Battle for the base

As McClellan converts from military base to business park, the homeless get left behind

Supervisor Roger Dickinson speaks at the July 13 opening of McClellan Park.

Supervisor Roger Dickinson speaks at the July 13 opening of McClellan Park.

photo by Jill Wagner

On a grassy knoll just inside Peacekeeper Gate, under a strong morning sun, they gathered to usher in the dawning of a new era. The former McClellan Air Force Base was dead, but McClellan Park, “California’s unique corporate community,” was being born.

The mood was buoyant and self-congratulatory among the more than 100 smiling political, military and business leaders that gathered for the July 13 opening ceremony. One by one, speakers approached the microphone, citing the “spirit of cooperation” and “unique partnership” that allowed this day of “unprecedented economic development” to arrive.

Once a facility that was a key component of this country’s military might during the Cold War, McClellan Park promises to continue as an important combatant in America’s struggle to maintain and extend its economic empire. Already, 67 corporations have enlisted in McClellan Park, ready for active duty that promises to create 5,000 jobs.

“What a great day and a great way to kick off this unprecedented partnership,” effused Congressman Doug Ose, while county supervisor Roger Dickinson had a message for all the military personnel who have been connected to the base: “We always want you to feel McClellan Park is still your home.”

Yet McClellan Park has not made a home for the area’s homeless population, despite previous county pledges—and even federal mandates—to do so.

“Our greatest failure over the past three years during negotiations was the belief that the county could be trusted,” said Bill Kennedy, former board member and past chairman of Sacramento Cottage Housing Inc. (SCHI).

Green light
Federal law mandates that before local governments can move forward with efforts to convert military bases to private use, they must first submit plans that show county officials have entered into agreements with local homeless assistance providers to provide housing on the base, or on an equivalent parcel elsewhere.

Sacramento County entered into such an agreement—under the Base Closure Community Redevelopment and Homeless Assistance Act of 1994—on August 4, 1998. Two days later, it received approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to move forward with implementing its base reuse plan.

Yet three years later, SCHI, as well as the Sacramento Food Bank and WIND Youth Center, has yet to see any formalized plan of action, even as McClellan Park opened with much fanfare and talk of a glorious future.

“We believed the county when they said they would work with us,” said Robert Tobin, executive director for SCHI. “[The agreement] was essentially a move that allowed them to say, ‘We’ll deal with you later’ and look like they were meeting their obligation under the law. And we believed them.”

But county officials claim that Tobin, Kennedy and others have been inflexible in choosing an appropriate site to house the homeless outside of McClellan, instead content to impugn the county’s commitment to provide homeless assistance.

Whatever the cause, the fact remains that area businesses have an affordable new place to call home, the homeless are still on the streets, and it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Few question the need to provide additional housing for the homeless.

When the Sacramento County and Cities Board on Homelessness conducted a needs survey on September 12, 1999, there were 808 transitional housing beds, 631 emergency shelter beds and 161 persons reporting being homeless without any shelter.

In April of this year, St. John’s Shelter—one of only two area shelters that take in families—was forced to turn away 528 women and children in that month alone. An additional 567 families were turned away from the Sacramento Area Emergency Housing shelter.

As a result, the Board on Homelessness recommended to both the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and the Sacramento City Council that a minimum of 1,600 permanent supportive housing beds be created over the next five years, with a minimum of 320 spaces created each year.

These human statistics have become a battle cry for homeless advocates working with SCHI and remain the primary fuel for the fire of discontent they feel for county supervisors and their chief negotiator of the McClellan reuse plan.

As director of the county’s Department of Economic Development, Paul Hahn was the point person in designing the reuse plan for the base. The shining star in the plan is McClellan Park: a collection of business, education and nonprofit entities expected to yield the county more than $300 million in property tax revenue in the next 30 years.

The county’s economic development component is expected to provide a lift in an area of town that has seen its infrastructure decline, its businesses drop off and quality of life deteriorate at a faster rate than the county’s capacity to fix the problems.

Through a partnership with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SHRA), the county has created a redevelopment area that includes both the former McClellan and Mather military bases, the section of Watt Avenue that runs along McClellan and a 216-unit subdivision called Parker Homes which is badly in need of repair.

Creating a redevelopment area allows the county to receive an influx of property tax revenue it didn’t have before, stemming from both the infrastructure improvements and the new businesses the area has opened, in large part due to the privatization of McClellan.

Over the 30-year life of the redevelopment area, the county could glean some $300,000 in new monies and borrow against the expected revenue through the sale of bonds.

While few doubt the benefits of job creation, increased property tax revenue and infrastructure improvements, the striking contrast between the economic development component of the county’s reuse plan, which is up and running, and the fact that the homeless are no closer to getting those 320 units this year, leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of SCHI’s Tobin and Kennedy.

“At every chance,” Tobin said, “to choose balance between economic development and homeless assistance, the county has gone the other way. We’ve got a county acting as an agent for a private developer.”

Rich vs. poor
At the symbolic center of the battle over priorities at McClellan sits a 118-room hotel. Once housing for visiting military personnel, the hotel was pledged to the homeless under the initial agreement, but plans later changed to make it part of a convention center complex designed to serve business elite.

County officials say the choice makes sound economic sense, but homeless advocates insist the county’s decision is nothing more than a money grab and is symbolic of its true priorities.

Documents show that when the county was formulating its base reuse plan as far back as 1997, SCHI applied for and received tentative approval from the county to locate supportive housing on the base. At the time, SCHI asked that the hotel be retained for their project, with the understanding that if the county decided not to grant that property, it would find “substantially equivalent” space for the project elsewhere.

On that much, both county and SCHI officials agree.

The sides differ wildly, however, as to what happened—and who was responsible for that action—after the county decided to sell the hotel and adjoining officer’s club to Stanford Ranch developers for use as an amenity for its business park.

SCHI officials tell anyone who will listen that not only would the hotel be the ideal way to house its clients quickly and efficiently—they say renovations would take between six to eight months at a cost of about $900,000—but that the county’s decision to scuttle their plans shows a willingness to bend over backward to please local developers at the expense of the disenfranchised.

“A convention center, with a hotel and dining facilities, obviously is going to make the developers and the county richer,” Tobin said.

But Dickinson and others argue that not only did the county dispense with the issue of how to use the hotel facility back in 1997, thereby making its use a non-issue for SCHI, but that SCHI itself is to blame for the lack of progress made in choosing a new site.

“Yes, nothing has been built at McClellan,” Dickinson said last week, “but that’s because [SCHI] never crystallized a proposal except to say, ‘We want the hotel.’”

Dickinson maintains that Tobin and others are using the hotel—and unrealistic expectations about its usefulness for housing the homeless—as a baseline for all negotiations and, in doing so, are actually crippling progress.

As evidence, Dickinson notes that as recently as May, SCHI tentatively agreed to a counter offer from the county to build an alternate $10 million facility that would house roughly 200 homeless men, women and children just about one mile from the hotel site. Additionally, the county offered to renovate an existing run-down 18-unit apartment complex that would house about 40 homeless individuals as soon as this winter.

But when talks broke down after a June 4 meeting between the county’s Hahn, redevelopment officials and SCHI over the proposed ownership of an adjoining child care center, which would be used by both SCHI’s clients and business park employees, SCHI cried foul and went back to its original contention that the county should have given it the hotel to begin with.

For their part, Hahn and Dickinson dismiss this contention as unrealistic and unnecessarily divisive.

Hahn points to county estimates that it would take more than $1 million and between one year to 18 months to bring the hotel up to code. The rooms, for example, do not have full kitchens. To suggest, as SCHI has, that it could be ready sooner and at less expense, is again unrealistic, Hahn said.

After a strongly worded 15-page document in which SCHI revisited numerous issues brought up over the last three years, the housing group again asserted that it had vested rights to the hotel site and threatened the county with litigation if the county did not agree to binding arbitration to work out a site agreement.

SCHI officials assert that the threat was necessary, claiming that the county has negotiated in “bad faith” throughout the process and had thus far failed to produce a suitable site.

But the real issue sticking in the craw of SCHI is one of timing. Had homeless advocates not agreed back in 1994 to work with the county concurrent to its economic development activities—rather than demand that the county solidify a homeless assistance plan up front, as they had a right to by law—the goal of creating 320 shelter beds this year would be closer to being a reality. As it stands now, even if both sides came to agreement today, it would take about three years before people could move in.

Bottom line is, SCHI officials say, it was duped.

“They’re negotiating these offers in the press, not with us,” Kennedy asserted recently. “We’re told that an offer isn’t really an offer, then we hear that it’s all a misunderstanding and that, for example, the child care facility would continue [in perpetuity]. But this is news to us.”

Dickinson conceded that the county would never have been able to forge ahead with a successful economic development plan had SCHI demanded its needs be dealt with first. Still, he bristled at the idea that the county duped anyone.

“It is certainly true … that it would have delayed [the agreement] we made with the Air Force and it could have had very serious consequences for Sacramento on a number of fronts,” Dickinson said. “But it’s a false connection to say that this is at the expense of homeless people. There’s no record to justify the claim that we’re trying to avoid our responsibility.”

In the forefront of Tobin’s mind, however, are the more than 1,000 homeless men, women and children who continue to be turned away from area shelters each month and the realization that urgent shelter needs will continue to go unmet for years to come.