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New Role on the Horizon for Historic Site

Downey plans a mixed- use project for the place where spacecraft and planes were once made.

August 22, 2003|Olga R. Rodriguez | Times Staff Writer

For years, Downey's claim to fame was being the place where Apollo spacecraft were built.

But when Boeing Corp. closed the factory there four years ago, the city lost part of its history and struggled to recover from the financial blow.

City officials say they expect to seal a deal by September to finally acquire the entire 160-acre lot once visited by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin upon their return from the moon.

Plans call for the old factory to be converted into a mixed-use development that would include a shopping center, a 381-bed Kaiser Permanente hospital, a park, a space museum and a film production center.

"The project is never going to fill the void left after NASA moved away, but we hope it will bring in tax revenue, create new jobs and just bring the community together more than it is now," Downey Mayor Rick Trejo said.

A portion of the former NASA site is already being used, with the permission of the federal government, as movie and television production studios, Trejo said.

Federal officials "agreed to it as long as they get to look at the script beforehand," he said.

"Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines," "Spider-Man" and "The Italian Job" are among the movies that have used the site for filming in the last two years.

Best Buy, Bally's Total Fitness and Kohl's department store are some of the businesses that are already in negotiations to lease space at the north end of the site, where about 30 acres are being allocated for a retail center.

City officials also expect to bring in a $550-million Kaiser Permanente hospital that they hope will create 3,000 to 5,000 jobs. The hospital would be on the southern portion of the site, along with office buildings.

The city plans to pay $40 million for the acreage, which is behind tall fences between Lakewood and Bellflower boulevards and between Imperial Highway and Stewart and Gray Road. Half of the money will be paid when the city acquires the land, and the other half will be due by 2017, said Downey's economic development director, Darrell George.

The first $20 million will be raised from selling the land to retailers. The rest of the money will come from fees, taxes and future sales, he said.

The city's space era started in the early 1960s, soon after President Kennedy announced the country's goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. That accomplishment occurred in 1969 as part of the Apollo program.

In 1972, working at the Rockwell International Corp. factory after the company's merger with North American, an army of engineers and others began developing the space shuttle. Columbia was delivered to NASA in 1979.

City officials hope the project, called Downey Landing, will help attract much-needed jobs to this now-blue collar community of 107,000. The retail center will probably create 1,000 jobs, George said.

They also hope the development will bring back $600,000 in annual tax revenue lost when Boeing, which had bought most of Rockwell's space and defense operation in 1996, relocated the factory and nearly 3,000 workers to Huntington Beach three years later.

"We hope to recover that revenue and also create a few more million in new revenue," George said. "Our intent is to bring life back to this distressed piece of property."

The construction of the retail center should be completed sometime in 2005, Trejo said.

"Every time I go by the site I see the memories, the people walking in, the engineers, the astronauts," said Trejo, who was born and raised in Downey. "To see the spirit of that place change is sad, but this has been a well-thought-out decision, and we expect it to impact the city in many ways for many years to come."

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