Last week, I wrote about City Councilman Bob Holbrook’s theory that "deep-pocketed" aviation interests may enter local politics and back pro-Santa Monica Airport candidates for City Council pledged to keep SMO open and even expand it as an aviation center.
Personally, I don’t think the city-owned airport will ever close. Here’s why. There’s been aviation activity there for nearly 100 years. Small plane traffic is on the rise. More than ever, the Federal Aviation Administration needs to direct small craft away from LAX to smaller regional airfields.
There are many small private and municipal airports in the L.A. area — and in or near most major cities, nationwide. There’s always a threat of accidents or mishaps like when you drive down a street or a freeway. Most airport problems aren’t a big concern to most "North of Pico" residents.
SMO’s accident rate is neither high or abnormal although much more must be done to insure its neighbors’ safety and minimize noise and pollution.
SMO is a business center as well as a vital resource for medical emergency transport, disaster preparedness and response. It will play a key regional roll after a major earthquake or terrorist incident. It’s important for local and national security.
After the Holbrooks and I recently discussed the airport, I wondered, "What if the airport were to close in the next five to 15 years? Then what?”
Alternative uses for airport land are not in residents’ favor. The 227-acre hilltop is probably one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in the western United States If City Hall were to sell or lease it, major redevelopment is inevitable. The property is just too valuable for anything else.
I’ve been told by commercial real estate expert Joseph Palazzolo that the property’s dollar value would be determined by its “development rights” or what can be built there. Recreational space or a golf course would have "less than $0 value" wherein a large commercial center with big box retailers or a mixed-use office complex complete with high-end condos could make it worth hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the size and scale of the projects.
The sale or long-term lease of the site would surely attract multi-national mega-developers or a real estate consortium. Palazzolo points out that any potential buyers would need zoning approval or a development agreement in hand before any purchase or lease deal with City Hall is finalized.
Politically speaking, it would cost peanuts to "buy" City Hall and elect handpicked candidates to the City Council who would establish a special zoning district or other consideration paving the way for extensive, large developments
Four years go, developer-backed interests raised $800,000 to defeat the grassroots led Measure T, a slow growth, anti-traffic, ballot initiative that would have temporarily put the brakes on commercial development — including a half dozen current Mid-City projects — had it been approved.
Since then, five out of seven council members who consistently support major development have also been elected. Top campaign spenders usually win local elections because politically naive Santa Monica voters respond to lots of expensive, glossy mailers. Imagine the result if millions of dollars were spent on political campaigns and public relations for a $100 million development on SMO’s hilltop?
Any such project would obviously feature acres of neighborhood-friendly parks, wide sidewalks, market rate and affordable housing, entertainment and retail uses. It would also have to be sustainable as well as bicycle and pedestrian friendly. You can also bet the backers won’t be overly accommodating to neighborhood demands, especially with hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars at stake.
With deep-pocketed, powerful real estate interests involved, there will be pressure to build to the absolute max. Target or a Walmart Super Center, a vast array of condos and apartments or a "world class," international corporate/retail/financial center — whatever it is, it’ll rake in millions for its investors and City Hall.
For comparison, London’s Docklands is a 97-acre estate with 14.1 million square feet of corporate office and retail space employing over 90,000 people. It’s home to many of the UK’s biggest corporations.
Russia’s Moscow City is a 150-acre former industrial site undergoing billions of dollars in redevelopment. It features numerous high rises and promises tens of thousands of daily employees, residents and visitors.
La Defense in Paris is an ultra-modern 77.5-acre business district with numerous multistory office buildings, 37.7 million square feet of office space and 180,000 workers. Parisians, like Santa Monicans, don’t like tall buildings but La Defense is filled with them.
Airport “improvements” will generate huge amounts of new traffic and pollution from tens of thousands of additional vehicles plus 10 to 20 years of construction-related dirt, noise and pollutants affecting surrounding residential neighborhoods.
SMO may be the Emerald City of the future. City Hall will become wealthy beyond imagination. But, will we be better off without the airplanes?
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org