By Jug Varner

Mention NAS Glenview, Illinois to an old Navy pilot and chances are good that he has been there for training, operations, or a cross-country stop. He could tell you a sea story or two, about how he learned to fly there as a cadet, or made his first landing on a makeshift aircraft carrier on Lake Michigan, or first learned about radar at the 1950s-era Combat Information School, or participated as a Reserve Weekend Warrior during the Cold War — and surely about great times he had in nearby Chicago, where everybody loves the Navy.

The air station’s history spanned a timeline from the 1930s through WWII, the Berlin Airlift, Korean War, Vietnam War, and the Gulf War. When it fell victim to base closure in the mid-90s, the Navy agreed to turn the bulk of the property over to the surrounding Village of Glenview (pop. 40,000), retaining only a small complex of relatively new family housing units for use by military personnel assigned elsewhere in the area.

Following a $37 million expense for an environmental cleanup required before disposing of the property, the Navy began to systematically deed the remaining 1121 acres in parcels, after state and national regulators certified each parcel to be environmentally safe.

A gift of the land was made possible under a federal economic development conveyance to offset the community’s economic loss from base closure, as well as the initial cost to the community to prepare it for development. Village officials have painstakingly originated, and are now coordinating, a unique concept for integrating the property into their community. Voters approved a bond election to pay for development of infrastructure such as sewer lines, gas mains and roads.

When this ongoing massive redevelopment program is completed, Navy old-timers will be hard pressed to find any trace of the Air Station they once knew. Only two former Navy structures will still stand — the Chapel and Hangar One, and by then the hangar will have been converted to an entertainment mall.

With minor exceptions for a few modern buildings that would now cost more to covert than to destroy, about 110 structures were barracks-style buildings dating back to the 1930-40 era, and originally intended as temporary, but refitted or repaired to fill military need during the Cold War. All are being razed, and workers have already demolished most of the 300 acres of runways and aprons.

The last commanding officer provided miniature blocks cut from this runway as souvenirs to those attending the Navy’s official closing ceremony in September 1995. Village officials are considering how to commemorate the NAS history in a public display, possibly in the former Hangar One.

An incredible effort has gone into this project to bring together and execute the Master Plan, including complicated coordination with many government agencies and commercial, professional and business organizations. It may well stand as the classic example of how best to convert a military base to ultimate civilian use.

The redevelopment will bring: single and multi-family subdivisions; senior housing; retail centers; offices; warehouses; light industry; public works campus; post office; commuter rail station; prairie preserve; 20-acre lake; 140-acre park; public use campus; sports and leisure entertainment areas; two golf courses; streets; pumping stations; off-site drainage areas, and underground infrastructure.

Two of the busiest people I met there were former Navy pilot Don Owen, once stationed at Glenview and now the project’s Economic Redevelopment Director, and Assistant Village Manager Matt Carlson, the overall Project Director. They reminded me of the Donut man on the TV commercials who kept meeting himself coming and going.

Matt took me on a quick tour he was able to sandwich between a department head meeting and a group presentation to some VIPs. He answered my questions and pointed out physical changes in the making — while being overtaken and stopped by workers wanting decisions. He is like a walking computer with a huge database, and has the sense of humor to counteract the pressures of his demanding job. “It’s an exciting challenge to transform this property into the new Glenview community,” he said, ended the tour, “and I look forward to helping make it happen.”

It also will be exciting for me, as one who served two tours of duty at NAS Glenview, to return at some future date when that job is completed and see how everything turned out.