Federal government officials say they are using a legal provision in the National Historic Preservation Act, section 111, to allow such a deal. The General Services Administration is expected to officially request proposals this spring for the restoration and long-term lease of Hangar One from NASA as well as the option to operate the Moffett Federal Airfield, which NASA officials have complained is a drain on its budget, to the tune of several million a year.
So far only Google's founders have offered to pay the estimated $30-plus million it would cost to restore the 1930s home of the massive U.S.S Macon airship — stripped to a bare frame last year in a toxic cleanup by the Navy — in exchange for parking their fleet of private planes inside.
"Section 111 gives us unique authority," said David Haase, branch chief of the GSA, in a presentation to members of the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board on May 9. "Unlike enhanced use leasing authority NASA has used in the past, this will allow tenants to use the property for any use (they) would want to see within (section 111). Before partners would need to have some direct connection to NASA." He added that "if 111 does not work, I don't know what Plan B is. Because of environmental constraints, community constraints, and the expense, it's going to be tough."
Members of the RAB expressed concerns about who might be allowed to bid on Hangar One under the law and member Bob Moss proposed a hypothetical scenario: "What if I want to restore Hangar One and I want to use it as a massive office building that's got nothing to do with NASA. I'm going to move Google in there or Facebook. That could be a historic use and be very lucrative in terms of rent. To what extent are you going to limit use of Hangar One?"
Federal officials did not say whether such an office use would be allowed, but NASA Ames deputy director Deb Feng said a use of Hangar One for any aerospace related purpose would be considered legal under NHPA section 111.
"If someone is thinking of re-skinning Hangar One and using the airfield, that makes it an original purpose," Feng said.
The use of the law addresses the controversial deal Google's founders have had with NASA up until this point that allows their fleet of planes to be parked at Moffett's Hangar 211. NASA claims that the fleet is used for NASA's scientific research, having mounted atmospheric sensors on them and used them to observe meteor showers, for example. But some have called the deal a form of favoritism , including Paul Asmus of Humanitarian Air Logistics, which has expressed interest in using Hangar One to house a fleet of aircraft that could be used for disaster relief.
While details of the what NASA is offering will be in a request for proposals this spring, Haase said, "It's going to be a long-term lease — more than likely a 25-year lease." There will be a limit on how many flights will be allowed in and out of the airfield — 25,000 a year, as outlined in an environmental impact study for NASA Ames, Feng said. About 1,600 is the average number of flights a year now, which are mostly flights for the military, NASA and Lockheed Martin deliveries.
"Someone who is going to attempt to fly 80 million flights a year, it won't work unless they have teeny-tiny air emissions and noise," Feng said. "We don't want to revisit the times we were talking about air cargo coming in and out of there," she said, referring to a proposal made in the 1990s that drew ire from Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
After a bidding period ends this fall, it could be nearly a year before a deal is announced, Haase said. A website is going to be set up by the GSA.
RAB members asked that the community be involved at some point in the process, especially members who have who formed the Earth, Air and Space Educational Foundation, hoping to build a large museum in a portion of the hangar, something Google's founders have also expressed interest in accommodating.
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