A long road to find new uses for old forts
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A long road to find new uses for old forts
A memorial to soldiers killed in action at the former Fort Monmouth military installation, where about 86 percent of the land is under contract, in negotiations or in some stage of redevelopment, near Oceanport, N.J., Oct. 19, 2022. The struggle to redevelop two New Jersey military forts offers lessons for other locations around the country seeking revitalization. (Christopher Lee/The New York Times)

by Seth Berkman

NEW YORK, NY.- It is rare to come across hundreds of acres of land for sale in New Jersey, the country’s most densely populated state. But in Monmouth County, about 50 miles south of New York City, two expansive sites have sat largely undeveloped for years.

The catch? Both are former military forts and, as such, come with a litany of hurdles that prospective buyers do not usually encounter with redevelopment projects.

After years of setbacks, Fort Monmouth, which is spread across three New Jersey boroughs — Oceanport, Eatontown and Tinton Falls — is inching toward a deal with Netflix to build a production studio on 290 acres. Fifteen miles away at Fort Hancock in Middletown, local officials are struggling to breathe a second life into a deteriorating harbor defense site, despite a commitment from a New York real estate developer to revamp most of the aging officers’ quarters into residences.

“I can imagine the project taking off, but I can also imagine the buildings reaching a point of no return and coming down,” said Tom Jones, 61, a film writer and director who camped at Fort Hancock as a Boy Scout and now leases a building there for personal use.

Closed military bases are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. Each location has its own set of geographic, economic and political factors that influence plans. The two New Jersey forts have encountered a multitude of challenges, and offer lessons for other locations seeking revitalization.

“Not only are Fort Hancock and Fort Monmouth microcosms of military redevelopment issues and considerations, but military bases are microcosms of broader redevelopment concerns for many different areas,” said Michael Touchton, a political-science professor at the University of Miami and a co-author of “Salvaging Community: How American Cities Rebuild Closed Military Bases.”

Since 1988, more than 350 bases have been designated for closing under the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure process. The Department of Defense wants to eliminate bases unnecessary to its broader defense interests, and communities must balance funding and long-term planning with short-term needs of elected officials, Touchton said.

Developers and other potential users are often aware of the tangle of bureaucracy that comes with such sites, “which is why they’re not beating down anybody’s door to fund these big projects,” he added.

Rarely does a community stumble into a fortuitous situation as one did when producer and director Tyler Perry spent $30 million to buy the former Fort McPherson site in Atlanta and promised to invest $250 million for a film studio and other facilities. Development plans are typically more challenging.

Some former bases rely on temporary leases — one example is Naval Air Station Alameda in California, which struggled to broker a long-term deal acceptable to developers, the Navy, local regulators and residents. Other bases are listed as Superfund sites, which require extensive environmental cleanup work.

Conversion of a defense site is often a 50-year effort “fraught with economic constraints,” and some bases have been empty for so long that weeds and feral cats have taken over, according to “Salvaging Community.”

The redevelopment of a base can often draw several interested parties, including local and state leaders as well as the Department of Defense, the National Park Service and the National Register of Historic Places. When multiple decision-makers are involved, division can lead to delays and the potential loss of millions in tax income.

Complicating matters, federal law limits the improvements the military can make once a location is listed for closing. Environmental remediation on these sites can involve problems such as lead, asbestos and fuel plumes in the soil, and surveys and cleanup can “balloon into hundreds of millions in the blink of an eye,” Touchton said.

Despite the challenges, the military has a financial incentive to move forward with base closings. Since 2005, the U.S. government has reportedly saved $1 billion annually through the closure program, and there are calls for additional evaluations.

When Fort Monmouth was designated in 2005 for closing, legislation created a planning authority to oversee redevelopment of the 1,127-acre site, where instrumental technologies such as radar were developed. But the authority wasted several years trying to make decisions, said Peter Reinhart, who studied the fort as director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University.

Before Fort Monmouth officially closed in 2011, a different planning authority was formed that includes county and state officials, three mayors and state commissioners overseeing areas such as environmental protection and labor and workforce development.

“We essentially have all the state and local stakeholders in a room to make these decisions, which is pretty helpful,” said Kara Kopach, executive director of the new planning group, the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority.

Still, the redevelopment process has weathered stormy periods, including the 2008 financial crisis and the loss of funding. On top of that, the fort has many outdated buildings, and when it was built, the military did not have to follow normal standards for installing utilities such as electrical lines.

A turning point came in 2021 when the planning authority nixed a requirement for retail and residential use, giving the site more flexibility, and formed a “mega site,” incorporating an additional 200 acres into the original 89-acre lot.

Bases that take a “big picture approach” like that are often the most successful, said Jay Lybik, national director of multifamily analytics at CoStar, which analyzes the commercial real estate industry. “When you’re trying to do one-offs or piecemeal, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

Fort Hancock is still figuring out its future. After the site closed in 1974, the land was transferred to the National Park Service. Attempts to have a single developer lead the rehabilitation led to years of lawsuits.

In 2012, the secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, helped create the Fort Hancock 21st Century Federal Advisory Committee, which provides recommendation for reuse of historic buildings such as the houses on Officers Row, which are on the Sandy Hook barrier spit.

Environmental cleanup concerns have been a major hindrance, though. Land at Fort Hancock served as a weapons testing ground since 1874, and unexploded ordinances are still found on public beaches, according to the National Park Service website. Conservationists argue the area already has a fragile ecosystem. And many houses on Officers Row are dilapidated, but because of their status as a national landmark, they are restricted from certain upgrades.

Despite the obstacles, Barney Sheridan is committed to reviving Fort Hancock.

In 2017, Sheridan was visiting from Pennsylvania and became enamored with the officers’ houses. He now leases one and opened McFly’s on the Hook, a general store.

Like other small-business owners at Fort Hancock, Sheridan wants to preserve the area’s history. However, unexpected property taxes, stringent historical preservation standards and other red tape have made it difficult.

“You have to have a small amount of money, a lot of patience and you have to be a tad bit crazy,” Sheridan said.

Even wealthier investors are having difficulty navigating the maze of authority at Fort Hancock. Stillman Development International, the New York developer committed to redeveloping the site, wants to convert 21 buildings into apartments, but the National Park Service has been slow to fix aging properties.

“When you bring in a redeveloper or when you bring in private dollars, there are concessions they need in order to make it financially viable or nobody’s going to be able to do anything out there,” said Mayor Tony Perry of Middletown.

At Fort Monmouth, about 86% of the land is under contract, in negotiations or in some stage of redevelopment, Kopach said. Smaller businesses operating there include a brewery, medical care facilities and a satellite college campus.

Despite that progress, not everyone is pleased. A group called No2Netflix was formed to oppose the Netflix deal and others like it, saying tax credits that are part of the arrangements could be seen as corporate welfare. But development deals also take taxpayers off the hook for some risks and costs, Touchton said.

“Yes, these developers stand to make a lot of money, but only if these things go well,” he said. “Right now, nobody’s making money, the taxpayers are saddled with a liability. They’ve got albatrosses around their necks.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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