Thursday, November 15, 2001
There should have been nothing strange at all about zooming through the abandoned wilds of Fort Ord in a gold Mercedes, except that we were zooming through the abandoned wilds of Fort Ord in a gold Mercedes. It looked like 35,000 people vanished 10 years ago and didn''t even bother to take down the swingsets-which is essentially what had happened.
Michael Houlemard, the dapper, racquetball-playing chief of the base reuse agency, is at the wheel. It''s his car, a snappy 300E with an oscillating Old Glory stuck to the rear window. He knows his way around this place pretty well even though he commutes from Capitola. He knows there are roads we can''t go down.
Fort Ord is a toxic leftover of the Cold War, a place as vast in area as the city and county of San Francisco. It''s an impossibly repellent and damaged patch of earth, and at the same time an incredibly valuable piece of real estate with ocean views. When the army left, it left behind a post-apocalypse of imagination.
Go up there on a foggy night and it''s positively bizarre. Instinct says don''t go east, deeper into the ghost-town maze. Point your car west. Make the ocean your northstar and you''ll get out. But there''s daylight now and Houlemard drives with authority. He hurtles east unafraid, bounding down roads named for dead generals and distant battlegrounds.
We''re out here because there are big plans in the works for Fort Ord. There''s talk of making it a national model for reusing shuttered defense bases. This former home of the Seventh Infantry Division is a chronic darling in the Peninsula news media, but these days there''s a fresh wrinkle. A local developer is gearing up to build 3,000 homes out in a remote corner called East Garrison, if only a sweet deal with the county gets inked.
And it''s not just going to be just any subdivision. This is slated to become a New Urban community-a radical alternative to the kind of planning that has dominated the nation for more than half a century, but an idea that is becoming more and more popular.
These settlements are designed to be "livable" places where residents can walk to the store for milk. Because of the way the communities are laid out, New Urbanites don''t have to drive everywhere. Residents interact because the neighborhood plan forces them to. Front porches placed close to the sidewalk facilitate friendly conversations. In the "downtowns" that New Urban enclaves all contain, apartment flats are placed above stores and taverns.
What''s being imitated by New Urbanism actually exists right here, in the older, tightly packed neighborhoods of Pacific Grove, in Old Town Salinas, and elsewhere in Monterey County.
But think about the poisoned husk of Fort Ord blossoming into a national model for a state-of-the-art American community, and it''s time to just pull over and stop the car. Best ease her up on the sand near one of the grenade ranges so we can all take a deep breath.
This vision of utopia is occuring in a literal and figurative minefield-a notion frightfully clear from the shotgun seat of Houlemard''s Mercedes. Every few yards, it seems, there''s a sign hanging from a barbed-wire fence warning of hidden explosives nestled in the underbrush. If Fort Ord lay in the American Outback somewhere, in a desolate, dry valley of Nevada or in a frigid and lonely Dakota, the government would erect a fence around it, hang up some really intimidating signs and walk away. Nobody would care. But this is the serene coast of Monterey County and legions clamor for a piece.
Fort Ord is like a giant cash register-except that it''s been wrapped in razor wire, booby-trapped with crumbly satchel charges and smeared with ugly chemicals. Somehow you''ve got to snip the wires and scour out all the toxic stuff to get to the money.
To get there by car you have to drive past a barricade set in the middle of Inter-Garrison Road. Between the barricade and the ocean are the parts of Fort Ord people are actually using, like the 900 or so college students living at Cal State Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and the 5,000 people in the military community. There''s also some rehabilitated housing at Abrams and Preston Park. Plus there are sundry businesses and agencies. Ord Market, for example, owned by Seaside City Councilman Darryl Choates, gleams brand new on Imjin Road. Spinning through the parking lot, Houlemard says, "He''s doing very well. In fact, he makes the best sandwiches on the base."
But get out past all that and the road is blocked off with a sign that says "Restricted Area." Beyond it is East Garrison. No problem. Houlemard is in charge here, so he eases the Mercedes around the barricade and pushes on down the road.
You know you''re in East Garrison when the road heads downhill and the Salinas Valley is visible in the distance. As we round a corner at a large wooden building we interrupt a squad of unsmiling men in camouflage. It''s a SWAT team of some kind, training at the Battle Simulation Center, a part of East Garrison that''s still in paramilitary use. They''re armed and clad in black helmets and bulletproof vests and seem to be rehearsing a combat assault. Across the road is a decaying wooden obstacle course. Houlemard points out yellow-flagged stakes in the ground. The markers mean that cleanup crews have either found something bad or are looking for something bad-unexploded rockets, bullets, chemicals.
Down the hill from the obstacle course is the old bivouac ground-East Garrison proper-a wide boulevard lined on either side by compact buildings with Spanish tile roofs and stone chimneys. They were built in the ''20s and they''ll stay put no matter what kind of community is built.
"You have to keep these buildings as part of this historic district," Houlemard says. That''s great, but they''re useless. Stuffed with asbestos and layered in lead paint, they''re the housing equivalent of a pretty pond filled with dirty water.
A ways down the road, presumably beyond the range of a curious neighborhood kid on a bicycle, we get to a part of the base that still has an active role: the Ammunition Supply Point.
Whenever ordnance disposal crews find buried weaponry it''s carried gingerly to the ASP for destruction. It''s a vast unkempt tarmac ringed by a big fence. Out of sight there''s a row of underground bunkers. Then, out past the sprawling range that''s handled by the Bureau of Land Management, we come upon the fabled government training site known as the Impossible City.
Houlemard says it''s a CIA/FBI urban combat training compound. Like so much else, it''s fenced and restricted and beside a road that Houlemard most definitely won''t be attempting. It leads to the Inland Range, where the Army really got to do its thing back in the day.
"This road is seriously closed. The stuff out there is not good," he says. "That''s where you find rockets. That''s where you find mortars. That''s where you find grenades."
He makes it sound like North Korea is just up ahead. We hang a right and wheel it back toward the ocean.
Houlemard says that only one percent of the millions of projectiles that were discharged at Fort Ord over the years did not detonate. Or was it billions of projectiles? He''s not sure.
"They may not want to admit it, but the Army finds buried stuff all the time," Houlemard says.
Nestled in among all this deadly chaparral, picture the weekly Monterey Farmers'' Market on Alvarado. Folding tables covered in plaid tablecloths and piles of fresh lettuce and tomato and apples and berries. A woman walks by in a denim jumper and a straw hat.
It''s one of the first slides you see in a presentation that East Garrison development planners have been showing at public meetings in the last month.
Tuesday night last week, Barry Long, an architect from the Pittsburgh, Penn. firm Urban Design Associates, put it up on a screen in the Fort Ord Reuse Authority conference room, a converted army building just off Highway One. It''s a drafty space and 14 people sit around the horseshoe table. Some are from Woodman Development, the company that has exclusive rights to negotiate with the county for the East Garrison land. They''ve hired Long''s firm to design the housing. Others at the meeting are from the county, still others have an interest in what happens on the land.
One of them is Mark Wright, a curious native. He was born in Watsonville and grew up in Marina, where he still lives. He works at Slautterback up in Ryan Ranch, manufacturing glue machines. Before the slideshow can begin, he asks a question from the flip side of Monterey County''s housing crisis. He wants to know where the new residents will work.
"How do you entice businesses?" he asks. The quick answer comes from right across the horseshoe. "Affordable homes," says Keith McCoy, the project coordinator. Wright sees it from the other end.
"We''re laying off people. We''ve been laying off people," he says. "All this sounds great, but if there''s no reassurance for people to come here, it''s going to be difficult to do."
Houlemard is at the meeting, dressed in a natty business suit. He points to the strength of the educational institutions nearby and the research and development firms they might attract.
"Now we could be wrong," Houlemard says.
"Yeah," says Wright.
"Because people have been wrong in the past," Houlemard continues.
Then LeVonne Stone pipes up. Her husband was in the Seventh Infantry at the base and she worked there. Now she runs the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network. People come to her looking for affordable housing.
"What''s the guarantee that jobs will be created for people who are not in the high-tech industry or don''t have the training or whatever?" Stone asks.
Houlemard is quick to respond. There will be all kinds of restaurant jobs, and janitorial jobs and staff jobs. "I don''t know of any place in a free society that guarantees something you don''t work for," he says.
Stone starts to talk, but Houlemard keeps going: "...the only thing that''s guaranteed is the opportunity."
Questions are cast aside temporarily as the discussion turns to New Urbanism. McCoy takes the helm. Wearing a flight jacket with a waving American flag sewn over the heart, McCoy notes that the nostalgic buzz and apparent smartness of New Urbanism projects have become so appealing that they''re now in great demand across the country.
"Prices have shot up, and that''s one of the things that can happen with these communities," he says. Wright gasps and says off to the side, "Ahhhh, that scares me."
From all appearances, the New Urbanism should not scare anybody. It''s a movement founded on the principle that Post-World War II residential development has been a disaster for society and the environment. Rather than build for the person, it builds for the car. Sometimes there are no sidewalks, which aren''t really necessary anyway because there''s nowhere to walk to.
Accommodation for cars and not people also gobbles up vast acreage and coats it in asphalt. The sterile American subdivision has been blamed for alienated neighbors and isolated families. Forced to drive long distances to and from work, the typical sprawl resident gets home at the end of the day, pokes the car in the garage and shuts the door until morning
What Long--a dead ringer for Stanley Tucci--puts on the screen is the opposite. His firm crafted the pattern book for the Disney-funded New Urban settlement outside Orlando known as Celebration. He shows a slide of Celebration homes with porches jutting out into front yards toward sidewalks.
"It''s built around the whole idea of a pedestrian-friendly environment," he says. "If you live in Celebration you better want to know your neighbors, because you''ll know everybody on your street."
Long uses a slide of a park in Spreckels to show positive use of open space. He throws up a slide of San Juan Bautista. "You can imagine walking down to the bakery for lunch. It''s fabulous. It''s everything we talk about."
Another cornerstone of the plan is to mix income levels. There are no ghettos in New Urbania. Because Monterey County has dibs on the land under East Garrison, and because Monterey County wants affordable housing, it will be mixed in with mid-range and market-rate homes in whatever combination Woodman conjures.
As soon as the slide projector is off, Wright jumps back in.
"This scares me because it''s like building a Stepford Wives community," he says. "All the houses look the same. They''re all dressed up the same. It''s assuming the community is already whole."
He''s worried because he didn''t see any fences. What about pets? It looks like you can reach out your window and into your neighbor''s, he says. Where''s the wheelchair access and what about parking?
"I plead guilty to all that. Except parking." And he adds that rear driveway ramps are wheelchair accessible.
There are three main players at the Woodman Development Company. Will Silva, the descendent of one of Carmel''s founders, is the chief financial officer. John Anderson is the president. And McCoy, is the project coordinator.
The night after the slide show, McCoy, Anderson and Silva host an open house in theBattle Simulation Center. All last week, "stakeholders" have been meeting with designers and planners, sketching in what they want and finding out what they can''t get.
On Wednesday night, elected officials, potential critics and the public were invited to have a look at a work in progress. The event was top-drawer. A cowboy-looking guy barbecued chicken on a trailered grill out front. Fruit and chocolate cookies were set out on the nametag table. The portable toilets were airliner quality, complete with a fresh newspaper. After dinner, Anderson handed out fancy chocolates.
Earlier, before all the guests arrived, the Woodman team walked down toward the site, through an area that may have been a POW camp. Anderson, a big, mustached man and a carpenter by trade, sounded realistic about the project.
"Cost is a huge dream-crusher," he says. He notes that they can''t build on slopes or farmland and they can''t sprawl. It''s not the kind of straight development he''s used to.
"A lot of people say Fort Ord is there. It''s free. And there''s plenty of it. Well, that''s not necessarily true. It''s not free. Reality tells us something different.
"A lot of people are counting on Fort Ord to solve our housing needs, but it''s not going to be a walk through the park. There are challenges here."
As a planner McCoy likes the location, with its access to Reservation Road and Highway 101. He''s going to try to work with the buildings.
"The great thing is they''re all here, but none of them are up to California building code. All these power lines have to come out. It''s like a new project, but it''s more complex. All the roads we''re standing on have to be peeled up and put back. So that''s complicated and expensive."
Walking back up to join the hayride tour of the site, a man approaches the group to announce, "Mr. Patton has arrived."
Gary Patton is the head of LandWatch Monterey County, and his nod would help Woodman Development. The local daily had quoted Patton earlier in the month saying he liked the project, but Patton says the story was misleading. In fact he''d never seen Woodman''s plans for Fort Ord. He merely saw the Urban Design Associates'' concept slide show, which he liked.
Woodman--which has also hired the Monterey-based public relations firm Aramanasco--had invited Patton. Walking back up the hill, Silva says he welcomes the scrutiny, noting that Patton is one of the "most vocal" people in the area when it comes to land use.
The inside of the battle simulation center has been converted into a giant planning room. There are maps delineating every imaginable delineation. There are tables covered in layers of butcher paper marked up with magic markers. Planners and citizens hunch over plans, sketching and scribbling.
There''s an artist in one corner whipping up watercolor renderings of what, say, the ammo dump will look like as a civic center. In another corner, there are boxes full of computer equipment for constructing multiple map overlays.
Patton can be heard before he can be seen. In a loud voice he congratulates former county supervisor Sam Karas on his recent election to the Monterey Peninsula College board of trustees.
"Congratulations, counselor, on a return to public life!" he bellows.
After the huzzahs, Patton tells me he''s impressed by what he calls a "professionally focused brainstorming session."
As for the plan, he''s concerned that the so-called New Urbanism approach, isn''t all that urban. It''s not infill, for one--before this new, new thing, the solution to sprawl was seen as building only on lots within cities.
One of the aerial photos on the wall clearly illustrates how long a road it is from East Garrison to the coast. If residents work in Salinas, he''s concerned that heavy commuter traffic will affect the prime farmland immediately east of the site.
With development at Fort Ord so contentious, he says, "Holding this in the Battle Simulation Center made a certain amount of sense."
Just getting the assorted stakeholders together and talking about the ideas was a feat in itself. Maia Carroll, the former television reporter who now handles communications for the county, is happy the plan has gotten to this point. With so many competing interests, she says, "They had to lock everyone in a room and sing ''Getting to Know You.''"
Her boss, Supervisor Lou Calcagno, is just as upbeat. He likes the momentum of the plan. He likes that in New Urbanism kids can play and not worry about traffic. He likes that the neighborhood will have a mix of incomes.
"I think it''s going to be a pioneer not only here in Monterey County but in other communities," he says.
For Calcagno, watching the morning commute of workers into the county is reason enough for this project. He''d driven down from Moss Landing that night and watched a steady stream of Monterey-area workers heading to their homes outside the county.
"I think the need for it is here," he says. But he recognizes the challenges that threaten the plan.
"The property might cost nothing, but there''s still a big burden to clean up the buildings and put in the infrastructure," he says.
It''s all weighing heavily on project manager Keith McCoy. Both his grandfather and father were architects. His brother is a structural engineer. He believes re-planning East Garrison is why he''s on earth.
In 1986, a recent planning school graduate, McCoy found himself doing traditional American postwar subdivision planning for Riverside and San Diego. He was saying to himself, "God, I hate this. Why are we doing this?"
Now he''s a card-carrying member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
"This is my dream come true. I tell my wife this is the Super Bowl of planning," he says. "I think I was born to do this, actually."
To hear him talk about it, he sounds like a devotee. He wants to come back in 10 years and see kids playing. He wants to leave a legacy for "generations to enjoy." But before any of that can happen, all the butcher paper and all the magic-marker markings and all the watercolor paintings have to be assigned numbers, dollar figures and real-world values.
The planners at Woodman are now taking all the information they''ve gathered and writing out spreadsheets. In a month they go back to the county with a big estimate. If the deal goes through, Woodman will, as one observer noted, be "living with this day and night for years."
McCoy''s dreams will be confronted not only by the reality of money, but at least a year or two of environmental reviews, public hearings and still unforeseen obstacles.
He thinks the dream of constructing a livable community of affordable housing will come true, but what it will take and what it will cost to actually rebuild a community at East Garrison is still a looming question mark.
"We don''t know yet," McCoy says. "That''s what scares me."