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Airport Plan Takes Off

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By Jorge Casuso

January 25, 2023 -- The City Council late Tuesday night began planning for the future of Santa Monica Airport (SMO), "a thousand year project," one top City official said, that "is just too much to imagine."

The process the Council embarked on with a 7 to 0 vote promises to turn into a political and highly volatile tug-of-war over the 227-acre site that on December 31, 2028 will cease functioning as an airport.

Santa Monica Airport map
Courtesy City of Santa Monica

Once the world's busiest single-runway airport and the site of major advances in aviation, SMO will soon become "one of the largest underutilized parcels in the Los Angeles area," said Peter James, the City's Chief Operations officer.

“This will require a far reaching vision that goes beyond the lifetime of every single person in this room" and "is likely to be the most transformative urban planning event of the century for the City,” James said.

But the large swathe of land on the southeast edge of Santa Monica -- which takes up 4.3 percent of city -- is not a blank slate.

In 2014, local voters approved a ballot measure that allows the Council to approve "the development of parks, public open spaces, and public recreational facilities" and replace and maintain "cultural, arts, and education uses."

Measure LC prohibits new development on land "unless voters approve limits on the uses and development that may occur on the land," City officials note.

Airport2Park, an organization pushing for a "Great Park" on the land, say the airport's closure presents a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to "be visionary now."

"We as a city and community united, absolutely can and will do this!" the group wrote in a letter to the Council that provides funding options. "Let’s be bold!"

But City officials aren't nearly as optimistic about the prospects of funding the creation and ongoing maintenance of a major park.

"At present, the City does not have (nor will it likely have in the near future) the General Fund resources to create and maintain such a very low-density use of this valuable property," City staff wrote in a report to the Council.

This is true "particularly in this post-redevelopment and post-pandemic era that witnessed the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars from City reserves."

City officials estimate the design, demolition, and construction costs of a large park "would far exceed several hundred million dollars and might well be multiples of that."

And yearly operational costs "would also be in the millions."

The City is currently trying to recover nearly $100 million it used from its General Fund to settle sex abuse cases filed by some 90 plaintiffs and is facing new suits filed by another hundred plaintiffs ("City Seeks to Recoup Nearly $100 Million in Sex Abuse Settlement Costs," January 9., 2023).

The City also must plan to build 8,895 housing units, 6,168 of them affordable, by the end of 2029 in order to meet a state mandate that, if not met, carries major penalties ("SPECIAL REPORT -- Housing Plan Delays Led to Loss of Local Control," October 14, 2022).

As a result, some Councilmembers are reportedly viewing the airport land as a possible source of revenue and a potential site for housing if voters approve a new ballot measure.

There is also a push to continue using the land as an airport, an option that could provide common ground for aviation interests and slow-growth advocates.

At Tuesday's meeting, Councilmember Oscar de la Torre noted that 40 percent of the voters opposed LC, indicating a large base of support for retaining airport use.

"The future of flying is going to be electric aircraft," de la Torre said. "Maybe there's a way to eliminate noise pollution and air pollution. Maybe there's room for that."

While the Council was eager to launch the process, James noted that "one thing we do have right now is time."

To match the scope of the project, Councilmembers want the public process to include not only local residents, but those in the region who will use a park.

The City must "expand the model of who participates" and come up with "bold and innovative ways" to gather input during the first phase of the process, said Councilmember Jesse Zwick.

This should include scientific polling and innovative outreach efforts that engage residents across a broad "geographic, demographic and economic" spectrum, Zwick said.

There is $1 million earmarked for the process in the current fiscal budget, $250,000 in the next fiscal budget and another $3 million in the 2025-26 budget, James said.

A Request for Qualifications (RFQ) will be issued in early 2023 "that solicits interest from qualified firms or multi-disciplinary teams to assist the City in developing a public-facing process," City officials said.

A subsequent Request for Proposal (RFP) will "involve input from the community so that residents and other stakeholders have the opportunity to articulate their interests in how the planning process is shaped from inception," officials said.

"We are in this for the long haul," said Mayor Gleam Davis.

"What we do is not for us," said Councilmember Phil Brock. "It's for future generations."

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