Future of Santa Monica Airport Is Up In the Air; D and LC Explained

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One of the most emotional issues in the City of Santa Monica right now is the fate of its airport. Competing measures, D and LC, on the ballot next Tuesday, aim to shape the future of the almost century-old Santa Monica Airport (SMO), whose settlement agreement between the city and the FAA is set to expire in 2015.

D is intended to preempt efforts to close the airport; LC (Local Control), is intended to give the City Council authority to manage SMO and to close all or part of it. (See below for an explainer of the measures.)

This may be the culmination, or just another shot across the bow, of a “war” between Santa Monica and the airport that, as the LA Times editorialized a few years ago, has been going on for decades.

“Ever since private jets first rumbled onto the single runway of Santa Monica Municipal Airport — nestled in Sunset Park just east of Ocean Park, bordered by a sliver of Los Angeles — there have been lawsuits, trips to Capitol Hill and frosty showdowns between the Santa Monica City Council and the Federal Aviation Administration, which controls air traffic. On the agenda at various times: noise, pollution, safety.”

“For those whose only contact with the airport has been a visit to the restaurant Typhoon,” they wrote, it’s just a plateau dotted with tiny prop planes.

“But to the neighbors, the closest of whom live just 300 feet from the runway, the airport is a disaster waiting to happen. And what they fear most are the bigger, faster private jets (including some Gulfstreams and Learjets) that land at speeds of 139 to 191 miles per hour. If a plane overshoots the 4,973-foot runway, the city argues, it could crash into houses.”

Photo by Mitch James for SM Mirror (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Campaigns Pit Affluent Against Superrich

Ironically those neighbors were once themselves airport workers, employees at Douglas Aircraft manufacturing plant at SMO when it employed up to 44,000 people, who moved into low-cost homes built close-by, and helped turn Santa Monica into a blue-collar town.

But those times are past. Santa Monica is now one of the most expensive cities in the country and sides in this “war” include the merely affluent of Sunset Park and surrounding areas, and the West Side superrich who hop in and out of town on the aforementioned private jets.

As one company writes on its web site, “Land at Atlantic Aviation SMO, take a deep breath of fresh ocean air and leave the rest to us! Located in the heart of Santa Monica just three miles from the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic SMO is where beauty, convenience and world-class service intersect.”

Arguably the smell of jet fuel and the cloud of particulates that issue forth from every takeoff and landing taint that “fresh ocean air” (pollution is said to particularly impact a Mar Vista neighborhood downwind of SMO), contributing to nearby residents’ many frustrations with the airport.

Fans of the airport, which include many flying enthusiasts, cite its contributions to the economy now, its importance in emergencies and its historic role in the city — the first flights took place in early WWI biplanes when pilots used the site as an informal grass landing strip in 1919; in 1924 Douglas Aircraft Company’s World Cruiser biplanes became the first aircraft to successfully circumnavigate the earth.

The competing stakes now have passionate LC-supporters walking door to door, pro-D flyers and online advertising bombarding residents, and both sides tapping into locals’ fear of overdevelopment.

At the end of the day however, the question remains, even if LC wins the day, will the FAA relinquish its hold on its jewel on the Westside?

Read on for a Q and A about what’s at stake and why some local landscape architecture students have gotten in on the issue. Listen to this Which Way, LA? with Warren Olney for more on the story.

Design for park in place of SMO by USC landscape architecture student Chen Liu

What is Measure D? 

Measure D requires Voter approval “before a city decision to close or partially close the airport could become effective” and according to the City Attorney’s office, “the measure would take away from the City Council any ability to close or partially close the Airport or to change Airport land uses.” D is backed largely by well-funded pilots associations and claims to “let the voters decide,” saying that maintaining the airport will protect the “entire city of Santa Monica from high-rise canyons like Century City.”

What is Measure LC? 

Measure LC would affirm the City Council’s authority to manage SMO and to close all or part of it and it would amend the City Charter to prohibit new development on SMO land, except for parks, public open spaces, and public recreational facilities, until the voters approve limits on the uses and development that may occur on the land and . “This measure is expressly intended to compete with, prevail over, and nullify all provisions of a competing measure on the same ballot sponsored by aviation interests,” the City Attorney’s office stated.

LC was put on the ballot by the City council with support from residents groups, many of which like the idea of replacing the airport with a large public park even as D-supporters argue that LC is a backdoor way to let in largescale development.

The following answers are provided by representatives of the two campaigns.

If LC wins, does this mean the airport definitely closes?

LC: No — the City still has to navigate things with the FAA, which will litigate any attempt to close. But it means that any decisions made about the airport (SMO) are in the hands of the City, particularly when the current operating agreement with the FAA expires on July 1, 2015. These choices include closing part of SMO, reducing environmental impacts, raising rents on current taxpayer-subsidized leases to aviation services and eliminating leaded fuel sales. It’s important to note that no action has been taken by the City of Santa Monica to fully or partially close the airport.

D: No, the airport doesn’t close. Passage means the city charter is amended and the city council is permitted to close the airport in the name of local residents” health and welfare” but this is subject to continuing and eternal federal litigation.

If D wins, does this mean the airport remains in perpetuity?

LC: No.  But there is language in Measure D that requires even the most modest decision regarding airport management, such as eliminating highly-toxic leaded fuel sales, to be placed on the ballot for a vote.  Not just a regular vote, but a vote that would demand that a majority of voters turn out for the election and vote on the issue.

D: No, it means that any effort to close the airport must be approved by city residents — not just by the city council. We believe voters see the value of our 97 year-old municipal airport and will choose to keep it.

Many LC-supporters have tied closing the airport to replacing it with a park. Why?

LC: The City is very densely populated. 70% of our residents are renters and most renters in the City have no open space to call their own.  And demand for playing fields and other recreational facilities exceeds supply. So many people would like to take advantage of a once in a generation opportunity to convert the airport land, purchased by residents in 1926 via a bond issue for a park, into public open space usable by all rather than a few.

Santa Monica has 27 parks, three in the airport area, and a large beach. Why does it need a huge park there?

LC: Santa Monica has the least park space of cities our size in California. We currently have 1.39 acres of park space per 1,000 residents. By comparison, Manhattan Beach has well over 2 acres per 1000 residents, Santa Barbara has 4.03 acres and Santa Cruz has a whopping 12.30 acres. Given how expensive and challenging it is to acquire large parcels of land in our city, the airport land we already own presents a unique opportunity to address our shortage of park space and to address the need for youth playing fields, senior recreational facilities and other community goals.

What if a voter wants local control for the airport but would like to see development of the land? Does he or she vote for LC?

LC: They should vote for LC and advocate for the development they desire. But since Santa Monica’s governing land use document calls for protecting residential neighborhoods and concentrating new development downtown and on commercial corridors near the future Expo light rail line, development at SMO is highly unlikely.

What if a voter likes the airport but agrees it should reduce the number of flights and larger planes? Is that a possible outcome with either measure?

LC: Not possible with D, possible with LC. Measure D was specifically drafted to ensure jet flights, jet fuel sales and continued jet landings at the Airport – it preserves the status quo and the opportunity for even greater numbers of flight operations.

D: It’s possible but more probable with the passage of  D. No Jets and keeping the airport open can co-exist.

If D wins will airport supporters do anything to address residents’ concerns about noise, pollution and safety? Or is the measure intended to preempt any attempts at limiting activity at the airport?

D: Absolutely not. Measure D contains no “managerial” elements or language and is not in any way designed to preempt limits on activity at the airport. Aviators have been, are, and will continue to work diligently towards addressing noise, pollution and safety issues at the airport.

The city’s settlement agreement with the FAA is set to expire in 2015. What are the real chances of the FAA giving up control of the airport? Is this campaign moot?

LC. Washington, D.C. aviation lobbyists would not have put Measure D on the ballot and spent almost $1 million unless they had a very real concern the FAA might be prepared to give up control of the airport. So no, the campaign is not moot. Measure D, financed by out-of-state special interests, cedes control of the airport while Measure LC, with a campaign funded by local residents, preserves local control over our future options.

D. Unlikely. Santa Monica airport provides vital secondary and emergency access to the heart of Los Angeles. Furthermore, the document set to expire on July 1, 2015, is the 1984 SMO “Operating” Agreement. The FAA has stated repeatedly that the airport must remain.  The 1984 Operating Agreement has nothing to do the the 1948 Instrument of Transfer which returned the airport and its 5000’ runway, built with millions of Federal tax dollars in 1941, back to the City after WWII.

Do you have to vote yes on one, and no on the other?

LC: No, voters can vote either way on each one.

D: The two are diametrically opposed.

Is LC a way for the city council members to establish themselves as anti-development, after the Hines fight?

LC: Not at all. It’s important to remember that Measure D came first, with lots of disingenuous posturing and rhetoric about how the City Council had ambitious development plans for SMO, despite the complete absence of any such intentions having been stated publicly or privately. Measure LC was simply a response to the Measure D propaganda.

D sounds as if it is about stopping development, but is it not really about keeping the airport open in perpetuity?

D: D is also about restraining the SM city council — which is out of control. Have you been downtown lately? Every airport closure in history is about redevelopment of airport land, nothing more and nothing less.

These competing measures are very confusing to a lot of people. Is the initiative process making it more so?

D: The initiative process is stimulating discussion.

Landscape Architects Enter The Debate  

There are a number of community groups in Santa Monica that support closing or limiting flight activities at the airport. One of them is Airport2Park, a nonprofit whose goal is to transform the entire site into a public park. To that end they worked together with students in USC’s landscape architecture department, and their professor Aroussiak Gabrielian, in envisioning what form that park might take.

Last week some of the students presented their designs in an exhibition titled “Reimagining Santa Monica Airport – Part 1.” Check out the designs below by graduate students, Christopher Sison, Chen Liu, Zeek Magallanes and Yongdan Chunyu.

Zeek Magallanes (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Christopher Sison (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Yongdan Chunyu (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)