A year ago, roughly 200 veterans, hikers and history buffs argued at a public meeting whether the huge, Cold War-era radar tower on the summit of Mount Umunhum -- one of Silicon Valley's most visible landmarks -- should be torn down or preserved.

Today political debate has given way to the sound of demolition equipment.

Crews from American Wrecking, a Los Angeles company, began work Sept. 24 to remove all 88 structures on the summit of the 3,486-foot peak in the hills south of San Jose that once made up the Almaden Air Force Station. Work is expected to be finished in January.

The only building exempt from the wrecking ball is the iconic five-story radar tower -- its permanent fate still uncertain.

On Oct. 17, 2012, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the government agency that owns the landmark known as "the cube" to many Silicon Valley residents, backed off plans to demolish the structure and instead gave supporters five years to raise $1.2 million to save it.

In the year since, the agency, based in Los Altos, has steadily moved forward on its ultimate goal: transforming the former Air Force outpost east of Los Gatos into a park where visitors will be able to drive, hike, bike or ride horses to the summit, taking in views of Monterey Bay, San Francisco Bay and all of Silicon Valley.

Because of a variety of delays, however, the district's expected date for constructing a public trail to the top has slipped from 2015 last year to 2017 now.


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"That was our best guess at the time," said Meredith Manning, acting planning manager for the district. "Anyone who has a house remodeling project understands that it is the nature of construction work to encounter delays."

Originally the trail was going to be 2 miles long. But the route was so steep that planners redesigned it to be a more gradual 4.2 miles, which will take more time to construct, she said. Also, parking for 25 cars, signs, a toilet and a trail head need to be built, with work set to start next summer.

The district estimates the total cost to tear down the old Air Force site, repave the road to the summit, build the trails and other amenities at $13 million. It has $4.2 million so far. Officials note that anyone trespassing at the summit now will be arrested; security guards patrol it 24-7.

At its peak, 120 Air Force personnel and their families lived at the Almaden Air Force Station, which had homes, a gym, garages and even a bowling alley. The base was an early warning system looking for Soviet bombers from 1957 to 1980, when it was made obsolete by satellites. It was acquired in 1986 by the open space district.

Since then, the district has purchased more than 18,000 acres around the summit to create an area named the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, with trails for hiking, biking and horse riding. Still, the summit remains behind locked gates. Two years ago, the district removed lead paint, asbestos and PCBs from the dilapidated buildings.

Crews at the summit this week are shredding wood into mulch. They are crushing concrete into small pieces to be buried in old foundations, covered with dirt and replanted with native seeds. They are piling up rusty pipes, steel beams and appliances to be recycled.

"It's a big job. It's basically demolishing a small town," said Gina Coony, the district's project manager.

On Monday, crews working with an 80,000-pound yellow Caterpillar excavator smashed huge pieces of concrete that once formed the base's recreation hall. Twisted rebar sat piled nearby. The smell of pine, from several trees that had to be removed as part of the $1.2 million demolition job, filled the air.

"Nature will reclaim all this pretty quickly. In a year you probably won't be able to tell it was ever here," Coony said. "And look at the view!'' she said, pointing to Santa Cruz beaches in the distance. "You couldn't see this a few weeks ago."

This spring, the district will put out to bid the job to shore up the radar tower. Next summer, workers will seal cracks, block windows and doors with steel plates, and repair the roof.

Meanwhile, supporters of saving the tower are working to raise the $1.2 million needed by 2017 to pay for permanent repairs. They formed a nonprofit group, the Umunhum Conservancy, based in San Jose. They have a website and a board of directors that includes longtime county parks commissioner Kitty Monahan, and they have been setting up booths at community events.

"The response has been really fantastic," said Sam Drake, the conservancy's president. "An awful lot of people are very sad when they hear the plan is to knock the radar tower down unless we can raise the money."

So far, the group has raised about $10,000 in more than 100 donations, plus a $200,000 commitment from former Oakland A's owner Steve Schott. Last week, a committee of the open space district's board passed rules requiring the conservancy to raise $625,000 before it will sign a formal agreement. Those rules, along with a decision not to include a link from the district's website to the conservancy, has some wondering if the district really wants the tower saved.

"They seem to be putting up obstacles," said Basim Jaber, a San Jose history buff who has led tours of veterans to the top.

But district leaders say it's only fair that the group prove it is serious.

"People drop out, people can lose interest," said district board member Nonette Hanko of Palo Alto. "We wanted to be sure that it would be worth the district's time.

"I can't say our board is 100 percent behind fixing up the building or seeing that it stays," she added. "I'm in favor of it because I have strong feelings about historic places. I want the conservancy to succeed."

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more, go to umunhumconservancy.org and www.openspace.org.