Legacy time in Santa Monica

“All politics is temporal” is not as well known a phrase as “all politics is local,” but in these times I suspect it is more accurate. Voting has become more nationalized, but elections seem more and more to turn on voters’ immediate fears.  

Yet we best measure the achievements of governments in the long term because the success of government matches the success of society. Did we establish systems to feed, cloth, house, educate, and care for everyone? Did we protect the environment? Did we make our localities and the world a safer place for all? Did we build the bridges we need both physically and metaphorically? (One bright note, however, is that our oldest president ever is focused on building infrastructure for the future.)

I bring up the long term because at the Santa Monica City Council meeting Tuesday evening city staff will ask the council to begin a process the fruits of which will likely be harvested after many if not all the councilmembers have completed their tenures on the council. But fruits that will, if our civilization otherwise survives, be a legacy from our generation to those of centuries to come.

I am referring to a great park at the current site of the Santa Monica Airport.

Delayed almost three years by the pandemic, staff will ask City Council for authorization and funding to begin a process with the goal of having a shovel-ready plan ready when the City closes the airport on January 1, 2029, the earliest date the City can close the airport under the City’s 2017 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that settled the numerous then pending court cases and administrative actions between the City and the FAA. (Since entering the FAA agreement, council has voted to close the airport.)

I urge everyone, especially those who are new to the airport history, to read the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting. Then click on Attachment P to download and read a more detailed “Airport Conversion Report” that consultants prepared in March 2020 as part of the general update to the City’s Parks and Recreation Master Plan. Because of the pandemic, staff never published or delivered the report to City Council.

One schematic from the Airport Conversion Report

Regarding the history of the airport and the efforts to close it, I have written many posts over the years trying to explain the twists and turns. By way of disclosure, not only have I written about converting the airport to a park, but also, I am on the board of the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation, and I helped organize the campaign to win approval of Measure LC in 2014. This blog, however, is not written on behalf of the foundation or any other group.

Ahh, Measure LC. “LC” for local control. Under a 1984 agreement with the FAA the City had the right to close the airport in 2015, but as 2015 approached the FAA repudiated the deal. (Observing how the FAA functioned was the first time I had any comprehension of the hatred that some businesspeople have for “government regulators.”) The City fought back against the FAA. Fearing the FAA could lose in court, the aviation industry decided to make an end run around City Council with a ballot measure that would have perpetuated the airport. Once their paid signature gatherers had collected enough signatures to put their measure on the ballot, City Council responded with Measure LC. LC would perpetuate the City’s control over the airport, but mandate voter approval of any use of land removed from aviation purposes other than for parks and recreation. The City won when the voters passed LC with a 60-40 vote in 2014.

An artifact from the battle against the aviation industry in 2014.

The staff report and the 2020 report cover a lot of ground in terms of alternatives not only for what kinds of parks are possible, but also for how to pay for the park. It’s too early in the process to go into the substantive issues in depth, but there are a few points I want to make as the process begins.

• Don’t ever be discouraged. It’s not a walk in the park to build a great park, but we have the most important element: the land. Land worth conservatively $2 billion. Land that could never be assembled again on the Westside of L.A. for any purpose, particularly a public one. We also have time. The park’s final design and construction do not need to come all at once like Athena from the head of Zeus, but can evolve and take place, and be paid for, over decades. During the planning process, there will be furious arguments among equally well-intentioned people. That’s normal. Again, don’t be discouraged.

• Santa Monica is not a big city, but it has shown that it can do big things. Santa Monica operates Santa Monica State Beach, possibly the busiest beach in the country. It built the Annenberg Beach House with major philanthropic support. Forty years ago, it rebuilt the Pier. Santa Monica voters are public-spirited. Our local community college, which owns land adjacent to the airport, and our school district, have raised hundreds of millions of dollars with bond issues. Santa Monica voters have supported bonds for libraries and other public purposes. In addition, there are revenue streams currently flowing from the airport ($20 million/year according to the staff report) that could support revenue bonds and pay for maintenance and operations. (These revenues come from non-aviation sources.)

• Don’t ever let this become a fight between two goods, parks and housing, which are not in conflict but complement each other. The open land at the airport is irreplaceable and is needed to provide open space and recreation for the population of a more dense, post-sprawl city. There is room around that open land, in the already built-up parts of the airport land and in the adjacent business park, for housing, if that’s what the process yields. But a fight between park builders and housers will only help those who don’t want either. Which brings me to my most important point:

• Be prepared: the aviation industry is probably not done with us. As the process continues, and 2029 approaches, expect that at some point the industry will attack with another ballot measure. No doubt they will base their attack on fear of whatever is being considered – whatever it is. Again, good people are going to argue during the process of planning for the airport land. Let’s not let our arguments give fuel to those few who want this multi-billion-dollar public asset to remain in effect their property.

• Remember: this is our legacy, our bequest to the future.

Thanks for reading.

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