Thursday, April 12, 2007
Among the thousands of bicycle enthusiasts here for the Sea Otter Classic this weekend, there will be hundreds of mountain-bikers swarming the hills around Laguna Seca, riding a course that wanders through what used to be Fort Ord. They will discover a big mountain-biking playground.
I’ve spent a lot of hours pedaling a lot of miles on the web of trails crisscrossing that vast acreage—routes that were once used exclusively by soldiers in training. A big chunk of the decommissioned Army base, now owned by the Bureau of Land Management, has become a bicyclist’s paradise.
Its 7,000-plus acres offer an array of choices: single-track paths winding through sparse woods or along ridge tops; wide dirt roads—most rutted and gnarly, some smooth and fast; steep roller-coasters or sweeping pleasure-cruises; big views out across the bay or up the Salinas Valley.
A bike ride through the empty streets of old Fort Ord can be frustrating.
Those of us who ride are enormously fortunate that the closing of the base led to the opening of a spectacular park. It is one of the few ways (besides the creation of Cal State Monterey Bay) that the decommissioning of Fort Ord has produced a genuine public benefit.
• • •
On several occasions, I’ve steered my old knobby-tired Fuji off the dirt tracks and onto the pavement to explore the base. It’s a strange experience. Everyone who lives around here has heard Fort Ord described as a “ghost town,” and we see the old barracks every time we drive past on the roads that border the place. But on the gated streets that lead to the interior of the fort, it is a bit of a shock to come across entire abandoned neighborhoods.
There is something troubling about finding a cul-de-sac surrounded by modern-looking houses—some with solar panels on their roofs—all sitting empty. It’s bizarre to cruise through block after block of comfy-looking empty cottages with cypress trees standing in weedy yards and swing-sets rusting in parks perched on hills that look out over the ocean—all wasted.
On the dirt, Fort Ord is nothing but fun. But to anyone who is pained by the fact that affordable housing has become so scarce around here, a bike ride through the empty streets of old Fort Ord can be sad and frustrating.
I suppose it is naïve to wish that this enormous resource, this huge and rare piece of property, could somehow be used to ease our crippling housing shortage. I understand that there are complicated reasons why these neighborhoods must be left to decay while thousands of our neighbors struggle every month to make rent. Still, I can’t help but feel that there’s something too cold-hearted about ignoring this bitter irony.
• • •
Over the next 10 or 20 years, we will see thousands of new homes built at Fort Ord—the vast majority priced out of reach for most Monterey County residents. The tracts of land that the federal government bequeathed to the municipalities surrounding the base when it was decommissioned (at the same time that the BLM was given its piece) will sprout mini-mansions.
Among the various development plans, the East Garrison project, which broke ground this week, may be the best. Incorporating “new urbanism” ideas, it will feature walkable neighborhoods built around a “town center” and incorporate parks, libraries, and an arts district.
East Garrison’s 1,400 homes will include 238 affordable units. Even though that falls short of the 20 percent many housing advocates demand of new developments, the project’s progressive design has earned it almost universal community support. And so it was a surprise to hear that a protester showed up at the groundbreaking ceremony Monday.
Rudy Rosales, a leader of the local Esselen tribe, insists that his people are being cheated out of land they were promised (see story, news section). Rosales and other tribal leaders have long contended that federal rules concerning retired military bases require that all local jurisdictions—including Indian tribes—get a share of the property. More than a decade has passed and the tribes have gotten nothing.
While his charges regarding East Garrison seem unclear, Rosales’ frustration is understandable. Or is it too naïve to wish that local governments, having been given thousands of acres of federal land, would see fit to share some of it with the descendants of the people it was taken from?
The transformation of Fort Ord has worked out OK for me, and for the throng of mountain-bikers who will visit this weekend. It will also be good for developers, local cities and a few thousand lucky homebuyers. But fairness demands that less-fortunate folks also get a piece of this unlikely paradise.