Mountain View Voice

News - July 1, 2011

Report: City could take over Hangar One

by Daniel DeBolt

Demolish it or give it to some other government agency, that's the conclusion of a new report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General on historic Hangar One at Moffett Field. While drawing the displeasure of historic preservationists, the conclusion has boosted the idea that maybe the city of Mountain View should take control of the southwestern corner of Moffett Field where Hangar One is located.

The report, released Wednesday, concludes that NASA Ames Research Center cannot afford the $32.8 million to replace the toxic laminate siding on Hangar One that will be removed this year. The report recommends NASA examine the possibility of demolishing Hangar One or unload it on another government agency, such as a city or state government. In a letter released Wednesday, NASA associate administrator Woodrow Whitlow said NASA will examine exactly those options, along with restoration.

Just after the report was released, California Sen. Barbara Boxer's office called Mayor Jac Siegel Wednesday to ask if the city was still interested in saving Hangar One.

"I said absolutely we are," Siegel said of the brief conversation. Boxer's representative "said she's willing to go to bat for the hangar."

Siegel told the Voice that if it the city was asked to step up to the plate, "we certainly would entertain" the investigation of "city ownership of Hangar One, "no question about it. We would immediately convene a task force and try to figure it out."

Preservationists say the Navy should have stepped up.

"It's hard to criticize the OIG's conclusions," said Save Hangar One Committee member Steve Williams in a blog post. "With the U.S. economy in the dumper and political support for federal spending non-existent, I'm sure it's hard for NASA to justify spending money on a building that will never fly to Mars."

Williams blames the Navy for pushing the cost of restoring Hangar One onto NASA, which now owns the building. Even though that dispute was resolved by the Office of Management and Budget, "The Navy should be ashamed for abandoning Hangar One to the elements and victimizing NASA in this way," Williams writes. "The Navy has the money to re-skin Hangar One. The Navy knows that Hangar One is an icon of military history. Our community supported the Navy for all the decades Moffett Field served our national security. And yet the Navy is walking away and leaving Hangar One in jeopardy."

Taken "out of hide"

The OIG report said critical NASA Ames infrastructure projects would be delayed because of the $32.8 million Hangar One request, including $6 million to upgrade the center's failing 1940s electrical power station and $11 million to fix leaky roofs on Ames buildings that house millions of dollars worth of electronic equipment. The delays "could result in unsafe working conditions, higher annual maintenance costs, and damage to Agency equipment," the report states.

"We question whether expending more than $32 million to re-side a hangar that has no prospects for re-use for the foreseeable future and would require substantial additional investment to make it habitable is the best use of NASA's limited construction resources," the report states.

NASA may actually have the money, but NASA administrators who budget the Hangar One request "took it out of hide," which is to say that headquarters wanted to make it painful for NASA Ames to continue fighting for Hangar One by delaying other critical projects, said Mountain View's Lenny Siegel, director the center for public environmental oversight and Save Hangar One member, referring to a conversation with a NASA official.

Benefits of city ownership

With wide support in the community for saving Hangar One, having local control of the landmark through city government has its appeal. The 211-foot-tall building, with a footprint equal to 10 football fields, could bring thousands of visitors to the city and bring new revenue to the city's waning budget. It could be used as a convention hall, as it has in the past, or a major air and space museum, as preservationists have advocated. Even an amusement park could easily fit inside.

The city does not immediately have $32 million dollars to save Hangar One, but raising the funds may be possible. Potential sources include the extension of the Shoreline tax district to include the southwestern corner of Moffett, said Lenny Siegel. That would allow access to Google's lucrative property tax revenue and the possibility of borrowing against those property taxes to fund the project. And if Moffett Field becomes the site of the 2020 World Expo, funding Hangar One's restoration would certainly be easier to justify.

The city would also have an easier time leasing Hangar One, and unlike NASA, may be allowed to make a profit from it, said Lenny Siegel. Part of the case made in the OIG report is that federal laws make it difficult for NASA to lease Hangar One to recoup expenses. NASA must charge a market rate for the space and NASA cannot credit the expense of tenant improvements to future lease payments, improvements that are expected to cost many millions. The $32 million to re-side the hangar only makes the building water-tight and does not include such items as fire sprinklers, lighting and utilities, the OIG report says.

But it wouldn't be a slam dunk for the city to acquire Hangar One. Other agencies legally have first dibs. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo has suggested that Hangar One could make a good warehouse for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The University of California could also take on Hangar One for educational purposes as it builds a large campus slated next door. The Santa Clara County Airports Department, if it is ever asked to run the Moffett airfield, is another possible Hangar One owner.

But it is not uncommon for cities to successfully lobby for control of closed military bases. The City Council has discussed it in the past.

"It can be done and it has been done elsewhere with base closures," Lenny Siegel said. "I don't know how Mountain View would handle a construction program of this magnitude. But Mountain View is in better shape than a lot of communities both in terms of resources and competency. If you are New York City and you have $32 million in construction costs, that's not a big deal. In Mountain View, it's major."

In the end, NASA may keep Hangar One, especially as NASA Ames continues to express interest in using it to house an airship development program, possibly for the department of defense or a private company.

Even if NASA doesn't use it, "I think it would pretty difficult for NASA to demolish it after the Navy spends all this money stripping it carefully and painting it," Lenny Siegel said. "But stranger things have been done."

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