A Generational Opportunity: Turn Santa Monica Airport into a Big Park

Tuesday night the Santa Monica City Council will spend an entire meeting considering the future of the Santa Monica Municipal Airport. It’s a topic that deserves the council’s undivided attention. (And gives me an opportunity to take a break from writing about housing policy.)

I’ve lived in the flight path since I moved to Santa Monica in 1983, and over the years I have made my share of calls to the airport to complain about noisy aircraft. My view, however, has always been that even if airplanes didn’t pollute, even if they never crashed, even if they didn’t make any noise, Santa Monica should do everything it can to close the airport.

The reason is that the airport’s 227 acres are a public asset that is too valuable to be used for private purposes, namely for aviation.

How valuable? At $200 a square foot, a conservative number for land in Santa Monica, the airport land is worth about two billion dollars.

But for the public, two billion dollars is not even close to the land’s true value. Even if Santa Monica had ten billion dollars, it could never again assemble a property this size to buy. The land is part of the legacy of the city, belonging to all of us, and it needs to become a public benefit.

We need to turn the mile-long runway, or as much of it as the City can liberate from the Federal Aviation Administration, and the rest of the open space at the airport, into a park.

Look at a map of the Westside; when it comes to open space, what do you see? The biggest green splotches are golf courses, most of which are private. Santa Monica is chronically under-parked, and the airport land is the last remaining potential site for a great park.

It’s time that this public asset benefit the public.

I hope you have seen the graphics created by the Sunset Park Anti-Airport group, showing conceptually what a park could look like both at a first stage, after the City closes the “Quitclaim” parcel that includes the westernmost 2000 feet of the runway, or what an expanded park could look like if the City can ultimately close the entire airport.

The possibilities are fantastic.

But can we build the park and pay for its operations?

Those who want to maintain the status quo say that we can’t return the park to public use unless we re-privatize it, by using development to pay for the public uses. And I have to report — with considerable disappointment — that the staff report for Tuesday night’s council meeting echoes this position, assuming, with no evidence, that any development would have to be dense and that Santa Monicans would not be likely to support a park that was adjacent to Los Angeles and would serve many from outside Santa Monica.

These arguments, based on fanning dark fears of the future, are wrong. The voters of Santa Monica, based on their track record of supporting schools and libraries, will support a parks bond to build the park. Given the regional importance of the park, regional funds should also be available.

As for operations, based on the increased income the City can achieve by repurposing existing buildings at the airport, and the increased property values and taxes that replacing the airport with a park will lead to, there should be adequate new income for operations.

I found the staff report’s prediction that Santa Monicans would not be likely to support a park because non-Santa Monicans would also use it to be so out-of-touch with the history of Santa Monica as to be insulting. Does any city in Southern California have more of a history of sharing itself with its neighbors than Santa Monica?

All of this needs professional analysis. City Council should direct staff to gather the facts and do the analysis with open minds — but with the goal of finding the solution that serves the public best.

The most egregious aspect of the fear-mongers campaign against change at the airport is that it dismisses the capacity of citizens and their government to make good decisions. The City of Santa Monica owns the airport land free and clear — it’s not like we have a mortgage to pay off. We are free to make good decisions. Fearfully sticking with the status quo would not be one of them.

Back in 1981 the City Council voted to close the airport — that goal has been city policy for a long time. A big park is the best use of the land. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Even once-in-a-century. It can be done.

Thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “A Generational Opportunity: Turn Santa Monica Airport into a Big Park

  1. Really interesting observation! I was especially happy to read your reaction to staff’s “non-Santa Monica residents will use the park.” Wow. I see that as a plus — not a negative. I recall “Staff” had the same observation regarding the beautiful (but under-shaded) Airport off-leash dog park. It’s like staff never learned to share in kindergarten (or is turning Santa Monica into a gated community part of the plan for Santa Monica’s future?).

  2. You’re right that this is a very complicated issue. I would hope the City, in its analysis of options, would consider the economic stimulus effect of the airport (e.g. silicon beach’s access to silicon valley) and, more importantly, its importance for the emergency management system of the County. If I’m not mistaken, the City of LA’s emergency management plan includes Santa Monica Airport as a resource for the delivery of much needed emergency services and supplies if there is little or no public street access. Another important question, but probably irrelevant to the anti-airport folks, is where are the planes going to take off and land if there is no airport? And how many flight-related businesses will be closed and jobs lost? Santa Monica, park/open space poor? Come on…

    • Leslie — looking forward to many conversations w/ you about this. I do want to respond on the emergency resource issue just to say that there’s no reason that an area suitable for helicopter landings can’t be included. And the City of L.A. is sure trying to get the airport closed — don’t know if they’ve checked their emergency management plan.

      • Just a side note. I don’t know that the City of LA is trying to get the airport closed. I know Bill Rosendahl is and we saw how effective his office was in stopping the plan to build a north runway at LAX. If the City Council of LA or the Mayor has taken a position on this, I would be interested in seeing that. Not sure helicopters would meet all our emergency needs in the case of a major disaster from the standpoint of supplies and other emergency service needs. Seems like that would be a lot of helicopters. By the way, I am a Sunset Park homeowner and am not bothered by the airport even though we hear airplanes overhead on a regular basis. But there are many issues that need more discussion. I look forward to that.

  3. A newly available piece of real estate on the scale of SM airport has huge potential for public benefits and the concept of a park should be considered in its broadest terms. Of course typical park features like greenery, picnicing playing fields and community rooms. But added amenities like places to eat, have coffee, read, socialize, etc can lend vitality and usefulness. It would be far different if a new park was all greenery with no services like this. Additionally, the land and buildings could host many events and organizations that offer community benefits. Think of Ft. Mason Center in San Francisco with it’s numerous non-profit organizations, galleries, exhibits and conferences. Then there’s community gardens, field “class rooms”, alternative sports, free speech space, etc. The list is big; so many possibilities!

    • Kent, I agree with you that Fort Mason is a jewel. My family has been to theatre performances there. It is a truly wonderful resource for San Francisco. As is the Presidio. But let’s not forget that the DOD declared both forts surplus many years ago. Not sure the FAA has the same mindset.
      I for one would be uncomfortable sitting in a theatre or a Starbucks at the end of a 3,000 foot runway unless a tall concrete wall separated us from them. And, as I understand it, the FAA will require that the current runway be retained but may be reduced to 3,000 feet.
      Speaking of theatre at the airport, I suggest that you check out the Ruskin Theatre, which is an interesting venue on the City property adjacent to the airport. And the Spitfire Grill is a great restaurant to sit and watch the active soccer field across the street.

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