Opening up the former air base for housing and parks may be hard to imagine, but "there are a lot of places where the unthinkable has happened — places that were air bases and they are now residential areas," said Lenny Siegel of the Mountain View-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight. "People didn't think it would happen, but it did."
Jac Siegel (no relation to Lenny) gave as examples the Presidio, which was handed over to San Francisco, and the Alameda Naval Air Station, which was handed over to Alameda.
"As time goes on these things can happen," he said. "With a new presidential administration coming in, it would be a good thing to be ready."
The federal presence at Moffett is mixed. The Navy left Moffett Field in 1994, but a light military presence continues there with the Air National Guard. The Army plans to build a reserve center just outside the main gate.
Currently, NASA is the main tenant, and operates Moffett's two runways, each nearly two miles long and 200 feet wide. Though 25,000 flights are allowed every year, the runways are used only occasionally.
But if the city were to take control, it would be able to zone the area as it sees fit for housing, parks and business.
"We need to have a plan, so we're ready to go, Jac Siegel said, "so no one else acquires it."
Since the late 1990s, some local residents have feared Moffett could be turned into a full-blown airport. Those fears were raised again last September at a City Council meeting, when NASA's Steve Zornetzer said the federal government had recently cut off the airfield's funding. Unless NASA can raise $7 million a year to run the airfield, he said, it could be turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration, which likely would allow cargo flights there.
"There's places like San Jose that would love to take that airport and turn it into a cargo airport," said Mayor Tom Means. If NASA is ever forced to give up the runways, "it would be a big political fight to see who gets control," he said.
Meanwhile, NASA has already started on a plan for a 5 million-square-foot research park at Moffett, with space for a major university presence, 1,000 housing units and private office space. And Google has plans for a 1 million-square-foot campus in the northwest corner of Moffett, but those plans have been on hold since 2005. The company has also expressed interest in 100 units of housing there.
Since the debates of the 1990s, the focus has turned to saving Moffett's historic landmark: Hangar One. Lenny Siegel is helping to lead that effort, but he also happens to have a different vision for Moffett than many of his fellow hangar advocates.
"Pilots working to save Hangar One think this would be a good place to put private airplanes," he said. "It's not an evil proposal, but a lot of us think we could do something better. We fought in 1996 over it, but decided to set that aside and focus on saving the hangar."
While he has advocated for the runway to be torn up for wetland restoration and housing, Council member Jac Siegel said there's plenty of land for housing without touching the runway.
As for the base itself, the federal government often doesn't hand bases over to local cities anymore, and now prefers to sell directly to a developer, said Lenny Siegel.
"People are going to have to bid real money to have it," said Mayor Means. "That's just my opinion."
Finance director Bob Locke said the costs of acquiring city control of Moffett wouldn't be the big problem.
"Who is responsible for all the toxics out there?" he asked, adding that Mountain View is not in a financial position to repair Hangar One.
In response to the assertion that those things were the Navy's responsibility, Locke said, "If the base was going to revert to something other than a federal facility, I think everything is subject to negotiation."
He added, however, that "It could be to city's interest in the long run that we had some control over what happened out there."
But as Lenny Siegel noted, military bases aren't always turned over to cities — "Some do and some don't," he said. In this case, Mountain View and Sunnyvale could divide the base or govern it jointly. A border exists along Moffett's runways between what is known as Mountain View and Sunnyvale's respective "spheres of influence," where each city advocates for environmental cleanup.
Moffett Field is a Superfund site, and it could take the better part of a century to clean TCE and other contaminants from the groundwater. But that hasn't stopped plans for 1,000 housing units and 200,000 square feet of office space at NASA's Research Park, for which bids from developers were due last month. NASA officials have not responded to questions about the status of the research park.
"Those cleanups should occur, to leave the land as clean as possible for a whole realm of possible future land uses," said Kevin Woodhouse, assistant to the city manager.
One possible use is advocated by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who has called for an emergency operation center to be established there, specifically at Hangar One, by NASA. Such a use would require a runway. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the base was used as a staging area for disaster relief.
Despite the almost limitless possibilities, Moffett Field remains "an active federal facility," Woodhouse said. "Indications are that it's going to remain that way."
The City Council goal-setting discussions will continue on Monday, April 21 at 6 p.m. at the Senior Center.
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