NEW USE? The future of the embattled Santa Monica Airport may be as a park if a new group has anything to say about it. (Brandon Wise
NEW USE? The future of the embattled Santa Monica Airport may be as a park if a new group has anything to say about it. (Brandon Wise

SMO — If some people have their way, airplanes at Santa Monica Airport will be replaced with hiking and jogging trails and children’s playgrounds., a coalition of community groups and neighbors working to close SMO, recently formed based on the idea of turning airport land into a park.

The group, which was founded by Frank Gruber, John Fairweather, Jonathan Stein and others, has about 30 active members and envisions a grand park that could include activities for seniors, gardens and art work, with current buildings that could be used as creative and art spaces, thus providing rent to support maintenance of the park’s operations.

Residents living around the airport have been pressuring city officials for years to either curtail operations at SMO or close it down completely because of a lack of runway safety areas and concerns about air and noise pollution. Some homes are located within 300 feet of the main runway.

City officials believe they are obligated to keep SMO open at least until July 1, 2015 as part of an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that was signed after City Hall accepted federal grant money for airport improvements and repairs.

Santa Monicans have prepared for that closure date by engaging in a “visioning process,” a three-phase effort that looked at what the airport provides to the community in terms of economic output, what people like and dislike about it and what they want to see there in the future.

“We want to create a fantastic big park on the Westside of L.A. and we feel it can be financed and there will be operating revenues that will come from the repurposing of existing development on the airport,” Gruber, event chair, said. “We don’t have a big urban city park.”

One of the reasons to form the group was to create a “political context” for it, he said.

“The main obstacle is the federal government,” Gruber said.

In the FAA’s view, City Hall is obligated to keep Santa Monica Airport open through 2023 under assurances it gave in exchange for federal Airport Improvement Program grants, said Ian Gregor, FAA spokesman.

“The FAA also believes that the city is separately obligated to operate Santa Monica Airport beyond 2023 because it acquired the land on which the airport is located cost free from the federal government in 1948 under an instrument of transfer pursuant to the Surplus Property Act,” Gregor said in an e-mail. “The FAA is fully committed to preserving the federal investment and keeping this airport open and operating, including specific performance of these obligations.”

The formation of the airport park group came out of discussions from an April City Council meeting in which the council asked city officials to look into the idea of creating more open space, Gruber said.

The council told city officials to also look into a series of recommendations by the Airport Commission that included ceasing the sale of aviation fuel and ending leases with businesses that negatively impact the community, but most dramatic would be the removal of an 18-acre parcel owned by City Hall that would cut runway length and possibly prevent large planes from landing at the airport. Commissioners held that much of that could happen as soon as 2015.

Gruber said the ultimate goal is to transform the entire airport property.

The airport’s future will be discussed by the City Council next spring, said Stelios Makrides, acting airport manager.

“At that time, if council chooses, they will direct us with what they want to do with Santa Monica Airport,” Makrides said.

Joe Justice, owner and operator of Justice Aviation, a flight school located at SMO, said the text of the original transfer says if the FAA doesn’t want the land the airport sits on, City Hall would then have the right to purchase it from the federal government.

“That seems to be forgotten at all the meetings,” Justice said. “I wonder if all the Santa Monica citizens are wanting to spend $2 billion to make it a park. I personally don’t think the city of Santa Monica currently has the money to buy the residual land.”

Justice said if City Hall wanted to transform airport land into a park, “they should have all their ducks in a row before they close it as an airport.” Or, he said City Hall could find itself walking in the same footsteps as Orange County officials who wanted to transform the former El Toro Marine Base into a grand park. After a decade of planning, the park and adjacent housing are just starting to come together.

“The city has already proposed closing the businesses around it so obviously flight schools won’t be here if they get their way,” Justice said. “Nobody who flies wants the city’s’ plan to take effect.”

Park advocates want to create momentum to ensure the airport land is park space, said Cathy Larson, chairman of the Airport Committee for Friends of Sunset Park. She attended a meeting the park coalition held in the summer.

“I think in an urban area, the residents always want park space, especially in our community there is a high demand for playing fields,” Larson said.

The community would likely embrace the recreational facilities since those amenities are difficult to come by in an urban area, she added.

The coalition will host a bike tour of the 96-year-old airfield on Sept. 15 to get residents more familiar with the space. The bike ride will take residents around the 227-acre parcel and begin at 10 a.m. at the southwest corner of Clover Park.

There will also be a workshop, “From Airport to Park: Turning Santa Monica Airport into a Park for Everyone,” on Oct. 3 at 6 p.m. at the Mount Olive Church on Ocean Park Boulevard.

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