Growing a park at the airport: step by step

It’s been about a month since Santa Monica sued the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to confirm the City’s rights to control the future of Santa Monica Airport. The FAA still has a month or so to answer the City’s complaint, but in the meantime a lot has been going on that’s relevant to whether the airport will become a park.

For one thing, the FAA is losing political support, which could be critical as decisions are made in Washington. Although our representative in Congress, Henry Waxman, has said he won’t make any pronouncements about what he thinks the future of the airport should be until he feels he knows the wishes of his constituents, that has not stopped him from taking an increasingly aggressive attitude toward the FAA’s indifference to the rights and safety of those who live near the airport.

As reported in the Lookout News, the congressman, in response to concern from residents that a jet could overshoot the runway and devastate homes, recently wrote the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) requesting that the NTSB accelerate its review of the tragic crash in September that killed Mark Benjamin and three others.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, whose district borders the airport and includes West L.A. and Mar Vista, sent a letter Nov. 7 to the FAA calling for the agency to consider allowing Santa Monica to close the airport after expressing her conviction that the “airport represents a danger to the health and safety of surrounding residents.”

While the FAA is committed to defending aviation, it has to pick and choose which battles to fight and how hard to fight them. Notwithstanding its efforts, hundreds of airports have closed in past decades, and it must have some institutional knowledge about when a cause is more likely lost than winnable. The FAA is used to congressmen and women who want something from it, like funding for a new radar tower. When the representatives no longer support a local airport, then the FAA has to start wondering whether it’s worth using its resources to defend it.

While all of this is going on at the rarefied Congressional level, Airport2Park.org, the local group formed to advocate for turning the airport into a park, is picking up support locally. The Westside Neighborhood Council of the City of L.A. passed a resolution two weeks ago supporting A2P’s efforts, if the airport closes, to build a park there.

At the same time there’s been other news in Southern California that is relevant to turning the airport into a park – news about two other park projects.

First, in the big picture department, last week the L.A. Times reported on a proposal in Long Beach to turn a piece of underused freeway into a park, to serve a neighborhood that is “boxed in by refineries, rail yards and truck routes.” According to the Times, “city officials are considering a radical makeover of west Long Beach that would involve ripping out a one-mile section of one of the Southland’s first freeways, now mostly used by truckers, and replacing it with a long ribbon of green space.”

I bring this up because I still hear from people who think that turning the airport into a park is a fantasy. Meanwhile, all over the world cities are doing great things with the gritty leftovers from the industrial era. I.e., if Long Beach can turn a mile-long piece of freeway into a park, then Santa Monica can do the same thing with the airport’s mile-long runway, which fewer people use than the freeway.

The other story is a cautionary tale that falls in the “avoid this” department. Perhaps you’ve been reading about the troubles that the City of Irvine has had with financing the “Great Park” that it planned to replace the 1,300-acre El Toro air base. Irvine expected developers to pay for the park, and built 200 acres with the initial cash it got, but after the 2008 market crash there was no money to finish the park. Now Irvine is debating an offer from a developer to pay for a scaled-down version of the park in return for the right to build about 4,600 homes.

The lesson: don’t rely on developers to build important public infrastructure. There is no free lunch. Design a park that’s worth spending taxes on. Get over the idea that the public realm isn’t worth paying for, and we’ll have a public realm that is worth paying for.

Thanks for reading.

The park created in Chicago on the former Meigs Field.

The park created in Chicago on the site of the former Meigs Field.