For the past half century, three huge aircraft hangars at the former Moffett Naval Air Station have been familiar landmarks on San Francisco Bay. The hangars tower over the tidal marshes next to Highway 101 near the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale in Santa Clara County and may be seen from miles away.
The Navy closed the air station in 1994, and, at first, some buildings sat empty. But now, given the right economic conditions, Moffett is poised to be a national model of base reuse with various parts serving as a business incubator, business park and research university. Collectively, those projects could add as many as 4,000 residences, more than 2,000 students and upwards of 5,000 employees to the former base.
Much of the credit for Moffett's turnaround goes to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which took over the 1,800-acre site in 1994. NASA had a research park located next door that combined with the military base, and NASA continues to operate part of Moffett, including two runways, for military uses.
With encouragement from local communities and colleges, NASA officials determined that Moffett's location at the center of Silicon Valley made it a natural site for technology, science and education, according to Michael Marlaire, director of the NASA Research Park. A base reuse plan adopted under federal guidelines in 2002 allows for two large developments. One enables expansion of tech giant Google; the other is a planned university research center run by the University of California.
Last year, Google leased 42 acres of Moffett across from the company's headquarters building complex in Mountain View that is known as the Googleplex. Google has an estimated 7,000 employees working in 1 million square feet in the city. The company declined to comment on its expansion plans, but Marlaire said the company's expansion plans "are going very well."
Google will be allowed to build 1.2 million square feet on its 42 acres, and must do so by 2013, Marlaire said. Because of federal approval of the Moffett Field development plans in 2002, "they could start building tomorrow," he said.
So far, no specific plans have been released on the company's expansion, although the lease agreement gives the company the right to build up to 100,000 square feet of short-term residential units, Marlaire said.
Moffett already contains office and facilities for numerous colleges and universities that conduct classes and research there. Some of those universities now plan to build a scientific research center at Moffett on 77 acres located next to Highway 101 and an existing light rail system. The university proposal, spearheaded by the University of California, calls for a $1 billion project that would include 3 million square feet of buildings, including housing for 2,000 students and employees in a compact, pedestrian-oriented area. A master developer for the project is currently being selected by University Associates, the nonprofit entity established to oversee the project, Marlaire said. Unlike the federally approved reuse plan, the university proposal is subject to analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act, he said.
Plans call for automated buses and people movers "to complement a pedestrian-friendly environment," according to a website for University Associates. The nearby light rail line connects to the Caltrain system that runs between San Francisco and San Jose.
Current partners in the project include the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. Other participants are expected to include Santa Clara University, San Jose State University and Carnegie Mellon University, the highly ranked Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, school, which already offers classes for 150 students at Moffett. The project is moving forward despite the state's economic woes and cuts in funding for higher education. Bill Berry, president of University Associates, said the project takes "no resources" from the University of California.
"We have other activities with NASA in Silicon Valley which allow the project to self fund," said Berry. "We perform work here, and we reinvest that."
The new buildings at Moffett are expected to serve as an environmental showcase in a region that is known for innovation. Solar and wind systems will supply energy for the university research center. This fall, NASA began construction of a 50,000-square-foot collaborative support facility at Moffett that has being called "the greenest building in the federal government," according to the San Jose Mercury News
In addition to the new development, business tenants have moved into the former base over the past 15 years. NASA has leased office space at the former base to scientific companies, including start-ups who have outgrown their facilities and moved into adjacent communities, Marlaire said. In addition, several military tenants moved onto Moffett in the 1990s, including the Naval Air Reserve and the Army Reserve. A unit of the California National Guard, which arrived in the 1980s, also is located there.
Mountain View environmentalist Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Environmental Oversight, described the emerging plan for the base reuse as "what other communities want as a reuse of a base. This is ideal."
Mountain View City Manager Kevin Duggan expressed support for Google's expansion into Moffett. Duggan also said that local cities raised concerns about traffic and housing that were later addressed in the 2002 federal Ames Development Plan, which guides land use at the former base.
Duggan noted that Google is already a leader in alternative transportation for employees at its existing office space in Mountain View. The company has its own bus system to transport workers to residences in San Francisco, the East Bay and the Monterey Bay area, he said.
"Traffic is always an issue," he said. "They've got a good track record in mitigating traffic impacts."
Like most former military bases, Moffett has environmental contamination.
There are 29 contaminated sites as Moffett, said Siegel, although most have been cleaned up.
One source of pollution on the site is one of the landmark hangars, Hangar One, which is covered with material containing asbestos, lead and PCBs, Siegel said. The U.S. Navy recently announced plans to de-skin the building at a cost of $22 million but has not budgeted money to restore the building. That has led to a standoff with environmental activists and local Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who want the building re-covered.
Besides the hangars, a visitor to Moffett today sees Mission-style buildings dating from the 1930s when Moffett first opened, along with a NASA visitors center. In addition, new military housing opened at the base in 2008, when 181 Mission-style town homes were built as Wescoat Housing. Siegel said the homes were designed to resist vapor intrusion from contaminated groundwater in the area.
The new development plans for Moffett may finally derail efforts to open Moffett's two runways for general aviation and commercial use. The airfield's two runways are now used by Moffett's military tenants, and corporate jets for Google's chief executives have been allowed to use the airfields as well.
San Jose city officials, who would like to move small planes out of the city's Mineta International Airport, have coveted Moffett's landing strips. Others have suggested the airfield would be a great location for package delivery services such as FedEx and UPS. However, residents of Sunnyvale and Mountain View have long opposed such expansion, and locals have voted against expansion of the airfield several times. Still, the cities do not control the land use as long as the federal government owns Moffett, according to a recent City of Mountain View report.
Moffett has already served as a stimulus for economic growth in the surrounding communities. To the south lies an historic Lockheed Martin facility. Although the aerospace company has reduced its size during recent years, it remains the largest employer in Sunnyvale.
But effects of the state's and region's economic downtown are still in evidence. Santa Clara County has an office vacancy rate of approximately 20%. Near Lockheed, and within the shadow of Moffett air field, several 8-story glass office buildings called Moffett Towers sit empty, waiting for the next boom in Silicon Valley.
Kevin Duggan, City of Mountain View, (650) 903-6606.
Michael Marlaire, NASA Research Park, (650) 604-4190.
Bill Berry, University Associates, (650) 604-0511.
University Associates Silicon Valley: http://www.ua-sv.com/DEV/overview/index.html
Lenny Siegel, Center for Environmental Oversight, (650) 961-8918.