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Welcome back, Uncle Sam

Submitted by on 1, December 19, 2008 – 9:00 amNo Comment

On board the utterly frigid USS Hornet Museum Thursday night (My toes? Still thawing), officials with the Veterans Administration and the Navy outlined a proposal that would return a portion of the former naval air station to militaryish use.

The Navy wants to give 549 acres of the former base to the Veterans Administration to build a “one-stop” service hub. If the VA gets its way, the hub will include a 107,000 square-foot outpatient mental health and substance abuse clinic, a 53-acre above-ground cemetery, offices and, in partnership with Alameda Hospital, a 250,000-square-foot community hospital that could replace Alameda Hospital’s existing home.

The land in question here includes the old airstrips and a landfill that was recently found to contain radium-contaminated soil (though there’s nothing proposed to be built on top of the landfill).

“We have a long history of partnership with Alameda. We see this as a rekindling of that relationship,” said Claude Hutchison, director of the VA’s office of asset enterprise management. Hutchison said the VA hopes to be up and running by 2014 or 2015.

But they face a major hurdle. No, I’m not talking about the Bay mud, the flood plain, the toxic stew out there or the crumbling infrastructure. I’m talking about the endangered California least tern, whose most productive nesting spot in Northern California is apparently smack in the middle of the site.

Environmentalists who attended Thursday’s meeting said the VA should consider other sites in deference to the tern and the endangered California brown pelicans who take up residence at the airstrip from April to August of each year. They said the proposed development could stunt the growth of the tern population.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed a national wildlife refuge for the site, but talks between the service and the Navy fell apart in 2003 over cleanup issues. The VA became interested in the site in 2004, and formally requested it two years later.

“This place is alive with wildlife and extremely valuable,” Art Feinstein of ArcEcology said. “Why you would suddenly determine you could permit construction all along here makes no sense to me.”

Under the VA’s plan, the terns would get a 10-acre chunk of land south of the hospital, with a buffer of undeveloped land around it.

And about that hospital … Alameda Hospital CEO Deborah Stebbins said the hospital leadership is trying to determine whether to make seismic upgrades to the existing building, reconfigure the hospital on-site or build a new one at Alameda Point. She said they’ll figure that out as part of their master plan process, sometime in the next few months.

Seismic upgrades that would comply with state law upping standards as of 2013 would cost around $10 million, Stebbins said; but those upgrades would only bring the hospital up to code until 2030, when the standards get more stringent.

A new hospital, she said, would cost between $2 million and $3 million per bed. At Alameda Hospital’s current size of 161 beds, that pencils out to … a hell of a lot of money (none of which, apparently, is coming from the VA, and Stebbins swears she won’t mess with the existing hospital parcel tax).

Both she and Hutchison said that if Alameda Hospital doesn’t opt to move to the Point, the VA won’t seek to build a hospital out there with someone else.

A quick note about the cemetery: Sounds like the federal agency that manages military cemeteries is in expansion mode, with a dozen new cemeteries planned. Military cemeteries in San Francisco and San Bruno are full. They’ve built new ones in Sacramento and Santa Nella, but they said those are kind of far away for the more than 300,000 vets (plus spouses and dependent children) in the Bay Area who would be eligible for burial in a military cemetery (the one proposed for here would handle cremated remains).

Councilman Frank Matarrese, who attended the meeting, said he thinks the cemetery is a good idea. But he questioned the viability of moving the hospital to the Point.

“I’d be concerned about our hospital making that kind of investment on shaky ground, literally,” Matarrese said, though he added that he encourages the hospital’s burgeoning partnership with the VA.

Elihu Harris, the former Oakland mayor and state Assemblyman who now heads the Peralta Community College District, spoke in favor of the proposed plan, saying it would benefit the students he serves. And Doug Biggs, who heads the Alameda Point Collaborative, which houses formerly homeless families at the Point, said the project could help his residents who are vets but that the construction could have serious health and other impacts on his residents.

The hearing was part of the environmental review process for the planned transfer of the site. The public comment period for the plan is open through January 20 (more on the process here).

Other options under consideration include the development of the cemetery, called a columbarium, with outpatient clinics to remain in Oakland and no hospital or offices; or no development on the site.

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