaders have expressed little interest in the plan, consumed as they are with the growth pressures created by Silicon Valley, even though Fort Ord is closer than much of San Jose.

"It's simply premature," Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt says. "Certainly, it is true that if the plan began to materialize and take on something, you know, real, we'd look at it."

Many in Santa Cruz echo Wormhoudt's views. The changes in Monterey County seem too vague, too far in the future to worry about now. And then there is the matter of history. Traditionally, Santa Cruz has simply depended more on, and identified more with, Highway 17 than with Highway 1.

But on the other side of the bay, people talk about even the most speculative parts of the Fort Ord plan as if they are already close to reality. They no longer view the bay as geographically divided. They see it as the unifying feature in a new regional identity, one that will be strengthened by changes at Fort Ord.

Local Assemblyman Fred Keeley says part of the problem for Santa Cruzans is that the magnitude of change in Monterey County is hard to grasp. There are a half-dozen issues involved, from housing rehabilitation to removing lead bullets from sand dunes. And there are many agencies involved, in addition to the Department of Defense and community advocates. It's a process, Kelley says, that "only a bureaucrat's bureaucrat could love."

Farr believes Santa Cruz's regional blindness is real and may lead to missed opportunities. "Everybody's interested in what's going on in their own back yard," Farr says with a tinge of frustration. "Fort Ord is too many back yards over [for most Santa Cruzans]."

But Santa Cruz better pay attention and "sober up," says Ron Chesshire, a business representative for Carpenters Local 605 in Monterey County. On the south end of the bay, people like Chesshire want Santa Cruzans to know that while millions of dollars have already been spent, millions more are likely to come down the pipeline. It's too huge a business and employment opportunity to ignore.

While 354 housing units have already been rehabilitated, there are 11,000 more that will be rehabbed or built new. Some 7,600 acres of park land are already open, with more than 15,000 additional acres to be added. There will also be 1,500 acres devoted to business and retail development.

"If [Santa Cruz officials] are sitting there with their heads up their butts," says Chesshire, who at the very least foresees some work for the northern county's construction crews, "they ought to be aware of what's taking place."

On the Horizon

FOR 77 YEARS, 28,000 acres of largely open land glittered like an uncut gem just across the bay from Santa Cruz. On a clear day, Santa Cruzans could just make out its pink stretch of dunes and dusky green hills rising steadily to the east of Highway 1.

But the treasures the land offered were mostly a closely held military secret. Those who knew of its stunning ocean vistas, the narrow eastern plateau rising over the Salinas Valley and the occasional mountain lion wandering through its oak glens were the more than 3.5 million soldiers who passed over the land beginning with World War I, when the base opened.

Then nine years ago, things suddenly changed. Call it the grand prize of peace dividends or the curse of modern warfare. With the end of the Cold War, the dawn of high-tech weaponry and the decline of large armies, the military believed it no longer needed Fort Ord, where recently 60,000-100,000 soldiers a year had gone for basic training. The Army decided to give the base away, and it was closed in 1994.

Some nearby communities, like Del Rey Oaks, a quiet sliver of a town, seemed to grow in acreage overnight. The Oaks, as it is known, will double in size when the Army finalizes the transfer of 360 acres to the town.

Seaside, a hardscrabble mix of small houses and light industry, bought the Army's two 18-hole golf courses. (Three more courses on the drawing boards will fall within other jurisdictions.) And Marina, a windy city surrounded by dunes and scrub brush, suddenly had a municipal airport and the promise that it would be the future home of a high-tech research and industrial park that could end up employing thousands.

The transition hasn't been easy. The economies of towns like Seaside and Marina were built out of the dollars in soldiers' wallets. Buy-on-credit furniture stores, rowdy bars and crowded working-class churches surrounded the base. The Army brought thousands of soldiers to the area for basic training--some of whom returned with their families to settle here.

Through the Army, Seaside--and to a lesser extent Marina--became home to the Monterey Bay area's only sizable African American community. The two cities offered first-time homeowners prices Army salaries could meet. So when word of the base closure came down, these cities couldn't imagine what their futures might hold.

The Fort Ord Reuse Authority was created to deal with the panic in communities that virtually owed their existences to the base. "People were frightened," says Michael Houlemard, executive director of the Reuse Authority. "[Cities] didn't know if they were going to be able to pay their municipal bills."

Now, six years into its operation, the Reuse Authority has an economic, social and environmental tiger by the tail. "I think it's the largest coastal development in the country," Houlemard says.

Wiping the Slate Clean

HOULEMARD commutes daily from his home in Capitola to his office in a former military logistics planning center on the old base. The former director of community planning and land development for UC-Santa Cruz has already overseen the handing over of some 14,000 acres to the surrounding communities; the creation of a state university; and the resolution of two lawsuits brought by environmentalists worried that the military wouldn't meet its commitment to clean up areas of the base studded with lead bullets, unexploded ordinance and an aging landfill. And he helped create a plan calling for a public-private partnership to build a science and technology center on the former Army land.

"It's very rare that you have an opportunity to be involved with wiping the slate clean," says Houlemard, who in his youth protested the Vietnam War and fought for fair housing for his black community as assistant executive director of the Pasadena Urban Coalition. "My mother calls me a reclaimed civil rights activist," he says.

If the 20-year plan is fully realized, Houlemard's legacy will be to leave behind a healthy, culturally rich, job-filled community of 35,000 people--an almost one-for-one replacement of those who left when the Army did.

Houlemard, who has lived in Santa Cruz County for 11 years, may already represent the Monterey Bay worker of the future. Transportation officials predict that more and more workers will live in one Monterey Bay area community and travel to another for work.

Right now, there are only about 4,000 such people traveling from Santa Cruz to the south end of the bay, says Linda Wilshusen, executive director of Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission. But Wilshusen expects that the region will someday have to come to terms with added traffic pressures on Highway 1.

"It is appropriate for local officials to be aware of what's going on [at Fort Ord]," Wilshusen says. "But it's a little tricky, because we don't have any control with what's going on down there."

Still, Wilshusen, like Houlemard and others, thinks we are in the beginning stages of creating a stronger regional identity for the Monterey Bay, spurred in part by the marine sanctuary designation the bay received in 1992 and the growth of scientific research institutions all around its crescent shoreline. It's a process in which the reuse of Fort Ord will play a prominent role as a bridge between north and south.

These optimists say we are slowly moving away from the model of local fiefdoms, which struggle separately to cope with similar environmental and growth problems that affect the whole bay.

If Fort Ord becomes the high-tech and bio-tech research center planners hope for, with new institutions will come new industries, new jobs and even more demand for housing.

"Growth can occur and should occur," Farr says. But he adds that it needn't occur at the expense of cities like Santa Cruz, which are already feeling pinched. "I think these areas ought to say, 'No, don't build here. There's a place for that. It's called Fort Ord.' "

Stan Cook
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Building Code Red: Stan Cook oversees plans to demolish or convert to other uses decades-old buildings at Fort Ord, most of which have serious structural or contamination problems.

From Bullets to Parks

STAN COOK wanders the base in construction boots, managing a pilot program at the Reuse Authority that is helping determine the future of the more than 7,000 buildings the Army left behind. We approach a group of low buildings with an odd patch of open land between them with a single small pipe that sticks up about five feet out of the ground.

"See, that's what it looks like when we take down a building," Cook says proudly. Other than the pipe, which marks the location of water for future developers, there is no evidence that barracks used to be here.

All the old structures must either be removed, maintained or refurbished for new uses. About 1,300 don't meet today's building code, while many of the most beautiful old window frames are trimmed with lead paint. There is asbestos in some of the frames and ceiling tiles. Cook, a hiker and something of an environmentalist, makes sure dangerous material is disposed of safely and that the safe material gets a new life as mulch, concrete or lumber.

So far, Cook has helped cart an old barracks to a community college just down the road in Salinas and handed over another to the Carmel Unified School District. Goodwill Industries converted a couple of equipment storage areas into a catering and restaurant training center.

A couple of area church congregations have settled into the base's larger, finer churches. There is even talk of moving one old church, a large wood-shingled building with Victorian trim and a tall New England steeple, to Seaside for a congregation that has outgrown its current facility.

California State University, Monterey Bay, which opened in 1995, created a school out of some old warehouses and a mess hall. Now, more than 2,100 students attend, some sleeping in dormitories made from former Army barracks.

But left empty are two abandoned neighborhoods, each with about 400 houses overlooking Highway 1 and the ocean beyond. These homes, with their low, flat roofs, chipped concrete entrance ways, odd orange paint jobs and boarded-up windows, used to house soldiers' families. Now, developers will raze them and begin the process of constructing new homes on the old sites.

As Cook wanders the base moving through its old neighborhoods, the acres of empty barracks listing to one side and contrasting with its busy college campus, he recognizes the immensity of the Reuse Authority's task. And he acknowledges the difficulty others have envisioning it.

"This base is the same size as San Francisco," Cook says as he enters the more isolated eastern end of Fort Ord. "That's a good way to get people's attention. Folks can visualize that." Much of this section now belongs to the Bureau of Land Management, which has opened some of the roads and a few of its trails to bikers, hikers and naturalists.

Some sections remain closed, too dangerous to enter. Crater-sized dimples in the landscape are filled with spent bullets and unexploded ammunition. Rusted truck shells, which once were used as targets, sit abandoned on hillsides. And hidden under the scrub brush and rock are the remains of weaponry that missed its mark, unexploded shells in places no one bothered to mark on any map. It's a slow, careful job specially trained crews must do to locate and then defuse unexploded ordnance. Reuse Authority officials estimate it will take at least another five years before the last shell is removed.

Even with the bombs, Cook appreciates the irony--all this open space, much of which would probably have disappeared under a suburban housing tract if the Army hadn't controlled it for so long. He often commutes by bicycle to the base from his home in Monterey, past the four-mile stretch of beach scheduled to open to the public soon as part of a state park. Cook takes pride in the work that the Reuse Authority is doing and wishes his northern neighbors would pay more attention.

Cook and other Reuse Authority officials believe the base closing will save the south end of the bay from the awkward ugly growth of Silicon Valley. And, they say, it offers a buffer to uncontrolled growth for everyone in the region.

But the growth--even though it requires the setting aside of thousands of acres to protect natural habitats--is giving some Santa Cruz-based environmentalists pause and, in the process, is reinforcing a growing regional identity.

"I feel really strongly that the sanctuary we do have should be looked at as a whole," says Jonathan Bishop, a staff member with the Santa Cruz chapter of Save Our Shores. "It's not just a Monterey issue."

Bishop admits the impact Fort Ord's new industries and housing developments will have on the bay is unclear, but his group won't ignore the issue. Still, there is a lot to learn. "For us," he says, "it's still in the fact-finding stage."

Even the controlled growth that the Reuse Authority is advocating will come at a heavy cost. Between 1990 and 1995, 28 percent of the 65,337 people who lived in Seaside and Marina left the area--many of them working-class African Americans and Latinos who were forced to leave because there were no jobs to replace those lost when the base closed. Critics of the Reuse Authority plan say the high-end tech jobs won't recapture jobs people of color lost when the base closed.

"It's taken over six years," Cook says, looking down at his boots. "The people who needed to have jobs off of this base, needed to have jobs." They're gone.

Sea Change

WE "ARE NOT GONE," says Levonne Stone, an African American woman who moved to Marina 10 years ago to join her husband, Donald, a soldier stationed at Fort Ord as a driver. "[We] are here, waiting to see what's going to happen."

When the base first closed, Levonne says, the Army assured families that they would find new jobs. The Stones would like to stay on, but they've had trouble finding work, and in the meantime, the cost of housing keeps going up. They once lived in base housing for $600 a month. Now, they pay $1,000 for a three-bedroom home in Marina.

Stone has seen the old stores, which used to serve Army families, disappear along with her neighbors, who could no longer afford to keep their homes. She's watched as the churches, like the one her husband headed, closed or consolidated as their congregations dwindled. Gone are the bars, and in their place have popped up strip malls with stores like Borders and Starbucks, serving newcomers who've moved into the freshly built beach-front condos.

She founded the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network to keep an eye on the Army's cleanup efforts. In addition, Stone organizes food and clothing drives to help families like hers that are struggling to hold on.

So what if Seaside got a golf course, Stone says. "Who plays golf around here?"

She sees Seaside's embrace of this kind of development as symbolic of the changes to come. She's concerned that while cities that border the base have grown in acreage, the Fort Ord reuse plan won't ever benefit the people who built those towns: working-class soldiers and the African American and Latino families who called the area around the base home.

But Houlemard is optimistic about what the future holds for families like Stone's. "In truth," he says, "I think there are still a large number of people who will do better than what they are doing now as Fort Ord develops."

Crescent Wrench

AS DIRECTOR of program and policy development for the UCSC-based Monterey Bay Education, Science and Technology Center (MBEST), Santa Cruzan Lori Martin hopes to create a specialized industrial park on 485 breezy acres near the old Army airstrip in what is now part of Marina, with construction possibly beginning this fall.

Martin envisions a time when biotechnology researchers, telecommunications experts, educators, entrepreneurs and marine biologists will pull up to side-by-side offices and share ideas over coffee and lunch.

For the time being, all that exists of MBEST is a concrete building dwarfed by the surrounding, mostly empty, parking lot. A marine education group, an Internet weather company and a university extension program have set up shop. But Martin needs to attract more investors and interested tenants to this unusual public-private scheme.

"How do we get other people to see what we are talking about?" she asks rhetorically when speaking of the MBEST strategy. "We find the few that get excited about it, and we keep talking about it."

To help the talk along, Martin has a new label for the Monterey Bay: "The crescent region."

"Many of us are looking around the crescent rather than just dealing with the tidal wave of development [on our own]," says Martin, who once kayaked from Santa Cruz to Monterey in a single day.

Some say Martin's success or failure at MBEST will determine the economic destinies of towns like Marina and Seaside and perhaps even effect the economy of Santa Cruz. "When [the center] gets going," says state Sen. Bruce McPherson, who represents both ends of the bay and co-authored the bill creating the Reuse Authority, "then we'll find out the real strength that can be expected in the future."

But others, like Cabrillo College history professor Sandy Lydon, believe the transition from Army base to high-tech research center will come at a price. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that things are going to change," Lydon says. "African Americans are not a part of what's going on in the Silicon Valley. And they are not going to be [part of what's going on] here."

Houlemard disagrees, saying African Americans and Latinos are already a "driving force" in information technology. MBEST will create even more opportunities for these pioneers, he says.

Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at UCSC, says some of the new jobs will open doors into the science and high-tech industries. If MBEST is finally realized, it will mean even more opportunity for local youth. Griggs calls Martin a visionary who sees Fort Ord for the challenge and opportunity that it is.

Meet the Neighbors

CRITICS AND BOOSTERS ALIKE agree that the Monterey Bay area benefits from regional thinking. "I'm a regional dude," says Lydon, who's studied the bay's early days. "I don't like that very narcissistic let's-look-at-ourselves attitude that Santa Cruz likes to do." He is reminded of the past, when the two counties were seen as one.

That marriage dissolved in 1850 as California moved toward statehood and largely white Santa Cruz balked at being associated any longer with "Mexican Monterey." Lydon worries that changes at Fort Ord have the potential to further increase Santa Cruz's isolation from more racially diverse areas of California.

Still, Houlemard is hopeful. "There is still a very thriving African American community," he says. "What you do to keep that is you build a strong economy and good quality jobs."

For many, a more regional view of the two counties makes sense, because each section of the bay faces similar problems: the pressure to build on sensitive land, rising housing prices, the need to conserve limited water resources and the desire to maintain the precious bay we share.

Monterey County is lucky that it has Fort Ord as a kind of safety valve to cope with some of those problems, as a location that both preserves open land and offers a place to build. But changes at the base will reach beyond Monterey's boundaries and deserve Santa Cruz's attention.

"It's amazing how little folks in Santa Cruz think about what's happening in Fort Ord," Houlemard says. "There isn't some big glaring event that's going to affect Santa Cruz. But overall, the growth is going to impact the whole area."

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From the March 8-15, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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