Off Base

What Will Happen to Historic Military Bases Set to Close in Four Years?

Aerial view of Fort Monroe.

Credit: Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park

On Fort Monroe, in Hampton, Va., a large brick house stands across the street from the Casemate Museum. A plaque marks it as the house where a young U.S. Army lieutenant named Robert E. Lee lived from 1831 to 1834. But Lee's former quarters are not part of the museum. An Army officer and his family live here, just as Lee and his family did over 170 years ago.

That will change in 2011, when the Army is scheduled to leave Fort Monroe. The Fort was marked for closure by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

Fort Monroe is by far the most historically significant of the bases on the 2005 closure list. Garrisoned in 1823, it is the third oldest active military installation in the United States, and a National Historic Landmark. It is the largest stone fort in the United States, and the only stone fort surrounded by a moat.

But Fort Monroe is only one of several closing bases with historic districts: The list includes Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem in Georgia; Fort Monmouth, New Jersey; Brooks City Base in Texas; and Selfridge Army Activity in Michigan. 

Fort Monroe's military housing

Concern over the possible fate of hundreds of historic structures on these closing bases led the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent Federal agency, to form a BRAC Task Force in 2005. The task force, the goal of which is to encourage preservation of historic properties affected by the BRAC process, is "very interested in what's going on at Fort Monroe," says Dave Berwick, the council's army program manager. The National Trust is also intensively engaged in the planning for redevelopment of Fort Monroe, serving on the Local Redevelopment Authority's master planning steering committee.

Each historic property affected by the base closures must be reviewed according to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Among other requirements, the government must seek the views of the public and must consult with the State Historic Preservation Office. An ACHP advisor has been assigned to assist the local planners with the Section 106 review for Fort Monroe.

The Department of Defense has recognized the city of Hampton's Federal Area Development Authority as the official planner for Fort Monroe. The city has taken the lead in the planning process despite some uncertainty over who will control the land after the Army leaves. A legal analysis by Virginia's Attorney General recently concluded that almost all the developable land (in addition to the historic structures) at the Fort will revert to the Commonwealth of Virginia after the Army leaves.

A spokesman for the city of Hampton says that the land issues will not hinder the city's planning process. "That's a matter between … Virginia and the federal government" that the city is not involved in, says spokesman Ed Novi. "Our goal is to see that the various plans articulated by the public come to fruition." 

Military quarters at Fort Monroe

At a November meeting, the city and its development consultants presented their reuse plan. According to the plan, revenue will be generated by leasing buildings on the post as residences and businesses. Because leasing only the existing buildings would not cover the costs of maintaining the post, some new development will be allowed (but none in the most historic area inside the stone fort). At least one local group thinks that redevelopment should not be the goal at all for Fort Monroe, and that the city of Hampton should not be making the plans. The entire post should "become a grand public place … under the supervision and stewardship of some kind of disinterested national-level authority," says Steve Corneliussen of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park.

One possible model for the new Fort Monroe, according to both the city and the national park advocates, is San Francisco's famous Presidio. When the Presidio, also a National Historic Landmark, closed as an Army base in 1994, the property became a national park pursuant to a 1972 agreement. A private organization called the Presidio Trust was formed to manage and maintain the vast property, which includes over 800 buildings. 

The Presidio, a success story

Credit: Presidio Trust

While the Presidio currently receives federal funding, it must be self-sufficient by 2013. To raise revenue, the Presidio leases more than 1,000 housing units, from apartments to large single-family houses. It has also entered partnerships with organizations that want to locate at the Presidio: the organization restores the building at its own cost, and this expenditure counts toward the rent on the building. One major tenant: Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Though the Presidio is now well on its way to self-sufficiency, it initially faced opposition from those who felt the Presidio was just too expensive for the National Park Service to maintain. "There was somebody who said, 'As much as we love it, let's just put a cyclone fence around it, hire some police, and let the grass grow, because we just can't afford it,'" says Craig Middleton, executive director of the Presidio Trust. So the Trust had to be creative, he says.

Now the Presidio Trust manages possibly the largest historic preservation project in the country, and has been consulted by preservation groups from New York to Sydney, Australia. Middleton says the model could work elsewhere: "It seems to me … that Fort Monroe could be looked at in a very similar way." Proximity to a major population center, as well as an attractive location and buildings, are factors he cites as being important to the success of the "Presidio model."

At Fort Monroe, the process to become a national park would first involve a study by the National Park Service, which would have to be authorized by Congress and then enter a "queue for funding," says the ACHP's Berwick.

Meanwhile, the city of Hampton is continuing the planning process. After further reviews, final adoption of the plan is scheduled for September 2007.

Even one of the city's opponents recognizes the planners' effort: "We admire the energy and initiative and forehandedness that the city has approached this with," Corneliussen says. "We just think that they have the wrong idea."  

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