My Tustin

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OC Register: Whiting: Hangars, former base forge Tustin's future as it gets ready to build

by David Whiting

Tustin is gearing up to become a destination site not just for locals, but for residents throughout Orange County – and it has serious juice to make that happen.

No, not I’m not talking about Old Town Tustin, at least not yet. Small and sleepy, that area remains more dream than reality. And I’m not talking about bringing Angels baseball to Tustin. That game, city officials report, remains in its infancy.

I’m talking about big swaths of undeveloped land, big money, big opportunities and at least one very big blimp hangar where Goodyear’s Spirit of America blimp retired this month.

Visit the site around the retired Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility and you’ll find restaurant, retail and residential construction. In the past several years, the area has seen more than 2,500 new homes. In the next few years, it will see an additional 3,100 new units.

Consider also that the city holds 400 acres of undeveloped land valued at about $1.5 million per acre. Factor in expected future developer fees of about $300 million, and it starts to add up.

What to do with all that cash? Well, there’s way cool projects under consideration such as investing between $25 million and $75 million to bring the hangar back to life.

If you haven’t see these twin behemoths, a blimp hangar may sound whack. But these bad boys are among the largest wood structures in the nation. From the 5,500-foot summit of Saddleback Mountain, the hangars pop out more than any other man-made creation in sight.

Changing fortunes

City managers tend to be jacks of all trades. Still, there are different types. Tustin City Manager Jeffrey Parker is a builder – and right now that is a very good thing.

Hired three years ago, Parker is gleefully blunt about what drew him to Tustin. “I wanted to do the base.”

But the day Parker took over, Feb. 1, 2012, also was the day that dream turned into a nightmare. Redevelopment agencies were dissolved, and money had to be returned to Sacramento.

That meant no redevelopment tax breaks to private companies, no redevelopment backing for construction bonds. Like many cities, Tustin remains embroiled in litigation with the state. In Tustin’s case, the city hopes to get back $45 million.

Parker speaks quietly when he recalls the recessionary times.

The massive Tustin Auto Center, long a reliable cash cow, was slammed. Other sales tax revenues plunged. He says the city ran a $6 million deficit.

The city also was forced to lay off 35 people, some 20 percent of its staff. Parker recalls, “We hunkered down.”The impact? Huge. After closing the air base in the late 1990s, the Navy conveyed hundreds of acres to the city. But there was virtually no infrastructure. That meant no roads, no sewer lines, no water pipes.

It was up to the city to build the infrastructure. But the Catch-22 was that infrastructure is exactly the type of thing redevelopment funds were meant to cover. Another option was developer fees.

But with the economy tanking, developers weren’t developing.But that was then. What a difference a few years makes.

Tale of two hangars

In some respects, the tale of Tustin’s twin blimp hangars captures both Parker’s vision and the future of this city of 78,000 people.

When Parker gazes up at the city’s 17-story aging blimp hangar, he doesn’t see what some do – a pile of half-century-old wood. He sees possibilities.

When it came to splitting up the twin blimp hangars in Tustin, the county got the favorite, the one that was maintained. Just two years ago, the county’s hangar to the north was home to a silver blimp of the future. The county even considered a regional park with the 17-story wood structure as its centerpiece.

But then the north hangar’s roof collapsed. Massive beams fell, damaging the silver blimp.

Meanwhile, the hangar on the south side, the one the city of Tustin received, appeared hopeless. Long shuttered, it cost nearly $100,000 just to clean out the junk and bird droppings.

But it’s still standing.

Today, Tustin’s hangar stands tall, 192 feet tall to be exact. Built in 1942, it measures 292 feet wide and 1,072 feet long.

Plans range from a farmers market to new shops. The site also would include a museum. Parker notes the local historical society will play a key role.

The city also is adding homes that will bring in 6,370 new residents, an 8 percent increase over the current population, and ushering in an era of commercial and recreational development.

Matthew West, assistant to the city manager, estimates Tustin will see more than 2 million square feet in new commercial space. That includes office, retail and medical space.

In two weeks, Parker adds, the city hopes to ink a deal with the Tustin Unified School District for a new high school in the neighborhood.

Walkable places

Parker smiles when he examines a map detailing plans for the old base. He explains that the goal is to allow people to walk to nearby shops and restaurants.

“We want to create a unique destination place that attracts people from all over Orange County,” the city manager offers, “and we want to make it walkable.

“We’re convinced people will walk about a quarter of a mile. Much more than that, they’ll get in their car.”

Parsing his words carefully, the city manager allows discussions with the Angels about a possible move to the city are still occurring, but stops there.

He points to a swath of land cutting diagonally through part of the site. That will become what Parker calls a linear park with walking and cycling paths, trees and drought-resistant landscaping. Another site will become a sports park with construction starting next year.

The new parks will be in addition to Peters Canyon Regional Park and Veterans Park, both within city boundaries.

Could the money to renovate the blimp hangar be put to better use? Parker pauses because it’s a question he’s wrestled with in the past. He offers there are only seven such hangars left in the United States, that the history of Orange County and its connection to the military are well worth preserving.

Parker, the father of a 24-year-old daughter, says that someday he hopes his grandchildren have the opportunity to see the hangar.

“It’s the history of our community. It’s our legacy.”