Commercial hangar reuse
The massive aircraft hangar at the end of West Tower Avenue moved one step closer to commercial leasing last week. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) performed random radiation scanning inside the building to certify that the Navy’s cleanup of paint residue containing radium-226 was complete. The other regulatory agencies have already signed off on the radiation cleanup after the Navy performed an inch-by-inch scanning effort.
As soon as this fall, CDPH could issue a letter that would allow the city to lease the building. The nearly million-square-foot building complex (Building 5) has been unavailable to the city for leasing for more than a decade. Other buildings on the base have been leased to the city by the Navy under what’s known as the Lease in Furtherance of Conveyance agreement, which has allowed the city to sublease the buildings until transfer of ownership.
Building 5 will be ready for transfer to city ownership by 2022, according to the Navy, when groundwater remediation reaches its target. This hangar complex was built in two stages in the 1940s and used for repairing and reconditioning Navy aircraft and storing aircraft. It gained notoriety in the early 2000s as a set workshop and office for filming parts of the movie “The Matrix Reloaded” at Alameda Point. It rises to a height of 63 feet and has long been envisioned as the centerpiece of adaptive commercial reuse.
As part of a separate cleanup project, the end of West Tower Avenue at Monarch Street, also known as Spirits Alley, is currently closed to auto traffic. The street is closed in order for the Navy to remove four sections of an industrial waste line originating in Building 5 and another building across the street. The industrial waste line was installed in the 1970s after the federal Clean Water Act prohibited industrial discharges into public waterways. These sections, and two others on Lexington Street, could contain traces of radium paint disposed of from Building 5 and the hangar across the street. The city insisted that these sections be removed so that future infrastructure work was not complicated by expensive protocols for removing potentially radium-impacted pipes lying in the way of new utilities.
The pipe sections have all been removed and surrounding soil is being tested for traces of radium-226. If any is found, more soil will be removed. Otherwise, the street should be re-opened in September. The other two locations on Lexington Street have temporary iron plates over the trenches until soil testing is complete.
VA assumes cleanup responsibility
In related cleanup news, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has assumed all future responsibility for any cleanup issues that may arise on the entire 624 acres of VA property, including cleanup Site 2. The 120-acre cleanup Site 2 is located on the southwest shoreline of Alameda Point and is the site of a wetland and a buried waste dump. The Navy completed its cleanup work in June 2014, which included the placement of 300,000 cubic yards of soil on top of the old dump, re-engineering part of the wetland and building a new concrete culvert connecting part of the wetland to San Francisco Bay.
The official transfer of responsibility from the Navy to the VA occurred in June 2019, making the VA responsible for all maintenance, monitoring, reporting, and fixing of any problems at Site 2, such as earthquake damage, if they occur.
This perpetual responsibility for Site 2 was the sole reason why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service balked at accepting ownership for creating a national wildlife refuge in the early 2000s. They were concerned about unforeseen and astronomically expensive cleanup problems emerging. That’s when the VA expressed interest in 2004 in accepting what was then a 549-acre parcel slated for a refuge, even though the VA only needed 120 acres. Subsequently, the city gave the VA another 75 acres so VA facilities could be moved further away from the 10-acre Least Tern nesting site. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has instead been relegated to the status of a VA contractor annually managing one species, the Least Terns, a quarter mile from Site 2.
This scenic area at Site 2, with a thriving nesting colony of Caspian Terns that returned to the wetland when the Navy was done cleaning and upgrading the site, remains off limits to the public for the indefinite future, as does the rest of the VA’s open space. The VA has not commenced any construction activities for veterans’ services since taking ownership in 2014.