SMO — Pilots and residents have been vocal about the uncertain future of Santa Monica Airport but changes could also greatly impact the dozens of organizations and businesses that call the airport land home.
All leases expire by or before July of next year and some tenants say that the constant state of flux makes it hard to operate today.
Earlier this week, City Council voted to study options for the airport that include shortening the runway, raising all rents to market rate, and offering five-year leases with five one-year options to tenants.
Several contracts from different years dating back to World War II govern the airport land. The Federal Aviation Administration believes that one key lease expires in 2023 and that another obligates City Hall to operate the land as an airport indefinitely. City Hall maintains that they’re out of the deal in July of next year.
Nearby residents have long complained about the noise and pollution caused by jets and propellor planes. Others fear for their safety as homes are located about 300 feet from the runway.
Advocates of the airport point to a City Hall-funded study showing that SMO brings $275 million to the city every year.
Typhoon, a restaurant that sits adjacent to the runway on City Hall-owned airport land, has been there since 1991 and employs 32 people. Jack Griffith, who’s been a manager there for 15 years, said that it’s hard to make plans for or invest in a property whose lease City Hall could refuse to renew.
“It’s very shortsighted of them,” he said. “Maybe it’s part of their strangulation policy to make the airport irrelevant.”
Griffith believes that council’s recent decision, along with last year’s decision to increase landing fees, is all a part of an attempt to make the airport undesirable for pilots, ultimately leading to its closure.
Many of Typhoon’s customers are pilots, he said, and the landing fees have already cut back on restaurant business.
“Not many people are flying in anymore and there’s not as much activity from the pilots themselves that are based here so they’re only taking off and landing when they absolutely must,” Griffith said.
Its proximity to the airport is key for Typhoon, Griffith said, and if they get booted they might not reopen elsewhere.
“I think the owner rather insists on being at an airport,” he said. “And I don’t think there would be enough capital available at this point with the state of the economy and our business being seriously affected by that so I think we’d probably have to just close up.”
Michael Myers, associate director at the Ruskin School of Acting, also noted that it can be hard for tenants to invest in the in-flux properties. Still, he has faith in City Hall.
“If you look at what City Hall has done with creative capital, it’s clearly a priority,” he said. “It’d be nice to have some clarity but I believe that eventually we will.”
Myers is not overly concerned with the possibility of market rate rents because, he said, as the rents have risen with inflation the artists are already getting close.
In 2000, most of the artists got subsidized rates from City Hall but, Myers said, they were all World War II-era hangars without heat or water.
“All of the artists here at the airport are of course concerned because everyone has put in a lot of sweat equity and personal time and they don’t want to lose all of that,” he said.
Angel Flight West, a nonprofit that flies patients in need of medical transport to and from airports near hospitals, has overseen the entire western operation of the organization from a nine-employee office on the SMO grounds. They’ve been at the airport for 31 years.
Josh Olson, incoming executive director, said that Santa Monica is a key location for them.
“We operate a virtual office, so we could theoretically move elsewhere, but we like to have direct contact with our pilots who are often coming in and out of the airport,” he said.
About 500 of the 4,000 annual flights that Angel Flight West oversees come in through SMO.
UCLA’s medical centers are some of the biggest partners for Angel Flight West. LAX is prohibitive for private flights, he said. Other airports, like Hawthorne Municipal Airport, are too far from the Westside’s medical hub.
If they had to switch offices, he said, they could lose their roughly 50 local volunteers.
Eric Hanson, who owns xRez Studio, a creative imaging and visual effects production house located on airport property, said he knew the space was temporary when he moved in.
“We were given fair warning,” he said. “We intend to stay as long as possible but it’s not like we have expectations.”
Hanson also owns property next to the airport and said he’d like to see the jets go but doesn’t mind the propellor planes.
“The noise and the fumes rolling over our house are the big issue,” he said. “Weirdly enough we experience less noise here than we do at home. We’re real happy to be here and have had nothing but great experiences with the airport.”