The battle is over a piece of ground, a tiny swatch in the vast patchwork that is Southern California.
The abandoned Navy hospital, fenced off and locked up, sits on the northeast corner of Long Beach, another casualty of military downsizing. It is here, where the stakes amount to a mere 30 acres of land, that one of the most contentious disputes the Navy can recall over reuse of military land is unfolding.
On one side is Long Beach, which is being portrayed by its foes as the bullying friend of the Navy. On the other side is a coalition of smaller communities in Los Angeles and Orange counties, with solidly middle-class Lakewood playing the most active and voluble role. Simply put, the fight boils down to how the land will be used. The outcome could be worth millions of dollars to the winner.
Long Beach wants to tear down the hospital structure and build a 1-million-square-foot mall to hopefully rake in tax income. Lakewood and neighboring Hawaiian Gardens--along with four other nearby communities that have closed ranks behind them--contend that another mall is the last thing the area needs. They fear that new business for Long Beach means less business for them, fewer customers for their own stores and shopping centers.
And that is what they want to stop, using both threats of lawsuits and claims of a higher moral ground, in an attempt to get their way.
So bellicose has the dispute become that some wonder how many years it will take before the feud is forgotten. Residents of the surrounding communities have been worked into such a froth that hundreds of angry people have shown up for public meetings that, in other circumstances, would have attracted only a handful.
"The Long Beach hospital issue is one of the few sites that have had that kind of acrimony," said Navy Capt. Burt Streicher, who oversees base transitions for the Department of Defense. "The one thing you can say for sure is that when you do not have regional consensus, it makes it very difficult."
This was supposed to be a turnover that would serve as an example of how military property should be disposed of, a textbook case with none of the rancor that has surrounded other base closings around the country in recent years. It was not, for instance, supposed to be like the George Air Force Base fiasco. After the Mojave Desert base was ordered closed in 1988, four small California cities located nearby spent $15 million in lawsuits before a compromise was reached that would make the base a cargo airport. Instead, the Long Beach dispute has become much like the George case, with lawsuits promised.
"It's like life and death stuff," said Long Beach City Councilman Les Robbins, whose district includes the abandoned hospital. "It's a product of economic times, the way local government is now funded, the financial pressures that are put on cities and counties."
The story of how this all came to be is fairly straightforward. In 1991, the Navy announced that because of its shrinking forces and funding, military bases and other facilities around the country were being closed. The hospital was among them.
Since 1991, there have been two more rounds of closures. And this month, it was recommended that two dozen bases and 80 smaller facilities be shut down. Among them was the Long Beach Naval Ship Yard, which employs 3,100 people. Robbins said the possible loss of the yard made Long Beach city officials even less inclined to negotiate with other city governments wanting to have a say on how the hospital land will be used.
The hospital was closed last year. But a Long Beach committee has been working since 1991 to determine how the land might best be used. They might have done that work uninterrupted if the hospital had been located in the heart of Long Beach, rather than on the far northeast corner of the city, adjacent to both Lakewood and Hawaiian Gardens.
As Lakewood officials describe it, they had no notion of what Long Beach was up to until March, 1993, when a young city employee heard discussions about the mall at a public meeting in Long Beach and passed the word on to his superiors. What he heard was that Long Beach planned to build a shopping area that would include both factory outlets and warehouse membership stores. The Long Beach rationale for building a mall, rather than something else, was the need for a major infusion of sales tax revenues.
Since then, relations between the two cities, long close neighbors, has been on a downward spiral that hit bottom this month with a hearing in Lakewood at which 900 people showed up to vent their anger about the Long Beach mall plans. Hawaiian Gardens has also joined the fray, along with Artesia, Buena Park, Cypress and Garden Grove. They dubbed themselves the Southeast Area Military Facility Reuse Alliance of Cities.
At the meeting, Lakewood City Administrator Howard Chambers accused the Navy and Long Beach officials of making a back-room deal to clear the way for the shopping center.