Tustin leaders and the Navy have seemingly started working in lockstep after the north hangar on the old Marine Corps Air Station Tustin started burning last week, promising a speedy cleanup and an end to the cloud of smoke billowing overhead.
But those bold partnership pronouncements come in the wake of decades of dysfunction between Tustin leaders, the Navy and the county government’s failed effort to develop a regional park and turn the now-collapsed hangar into a historic landmark.
Depending who you ask, there are a lot of different answers for why the hangar property never got fixed.
Navy officials saying local leaders couldn’t figure out what they wanted to do with the property.
City and county leaders blame each other for delays.
County administrators have also pointed out publicly the property isn’t easy to deal with.
Right now, there are zero plans for the north hangar and the surrounding land beyond putting out the fire.
“I can’t reiterate enough – we do not have a plan,” said Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard in a Wednesday interview. “We’re kind of back to square one.”
County Plan for a Regional Park Hit Snags
While most of the 1,600-acre former base in the midst of Tustin was sold off for private development, the north hangar and the surrounding 85 acres have a special restriction called a public-benefit conveyance.
That means the land has to be used for things like parks, theaters, museums or other public benefits approved by the Navy and National Parks Service, according to a 2021 county staff presentation.
Before the base even closed in 1999, county leaders pitched the idea of creating a regional park on the land, which would also preserve the north hangar as a historic landmark.
In 2012, county leaders introduced new plans for a park, but with a significant change – they wanted to add something that would help generate enough money to offset the costs of building the park.
The plan at the time would’ve seen partnerships with the Olympic USA Water Polo team and the Anaheim Ducks, who were looking at leasing some of the land according to a county grand jury report in 2019.
The total park cost would’ve cost over $69 million for construction, with $1.7 million of annual upkeep according to the grand jury report.
But that plan wasn’t approved by the National Parks Service, with county chief real estate officer Thomas Miller saying it was because the parks administration was “uncomfortable,” with all the active uses the county wanted to install in a Feb. 2021 presentation to the Tustin City Council.
“They had a vision of parks that was a little more passive than we had in mind,” Miller said. “We ran into a roadblock with that.”
“So there’s no current financing strategy?” asked Tustin Councilman Ryan Gallagher.
“There’s an old financing strategy the board approved in 2013,” Miller said. “It’s a little bit dusty.”
The county grand jury report also cast doubt on the county’s ability to make any money off the land.
“Without the retention of the historic structures, and with limited potential for recreational uses to generate income, there does not appear to be significant offsetting financial or public benefit to the residents of Orange County,” grand jurors wrote.
The park was also held up after the Navy discovered new toxic chemicals in the groundwater under the hangar caused by runoff from the military, forcing them to begin more testing and cleanup efforts at the site.
In 2019, the county started speaking with the parks service about recognizing the hangar as a historic monument, which could potentially open the door to more revenue opportunities, but the pandemic put those conversations on ice.
Tustin Pulls the Plug on Regional Park
By 2021, Tustin city leaders had run out of patience for the county’s long promised park that never seemed to come to fruition.
“The city still supported that park plan,” Lumbard said. “But between 2013 to 2021, the city saw no action, no financing plan, no updated park designs, and through a series of back and forths with the county realized the county was not going to build a park.”
By October 2019, city leaders were already reporting a slew of problems at the site, including trespassing, vandalism, and homeless encampments, forcing the city to invest in security and repair the fence.
In a Feb. 2021 meeting, Miller told city council members they were still at least a few years away from any plans moving forward, and that they were looking for a new park plan that would have less costs and less amenities.
He also noted that if the county couldn’t find a way to pay for the hangar’s maintenance, they’d look at taking it down.
That idea got a lot of pushback from city council members at the time, especially Lumbard, who lives near the hangar.
“This is the first we’re hearing about a shift in direction,” Lumbard said. “I’m completely against tearing the hangar down for revenue issues.”
Council members ultimately asked the county to continue looking for a way to move forward with the 2012 plan for a park.
In a series of letters to then-Tustin City Manager Matthew West after that meeting, county CEO Frank Kim outlined how the county would only move forward if they had a way to offset the construction costs.
Without that funding from the hangar as a historic site, Kim said any development would have to be done in phases “as funding becomes available,” on a more passive park.
“Revenue generation continues to be the most likely and expedient way to move along the County’s park planning,” Kim wrote in an Aug. 10, 2021 letter. “The cost related to the support of the Hangar was what drove the current passive park plan that was presented.”
The next day, city council members unanimously canned the county’s park proposal, opening up the land to other ideas for the first time this century.
“I wish this process would’ve been easier for all the parties involved,” West said after the vote. “As much as we’d like to see the regional park there, we’re now moving away from that idea and reimagining what can go there.”
Currently, the Navy still holds the land because the park never moved forward, with spokesman Chris Dunne saying they can’t hand the land over until the city picks what it wants.
“I don’t think they ever came to a conclusion on what they want to do,” Dunne said in a Tuesday interview. “At this point they’re going to have to come up with a plan between the city and the Navy.”
Lumbard disagreed with that assessment.
“It’s not accurate,” Lumbard said. “We wanted the park, but it wasn’t going to happen, so we said we can’t wait around forever.”
Right now, there are no plans for what will happen to the ruins of the hangar and the land around it.
While demolition of the hangar’s remains is coming in the near future, Lumbard said there are dozens of other buildings out on the site that still need to be demolished, adding the city also has no plans for what would take their place.
“We were at square one with the Navy, we were just starting to even ask the Navy what sort of uses they’d be interested in pursuing and how we could help them,” Lumbard said.
While no future project has been chosen, Lumbard said the county is welcome to pitch a new idea for the land song with anyone else.
“At this point, the county has no financial interest in the land,” he said. “But if the county came back to the Navy and the (city) with an idea, we’d consider it.”
Whatever moves forward, Lumbard said city officials don’t want to wait another 20 years.
“(The county) never took a lease, never took title, and that was part of the problem,” Lumbard said. “No one was doing anything and the city said we’re fed up with this.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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