Few people know much about Mare Island even though it’s only 35 miles from San Francisco, was once the largest military shipyard on the West Coast, and is officially a National Historic Landmark. A grand long-range vision is in the works for this 5,600-acre land spit--for Mare Island is actually not an island, it’s a peninsula jutting out into San Pablo Bay at the mouth of the Napa River. If that vision materializes--and that is a big “if”--Mare Island will become a vibrant part of the city of Vallejo, with a lively waterfront and residential communities linked by parks and trails. It will also be a magnet for visitors interested in nature and history. With some 500 historic buildings, great views of bay waters, and 3,500 acres of tidal wetlands rich with wildlife, this is an extraordinary place.
Although it has the potential of becoming a great place to live, work, and visit, right now the decomissioned naval shipyard lies in an odd state of inbetween-ness, stalled in transition from its storied past to a potentially rich future. Today Mare Island is a strange collage of huge derelict structures, a beautifully maintained golf course (the oldest west of the Mississippi), handsome historic buildings, and new subdivisions with manicured lawns. This spring, ospreys were nesting on drydock cranes, and great blue herons had established “condos”--several nests on top of each other--on some stadium light poles. But few people were to be seen.
The Navy bought what is now the Mare Island peninsula in 1854. The first ship was constructed here in 1859, a paddle-wheel gunboat built of white oak from Petaluma. One of the last, built in 1966, was the nuclear submarine Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. At the height of the shipyard’s productivity during World War II, more than 46,000 people worked here, servicing hundreds of vessels.
The closing of the base in 1996 launched the current chapter of Mare Island’s history. The Navy transferred most of the land to the City of Vallejo, which signed over fee title to 657 acres in the island’s core to Lennar Mare Island LLC, a Florida-based corporation the City chose as master developer.
For this parcel the City approved a reuse plan that provides for historic and natural resource protection and restoration, construction of 1,400 new homes, an 83-acre Town Center with businesses to serve the new residents, and for infrastructure and recreational amenities, including parks and trails. The remaining developable land, about 200 acres on the northern side of the island, may become a medical research and education complex. The City has been negotiating with Touro University, a chiropractic educational institution based in New York, which would build a campus that would include a cancer research center. Touro already has facilities on Mare Island.