Not-so-slowly but surely the 1,600-acre expanse known as Tustin Legacy is blossoming into a vast residential and business center.

On May 3 the Tustin City Council unanimously approved a plan to build a mixed-use project with 1,208 apartments on what is now a 19-acre vacant lot. It will be surrounded by two other neighborhoods and, just across Tustin Ranch Road, The District shopping center.

As a bonus some apartments will offer a view of an otherworldly landmark: One of base’s two enormous blimp hangars. Seventeen stories high and 1,000 feet long, the twin structures were left behind when the Marine Corp Air Station closed three decades ago.

A quarter of the apartment units will be rented for below-market rates to households earning between 30% and 80% of the median income in Orange County.

Architectural rendering of aerial view of new apartments, in center, coming to Tustin Legacy. (TINA CHEE LANDSCAPE)

The deal reached on May 3 still needs to be finalized. After negotiating a final sale price, the city will convey the property to two developers, AvalonBay Communities and Abode Communities. AvalonBay will build the market-rate portion of the project, while Abode – which specializes in affordable housing – will handle the remaining 302 units. Terms of the deal were discussed in closed session but final numbers are expected to be made public.

In addition to the apartments the three-block neighborhood, to be marketed as “Legacy Village,” will include 5,000 square feet of retail and a variety of recreational opportunities. Seven acres are earmarked for private and public open space and each of the apartment buildings, which will range from three to five stories, will feature rooftop amenities, including swimming pools.

Already, Tustin Legacy has half a dozen neighborhoods either completed or in progress – including 533 apartments bordering the east of Legacy Village and, to its west, 400 single-family homes currently under construction.

Tustin Legacy also includes a 38-acre, mixed-use office project, FLIGHT, which broke ground in 2017.

If the newest project moves forward as planned, 565 acres of the former base will remain available for future development. What eventually will become of the hangars – particularly, the north hangar – is an unresolved question.

A grown-over marking for a helicopter landing spot near the north blimp hangar at Tustin Legacy, the former site of the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Tustin, CA. In 1995, the county submitted an application to build a regional park in the area around the north hangar located in the Tustin Legacy. Since then, the county has not secured funding or laid concrete plans for the park, so the city council voted to remove the county regional park from the Tustin Legacy Reuse Plan/Specific Plan during its Wednesday meeting.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Dating to World War II, the hangars are two of the largest wooden structures ever built.

Tustin is responsible for maintaining the south hangar, which the city leases from the U.S. Navy. That hangar has been used for film productions, half-marathons and  other events.

But the north hangar – which falls into a sort of bureaucratic no-man’s land – has become an albatross for Tustin.

The Navy owns the long neglected structure and 85 acres surrounding it. That hangar’s roof was damaged during a 2013 windstorm. The hangar has remained closed since, leaving Tustin to police decrepit federal property that has become an attraction for trespassers.

In 2019, for example, a teenager scaled the 180-foot-tall half-cylinder and had to be airlifted off.

Originally, ownership of the north hangar was supposed to transfer to the county, which planned to use it in a regional park. But those plans have fallen through and Tustin officials have grown frustrated. City spokeswoman Stephanie Najera said the county “refuses to take responsibility for properly maintaining and securing the property.”

In recent months the city has taken on a maintenance role at the site, removing abandoned equipment, overgrown vegetation and other waste.

During the May 3 meeting council members decided to allocate $330,000 to the continued cleanup of the site, even though it is not within the city’s domain.

“We’re doing the right thing,” said Councilman Ryan Gallagher. “We’re giving this area the respect it deserves.”