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With defense conversions on the rise, Southland sites where weapons of war were once created now offer . . . : Prayers and Pasta

August 18, 1996|DIRK SUTRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In West Covina, hundreds of worshipers pack each of several Sunday services held in a cavernous space that is Faith Community Church.

Their spiritual fervor doesn't seem at all diminished by the fact that they worship where torpedoes and flight simulators for Stealth bombers were once built by Hughes Aircraft.

In El Segundo, Wolfgang Puck's Cafe, a trendy restaurant owned by the Los Angeles food guru, is packed with diners.

Most are unaware that Continental Park Plaza, the office park that includes Puck's eatery, was once occupied by Hughes and TRW, which secretly tested powerful lasers for "Star Wars" systems there.

Making peace, not war, a new Southern California economy is growing up in the aftermath of massive defense-spending cutbacks. With dozens of buildings once occupied by defense-related businesses now vacant, cities are working with the military to find new uses, and architects like Irvine-based LPA Inc. are finding new business planning and designing these reuses.

Even if the changing California sometimes produces odd ironies, such as spirituality and fine dining taking the place of high-tech tools of war, companies like LPA are happy to accommodate.

"We're going to have our best year ever," said architect David Gilmore, a principal in LPA. "It's been a key factor in creating a new market for LPA, the rehab of existing space built for aerospace. The percentage of our business it accounts for is not huge--15% to 20%--but we expect that area to grow."

Although neither of LPA's major conversion projects was simple, both were cost-effective compared with new construction, and both produced spaces that satisfy their new tenants: the church in its 56,000 square feet, converted at a first-phase cost of $1.5 million, and Continental Park Plaza, converted at a cost of $6 million to include Wolfgang Puck's Cafe as well as 500,000 square feet of renovated office space and a 10,000-square-foot food court.

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Such projects are among the first examples of what will be dozens of renovations of defense buildings. Conversions will include not only private sector buildings used for defense-related business, such as the ones converted by LPA, but also structures on military bases that are becoming available for new uses.

In Southern California, George Air Force Base in Victorville, Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, March Air Force Base in Riverside, the Long Beach Naval Station, the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the Naval Training Center in San Diego are bases--already closed or soon to be closed--where reuse of buildings may occur.

Redevelopment of San Diego's 400-acre Naval Training Center, for instance, will include reuse of quaint Mission Revival-style buildings from the 1920s through 1940s. And at March Air Force Base, military buildings--including a recreation center, library and child-care center--are being converted for the same uses by the community. The base's hospital is being adapted for use by the Riverside County coroner's office and the county sheriff's forensics division.

"Initially, most of the bases hope for reuse," said Ben Williams, deputy director in Gov. Wilson's office of planning and research. "Longer term, half or more of the facilities will be torn down, but demolition is so expensive, it can't be done all at once."

Williams' office fields a stream of queries about military properties available for new uses. Economic and planning consultants are being hired to do feasibility studies for such reuses. General Dynamics, a large defense contractor, has hundreds of acres in San Diego slated for reuse, including land next to Lindbergh Field, San Diego's international airport, said Gerald Trimble, senior principal at Keyser Marston Associates, a consultant on defense conversions.

A General Dynamics site in Rancho Cucamonga is also slated for reuse, as is a former Hughes Aircraft building in Fullerton.

Former military buildings, often boxy warehouse-like structures with few windows, present problems for conversion, but also some pluses. Officials of Faith Community Church, for instance, believe that its former Hughes building is perfect--both in size and in appearance. It seems the design objectives of churches have evolved, from quaint to mass-oriented.

"We did not want a traditional church atmosphere," said Pastor George Rauscher. "What we were aiming for was the feeling of a mall. A place that's familiar, a real gregarious place. Our church is not such that we want people to be too comfortable. We want to challenge them to change the world."

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