Fear, and Fear Itself — More on the Santa Monica Airport

I don’t know Sunset Park resident Beverly Palmer, but she is my new hero. Ms. Palmer spoke at the City Council hearing Tuesday night on the airport, and she told the council that “fear should not govern [its] actions.”

This was in response to what might charitably be called “institutional cautiousness” in the staff report for the hearing, which discouraged any big ideas for the future reuse of the airport land by invoking fear of various “collateral consequences.” What these might be were “difficult to predict,” but nonetheless included “very likely increased density and traffic.” And if people might counter that by proposing a low density use, such as a park, then it was the fear that there wouldn’t be enough money to build it because Santa Monicans wouldn’t want to pay for a park near Los Angeles, and then that would mean development, and then that would mean . . . .  You get the idea.

It was Ms. Palmer’s remarks that prompted Mayor Pam O’Connor, when she concluded debate Tuesday night, to remind everyone that the airport land is owned and controlled by us, the residents of Santa Monica, and that we have the power to make good decisions (subject, of course, to the 800-pound gorilla known as the Federal Aviation Administration).

The FAA. I won’t make any predictions about what the FAA will or can do, but my knees aren’t shaking either. The staff report says that the “FAA condones no closures and allows or suffers them only on very rare occasions,” but this sentence came two lines after staff noted that the number of “public use landing facilities in the country” had declined from 7,192 in 1969 to 5,178 in 2009. Apparently “very rare occasions” for the FAA means more than 2000 times in 40 years.

But there were two kinds of fear on display Tuesday night: fake fear, or, as FDR might have called it, “fear itself,” and real fear, genuine fear, and I want to say something about the latter.

There were real people there Tuesday night fearful of losing their jobs and businesses, and it does not diminish my desire to turn the airport into a park to acknowledge their fears. Other than to say — call it a bromide but it’s true — that the individuals involved have high levels of skills and that they will be able to move on, I have nothing concrete to say to encourage them. I do want the airport to close and its aviation businesses to move elsewhere and it would be hypocritical for me to say anything different.

Call me heartless, but it’s important to put what they fear into historical and economic context. Fifty years ago Douglas Aircraft employed tens of thousands of workers at the airport, but the City declined to expand the airport and its runway, which would have meant people losing their homes. Douglas and thousands of jobs moved to Long Beach. Santa Monica lost its largest employer and the company that was in many ways crucial to the city’s identity for decades. The attempt now to close the airport is the continuation of a process that goes back more than half a century.

Moreover, and I hope I’m not being too History 101 about it, but in every modern society like ours, change happens and people’s lives get disrupted.

This is particularly true about business. A few years ago Broadway Deli closed after 20 years on the Promenade: the owners’ lease expired and they couldn’t pay the higher rents the property owner wanted. They lost their business — in fact they were victims of the success they themselves had helped foster downtown — and their workers lost their jobs.

But the success of the Promenade is a good thing, higher rents notwithstanding.

Just last week I heard from a young videogame designer friend who lives here that the company he worked for in Santa Monica, Sony, was moving to Playa Vista because they needed to expand and couldn’t find enough space here. My friend was looking at a much worse commute, and I felt sorry for him, but at the same time, does Santa Monica need more office parks?

The Clock Tower Building downtown just sold to an Italian firm that owns and operates historic buildings like the Flatiron Building in New York. According to the L.A. Times, the rents in the glamorous building are the highest in the region. It’s a great story of the value of historic renovation and the value of urban revival, but for me it was bittersweet. My office was in the building in less swanky days, from after the earthquake in 1994 until 2001. That’s when the property owners kicked all the tenants out so that they could start their historic rehab.

Back then it wasn’t so hard to find office space in Santa Monica, and I found a new place (but not one with an 11th-floor ocean view!). It worked out okay for me, but I keep thinking about this young couple from Ethiopia who ran an espresso bar on the ground floor. I wonder where they ended up.

Change is often bad and there are many reasons to fear it, but fear is not an emotion that’s helpful when you’re trying to think clearly and make change better.

Thanks for reading.

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