BELL — In the 1940s, it was a 450-acre Army Air Corps base, where soldiers inventoried tons of military supplies for the war effort in the Pacific.
Since then, the federal government has been gradually selling portions of the former Cheli Air Supply base for private and public use.
Most of the remaining 140 acres sits unused, and city officials say they see a potential gold mine in the complex of run-down warehouses on the federal property at Bandini Boulevard and the Long Beach Freeway.
Spurred by a recently completed economic study that identifies the Cheli base area as a prime site for retail redevelopment, city officials are intensifying their efforts to purchase the remaining land.
Federal and city officials have met several times in recent months to try to work out a deal for a least part of the remaining land, but have failed to reach an agreement, officials said.
Very Valuable Property
"This is probably the most valuable commercial property in the county," said City Councilman Jay Price, who led the council move to annex the property in 1960.
"Many people at that time thought we were very foolish," Price said. The annexation, obligated the city to provide some services, but generated no tax income because of the federal ownership. "They said that we were taking in a white elephant," he added.
The recent 100-page study, prepared for the city by the Brea-based Alfred Gobar Associates, concludes that the once-bustling military base could be transformed into a busy regional commercial center, including a 500,000-square-foot shopping mall, that would generate millions of tax dollars for the small, working-class city. A regional shopping center could draw as many as 734,000 people from nearby communities, generating retail sales of about $2.3 billion per year, according to the study.
But federal officials say they are only willing to sell the land on a piecemeal basis. And city officials and representatives of the General Services Administration, which handles federal land transactions, have been haggling for the past six months over a 13.2-acre parcel, which the federal agency recently declared surplus.
Public Agencies First
By law, the federal government must make the property available to public agencies before offering it to private developers, GSA spokeswoman Mary Filippini said.
If that parcel is acquired, the city would leave it vacant until it can assemble at least 40 acres to begin work on developing a commercial center, officials said.
Negotiations are also under way for another nine acres of Cheli property at the corner of Atlantic and Bandini boulevards. That parcel, owned by the U.S. Postal Service, stands to be the most valuable piece of real estate in the densely populated city because of its high visibility and location just a few yards from a busy freeway off-ramp, officials said.
City and federal officials have declined to comment on the status of the ongoing negotiations.
City officials, however, say they dislike the federal government's decision to sell small parcels of land over the years. "It's not conducive to long-range planning," Mayor George M. Mirabal said in a recent interview.
Councilman Price said the Postal Service land is being considered as a possible site for a hotel-casino complex for the financially troubled California Bell Casino, now located more than a mile from the nearest freeway access.
City officials are buying the 8-year-old card club, which owes the city $848,000, City Administrator John Bramble said. He is attempting to strike a deal with several Las Vegas casino operators to oversee the day-to-day operation of the club when the city takes it over through eminent domain proceedings.
GSA's Filippini said the city's various proposals, including the possible move of the poker parlor, would be acceptable. When considering the sale of surplus property to public agencies, the federal government must decide if the planned use is "in the public's interest," Filippini said.
Filippini said the GSA has been reluctant to sell more than the 13.2 acres of the remaining Cheli land because other government agencies are storing surplus supplies in the nine warehouses.