THE BIG STORY: History fades at Alameda Point
Dick Rutter expertly guides his Jeep Grand Cherokee through the gray maze of streets on Alameda Point, and each turn yields fresh details that bring the silent, moldering buildings that line those streets back to life.
Here are the Bachelor Officers Quarters, where Rutter lived for three years in the early 1970s when he was a Navy navigator; further along the route is the control tower where he worked 24-hour watches, and enjoyed sunrises and sunsets. Another turn yields the base’s old church.
“I went to too many funerals in this building,” Rutter intones, as he pushes the aging Cherokee against a thick wind on a blustery February day.
For the last decade, the architect and preservationist has been on a final mission at the former Naval Air Station: He’s trying to save dozens of Alameda Point’s historic buildings from the wrecking ball, including some that Rutter said offer examples of Navy buildings that were once prevalent across the globe but are now only still standing on the former base. But Rutter’s efforts to save and reuse the base’s historic Art Deco and Streamline Moderne buildings have been complicated by the city’s ongoing inability to develop the Point, or even to come up with a generally accepted plan for moving forward.
Federal money to pay for upgrades at the Point, including the 87 buildings that the federal government has deemed historic is long gone, according to one policymaker who has been active in efforts to reuse them. And along with deteriorating conditions, efforts to lease the buildings to companies that could help finance repair efforts and put eyes on the base – something preservationists have been pushing the city to do – have faced challenges from developers and the Navy cleanup process.
Some of the buildings are still in good shape, Rutter says. But he’s not sure how much longer others he’s trying to save can hold out against the ravages of vandals, squatters, copper thieves – or time.
“This stuff all looks so sad compared to when the Navy was here,” Rutter says after detailing the damage vandals and thieves have done to the BOQ, his onetime home. “I think we’re on the edge at this point.”
City responsible for upkeep
The Navy still owns Alameda Point, but the city bears legal responsibility for securing and maintaining it under a lease agreement between the two entities. The city has the right to lease out buildings at the Point, and the money is supposed to pay for security and upkeep.
City staffers said Alameda spends about $10 million a year securing and maintaining the Point. But preservationists and even some policymakers said that’s not enough to attract tenants to Alameda Point, and they admit that the lack of a plan has put existing structures into a vicious cycle that could ultimately spell their doom.
City Councilman Doug deHaan, who worked on the base from 1990 until after the Navy shut it down in 1997, said the city is working on a long-term leasing strategy that he hopes will bring in money to revitalize some of the buildings – and workers whose watchful eyes will keep vandals and thieves away. But he says the city has struggled to attract and retain tenants for a number of reasons, including some that he said aren’t in the city’s control.
The city’s original Point developer, Alameda Point Community Partners, convinced city leaders to get rid of businesses leasing at the Point in order to speed their development plan, deHaan said in an earlier interview, and the city only rebuilt the Point’s renter base in recent years. And SunCal’s plan for the base put a few dozen of the buildings that had been deemed historic – along with a handful of others preservationists hope to save – under the wrecking ball. DeHaan said council members questioned whether it would be wise to invest money to upgrade buildings they ultimately planned to get rid of.
“A lot of this stuff was in limbo of what is historical and what the use is going to be. Do you go in there to bring up that building knowing that you’re going to tear it down or use it for a different use?” deHaan said. “We were always on the verge of closing a deal with a developer. And in doing so, making those decisions of investing money, even if you knew where you wanted to invest it, were never addressed.”
Ongoing efforts to clean up toxic chemicals at the base also frustrate the city’s efforts to lease Point spaces, deHaan said, because businesses could be forced to move if the Navy decides their space needs to be cleaned up.
“The ability to make available this large inventory of buildings to the rental market is complicated by numerous factors including the environmental remediation program, short-term leases, the cost of code compliance and the unique function that many of the buildings originally served,” said Alan Lee, the Navy’s base closure manager for Alameda Point.
But the big issue, deHaan said, is money. Many of the Point’s buildings need costly upfront improvements for businesses to be able to use them, and he said the city doesn’t have the money to make those improvements. Federal money that had helped finance earlier upgrade projects is long gone, he said.
The city is generally short of redevelopment money for projects like building upgrades, which can run into the millions of dollars, he said, a problem exacerbated by disasters like the 2009 fire that destroyed an administrative building on former Navy land at a cost of $2 million to the city. The lack of money led policymakers to borrow from the city’s sewer fund to complete construction of Willie Stargell Avenue, deHaan said.
But Rutter said he thinks leasing policies for commercial buildings on the Point play a role in the city’s inability to rent out more space on the Point. He said he looked to rent there when he and his wife moved their business from San Francisco a decade ago and found the cost to be the same as finished space elsewhere in town.
And he criticized the Navy for failing to enforce its agreement requiring the city to maintain the Point.
“The Navy just wants out. They don’t care,” Rutter said.
The results of that inaction are readily available on the Point,
preservationists said, pointing to Rutter’s former home as one example. DeHaan said the building had been considered as a possible spot for senior housing since 1995, “and we’re still talking about it.”
The Alameda Naval Air Museum’s Kin Robles said he scouted the building as a site for a media center in 2004 and 2005, and while it needed seismic and accessibility improvements, it “appeared to be in reasonable condition for such a conversion” at that time.
“That appears to have changed significantly over the past six years,” Robles said, adding that the structure has since been fenced off.
Rutter said that vandals have beset the buildings, and thieves. He said the building had a “neat” solid aluminum staircase but that its rail cap has been stolen.
“It is bad with a capital ‘B’,” Rutter said.
Another example Rutter cites is the base’s old wooden church, whose flat canopy roof is caving in. “It’s fixable. But how much longer is it going to remain fixable?” Rutter asked. “It’s not too late, but it’s getting there.”
The WAVES barracks that once housed servicewomen – one of Alameda Point’s early buildings – is another victim of benign neglect, Rutter and Robles said, though Robles thinks it, too could be saved. Vandals have thrown rocks through the windows and punched out window sashes, the lead paint that once coated it is peeling into the grass that surrounds it and the building’s roof shingles are falling off, Rutter said. Still, he and Robles think the building – which once was surrounded by several others like it – was constructed so solidly that it could be saved and reused.
“This strikes me as the kind of building that when incorporated into a true historical resource plan for Alameda Point, would be of value. If only such a plan and the funds to develop existed,” Robles said.
But just as the Point has examples of neglect, there are also signs of what the Point could be, Rutter said. He pointed to City Hall West, which the city restored for its own use; a reporter noted the American Red Cross’s home on Stardust Place, with its perfect paint and terracotta roof.
The Point’s control tower is occupied by the wind power startup Makani Power, and its newest building – a massive hangar built in 1991 with a gorgeous view of San Francisco – by Rock Wall Wine Company and American Bus Repair. Both buildings are outside the Point’s historic district and were slated for demolition by SunCal, Rutter said.
“Why do you want to throw that away?” Rutter asked.
City leaders have been working on a plan to lease more buildings at Alameda Point, which deHaan said in March should be complete in four to five months, and they have talked about hiring a new leasing firm for commercial properties at the Point. They are also working to build a fresh development plan for the Point, which is due in the fall.
Rutter said that he, like city leaders, is hopeful Lawrence Berkeley Lab will consider Alameda Point for its second campus, something they hope will jump-start revitalization of the Point. Otherwise, he thinks progress will remain stalled.
“Until the economy improves, I think things are going to drift,” Rutter said. “And it’s a shame, because as it drifts, more stuff falls apart.”