Sausalito officials want better protection of historic World War II-era machine shop

By MARK PRADO | The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. | Published: April 23, 2016

SAUSALITO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Sausalito city leaders are growing impatient with federal officials, whom they accuse of dragging their feet in protecting the city’s historic World War II-era machine shop building.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which acquired the 27,500-square-foot structure in 2006, is conducting a feasibility study to determine future uses with an eye toward finding someone to rent, operate and fix the hangar-like structure.

Last October, Veterans Affairs officials told the City Council the siding, roof and windows would be replaced as part of a mothballing effort to protect the historic building from the elements. That work — which would take three months — was set to start last month. Years ago, the Veterans Affairs department removed half of the roof, leaving the building exposed.

But a Veterans Affairs official told the council this week the work won’t start until September. City officials had hoped for at least a tarp to protect the structure from the elements, but that was reviewed and rejected as being too costly with mothballing due, federal officials said.

City Manager Adam Politzer called Veterans Affairs officials’ actions “disingenuous,” saying he believed the city and the federal government had an agreement to start work in March.

Said Mayor Jill Hoffman said: “We are seeing an important part of our history deteriorate.”

Matthew Szeto, facility planner for Veterans Affairs, told the council the project is tangled in government red tape.

“There are budget constraints,” Szeto said. “It’s a volatile time for the VA in regard to capital projects.”

City officials asked Szeto to return to the city with a firm plan within three weeks. Szeto told the council he would talk to his bosses to see if that could happen.

The Veterans Affairs department is on a parallel track to find a private-sector user for the building with the goal of keeping its historic nature intact. The agency may place modular buildings at the site in the short term for as many as 60 employees.

Talk of keeping the building’s historical elements intact has been welcomed by city officials. In 2010, a different group of Veterans Affairs officials marched into City Hall and announced plans to tear down the structure and replace it with a new medical research center, with one rendering showing a modern, glass design.

The area surrounding the building was once a marshland; it was developed in the 1870s, when the former Northwestern Pacific rail yard was built.

The rail yard was replaced in 1942 with the Marinship shipyard. Work on the machine shop started on Oct. 30, 1942, and was finished on March 22, 1943. The shop for the nonstop war effort had three shifts of machinists working around the clock. Many of the workers were black and were women, a fact of civil rights significance, historians note. The building is on the city’s register of historical places.

Tail shafts, bearings, stern tubes and liners, bolts, stern frames and rudders were among the items manufactured in the shop. All had to be machine finished precisely varying no more than one one-thousandth of an inch, according to a history of the Marinship compiled in 1947 by the Marinship Corp. The shop also made parts for areas of the shipyard ­— which had 20 other buildings — that had broken equipment.

It was instrumental in helping build 93 Liberty ships during the war effort that delivered critical cargo between 1942 and 1945.

In 1946, after the war, the Marinship shipyard was placed with the War Assets Administration, which in turn transferred the parcel to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1948. The machine shop building was converted to a geotechnical testing laboratory in 1950 and analytical laboratory capability was added in the early 1990s. The laboratory closed in 1997 and the building has sat idle since, its windows broken and paint peeling.

The building does need a new foundation and costs are being examined. In 2010, Veterans Affairs said a retrofit and seismic upgrade would cost $13 million. Because the building is owned by the federal government it is not subject to local zoning rules, which emphasize light industrial and maritime uses.

Councilman Ray Withy told Szeto the city wants action to protect the building.

“We need people at the table who know what they are talking about,” Withy said. “Last October you told us it would be done in March. That wasn’t the case.”

©2016 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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