Despite strong objections by Los Angeles city officials and environmentalists, the U.S Interior Department has asked the city to return a major portion of undeveloped White Point Park in San Pedro for construction of military housing for senior officers.
In a letter received last week by the city Recreation and Parks Department, the agency requested that 50 acres of the 114-acre park be given to the U.S. Air Force by May 15 under provisions of a deed which states that the federal government can reclaim the land in the "national interest."
John D. Cherry, associate regional director for resource management and planning for the National Parks Service in San Francisco, the branch of the Interior Department that drafted the letter, termed the government's request "uncommon." Usually, the military negotiates a voluntary agreement with a city or community before reclaiming land, he said.
The action was immediately criticized by those who support converting the land, one of the last major undeveloped parcels of oceanfront property in Los Angeles County, into a developed recreational area operated by the city or state.
Mayor Tom Bradley, as well as Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the San Pedro area, favor preserving the entire area for recreation.
City officials have said the land has been left largely untouched because the city initially did not have the money to improve it. More recently, the uncertainty over whether the Air Force would be successful in reclaiming a portion of the land has prevented the city from taking steps to improve the property, they said.
Ron Kraus, a senior assistant in the park department's Land Management Division, said his department will fight the Interior Department's request. The department plans to meet with other city officials to "plot a strategy" before its board of commissioners meets on Wednesday, he said.
"I think we might have some options to look at," Kraus said. "I think legally we are obliged to give the property back. But if we get some creative legal advice, who knows?"
"We don't believe this housing is in the interest of the national defense or security," said Marchant Wentworth, an associate with the Izaak Walton League of America, a conservation group that has lobbied in Washington to prevent the government from reclaiming the land. "It is not even clear to us that this housing is needed for senior officers."
The park, which once housed a Nike missile base and is still littered with obsolete military hardware, has been controlled by the city's parks department since 1978 when the federal government declared it surplus and deeded it to the city. The deed contains a reversionary clause stating that the government can reclaim a portion or all of the land in the national interest.
Last year the Air Force, citing a severe shortage of affordable housing for officers assigned to its El Segundo Space Center, announced that it would seek to regain part of the land to construct 170 town houses. Other attempts to find suitable sites proved fruitless, the Air Force said.
The Air Force overcame its first hurdle last October when Congress approved $13.8 million for construction of the housing. But Congress refused to grant money for the Department of Defense to purchase the land from the Department of the Interior.
Three weeks ago, however, White House budget chief David Stockman, at the urging of Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach) and other supporters of the project, directed the Office of Management and Budget to waive a rule that would have required the Department of Defense to pay for the land. That action paved the way for the Department of the Interior to ask Los Angeles to return the 50 acres.
"We have an urgent need for military housing in the entire South Bay area," Lungren said in a telephone interview Wednesday. Lungren, whose area includes White Point, added that he believes the Department of Defense made a "good-faith effort" to find an alternative site.
"We've looked at places other than White Point and we haven't found any," said Larry Hannon, spokesman for the Space Center. "We feel we have explored the options."
Hannon said the Air Force expects to begin surveying the White Point site immediately to designate specific boundaries for the housing. Construction on the 1,400- to 1,700-square-foot homes could begin by late next year, he said.
The Air Force has 200 town houses at nearby Ft. MacArthur and is constructing an additional 170 units there. In addition, a handful of older Army homes have been renovated for senior grade Air Force officers.