OAC Competition finalists present base rehab strategies to defense communities

(Architecture for Humanity)

On August 7, the Association of Defense Communities Annual Conference in Monterey was buzzing with conversation and questions about future phases of the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Dozens of American military bases hang on a determination from Congress whether or not to shut down–decisions that will affect the lives of tens of thousands of servicemen and women, and the neighboring communities supporting them.

Architecture for Humanity has joined the conversation.

Thanks in part to Foreign Policy in Focus’ announcement of the Open Architecture Challenge last year, Architecture for Humanity worked with ADC to present the freshest design proposals for the reuse of old military spaces. The nonprofit structured a panel discussion, Re-Envisioning the Post-Military Landscape, including presenters of high-ranking challenge entries. Presentation boards of the six top finalists of the [UN]RESTRICTED ACCESS design Challenge, along with briefs on an additional half-dozen American sites, were on view to attendees in the exhibition hall–each one proposing a community-engaging, multiply-sustainable ex-base redevelopment. The reaction from attendees seemed unanimous: this approach was exactly what the US Military needed in future base closures. (Terry Yonkers, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force: Installations, Environment and Logistics, told us so personally.)

The Open Challenge

With it’s “open site and program” format, the [UN]RESTRICTED ACCESS Challenge opens a window that few other competitions can reach. As every team submits an entry to a unique site (much to the dismay of jurors and jury coordinators), this entry becomes equally possible to execute as the winning design – and strengthened by the spontaneous archive of creative solutions to diverse military site challenges. What Architecture for Humanity has been discovering, in meeting with the finalist teams, is that many of these proposals have already advanced through the first stages of community, government or military outreach and review. Teams have thus been using the Challenge as a deadline and launch point for their visions.

At the ADC panel discussion, Re-Envisioning the Post-Military Landscape, team leaders from two semifinalist Challenge entries presented complementary aspects of what effort would be needed to take design visions out of the design studio, and into an enthusiastically-supported, realistic and mutually-beneficial development.

Unearthing Tustin

Dulcie Horwitz is an architect in Thousand Oaks, California, and the creative force behind [Un]Earthing Tustin–a proposal to reuse the land and structures of the former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), air ship hangars smack in the middle of Orange County.

MCAS Tustn, image by David Toussaint
MCAS Tustin hangar, image by David Toussaint

MCAS is a landmark in Tustin, and a substantial portion of the modest, 11-square-mile. The base has been in conveyance to the City since its closure in 1999. Some portions are already under redevelopment, while others await environmental clean-up. Among these, two dramatic air ship hangars. These structures inspired Horwitz in to compose a real, rational and romantic vision for the base.

“The idea of repurposing a military installation is super attractive to us [as architects] because military structures far exceed the kind of built structures that we’re [accustomed to renovating], and because the area that we chose gave us an opportunity to engage and develop some ideas that we have for what a community could be for a town like Tustin,” Horwitz explains. In the slow economy, she and her team were looking for a competition to really sink their teeth into. When they saw the Tustin Case Study for [UN]RESTRICTED ACCESS, and the photographs featured there, they were hooked.

“We saw this picture and it was a big sucker punch for us. Look at this thing: its 178 feet tall, three football fields long…it’s incredible, and it destroys us to think it’s derelict, decommissioned and contaminated.”

Horwitz’s master plan, which incorporates much of the base property surrounding the hangars, offered an alternative to unsustainable trends in Orange County–at times harkening back to the agricultural history of the area (“Bringing the Farm,” often in a vertical sense), proposing dense, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods (“Ditching the Car,” made possible with the new, adjacent Metrolink station), and take advantage of the majestic structures to “Sculpt Grand Plazas,” and tie their raw, industrial aesthetic back into the architectural vocabulary of 19th Century Old Town Tustin.

Left: Site plan; Right: “Bring the Farm”

To make the best of these enormous hangars, Horwitz rendered a multi-story building inhabiting the entire height of the structure–an enclosed mixed-use center whose unique identity rivals the character of nearby complexes in Irvine and Anaheim. Adding an element perhaps of the St. Louis City Museum. The program includes an outdoor mall, artist studios and foundry, an arboretum, and residences fit for a 21st Century Orange County.

Above: Hangar interior perspective section; Below: Site section rendering

Download the Unearthing Tustin presentation (PDF, 4.5Mb)

The Environment, Health, and Fish Bones

Brent Bucknum, an Oakland-based civil engineer, had already been advocating and working with West Oakland residents, businesses and the Port of Oakland to transform former Army land behind the Port into an environmental remediation center, when the Challenge rolled along. He’d been developing research, outreach and discussion for six years.

“I run a civil engineering firm, out of which we started a nonprofit project, called Urban Biofilter,” Bucknum explains. “We started working in West Oakland where our office is based and were most of the people at our firm live. Taking from our design disciplines, and consulting and professional work, we’re looking at how we can use ecological engineering and environmental engineering, remediation work and sustainable stormwater management that we do and apply it to a big landscape in Oakland under redevelopment right now.” That site is the former army base at the Port of Oakland, at the foot of the Bay Bridge, a hub of traffic, shipping and emissions that has demonstrably affected the health and well-being of neighboring residents.

Through a community participatory design process engaging Port workers, community members and city representatives, Bucknum and his team have spent the last six years building awareness, advocacy and funding for the ecological redevelopment of these vacated Port lands. Projects started small, but their innovative solutions to bioremediation began attracting attention, including a New York Times piece on the use of fish bones to neutralize lead in the soil. Work continued with the City, the Port and developers to find an avenue to introduce bioremediation, improve health and benefit all stakeholders.

“We took a lot of the existing infrastructure from the [developers’] proposed plans for new warehouses and logistics facilities. Twenty new rail spurs for loading and unloading, a whole new dry wall for the Port, and these gigantic logistics buildings, 20 acres some of them. We started to look at how we could overlay ecological infrastructure, for example trying to integrate green roofs into development strategy.” Green roofs could be incentivized by subsequent increased allowances in lot area coverage or allowing variances to build higher, which could finance the structures.

Community Collaboration? Environmental Remediation? 

It wasn’t until the Open Architecture Challenge came around that they were goaded into visualizing their studies.

“We were doing so much policy work with this project, as designers it was exciting because [[UN]RESTRICTED ACCESS] came out, and all of the things they were asking for as far as environmental issues and community engagement were what we were doing for the project. It gave us a kick in the butt and a deadline to get drawings and designs and ideas about this out…the first pass of what will be a 2-3 year project.”

The vision is simple and ambitious, tying a five-stage process with different zones of the Port. Seawall: visualized as a new living wall technology, with the potential of introducing 20-30 feet of habitat beneath operating piers; Sponge: rooftops and rail spurs that can manage storm water; Sink: waste treatment facility via constructed wetlands; Screen: a greenbelt buffering the neighboring community; Seam: how the community interfaces with this project – from job creation to recreation.

“With all of these conditions we have a unique process: Look at the current condition; put forth a design strategy; identify the ecological services that are being provided, from oil and grease filtration to mussel habitats and restoration of the San Francisco Bay; identify economic drivers that actually fund that work, that’s not just a taxation on ships. We’re actually quantifying all the services that are being provided in these ecosystem interventions.”

Left: “Sponge;” Right: “Seam”

Bucknum closes his presentation with a chart of the city, county and agencies, Caltrans and various regulatory agencies they’re collaborating with (or at worst, navigating), a mess of bubbles and arrows reminiscent of a bowl of spaghetti. “This is the next year I have ahead of me,” Bucknum confesses to chuckles from the audience. “It’s somewhat frightening.” On the next slide he isolates the City of Oakland bureaucracy, “a beast in and of itself.” Horwitz will be facing something similar as she begins to push her plans forward.

Download the Urban Biofilter presentation (PDF, 5.4Mb)

The panel was well-received. The largest talking points came from members of communities in Kansas and Colorado seeking vision for nearby decommissioned ammunition depots, representatives of the Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment that work extensively with BRAC projects, and a former community development director for the City of Tustin. The panel moderator, Architecture for Humanity program manager T. Luke Young, polled the audience. “We have people here from Federal, State and Local government, the private sector and impassioned communities. Just the right mix to get something done.”

EPZ Oakland/State/Federal maze


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