Santa Monica Airport (SMO) faces an uncertain future as City Councilmembers voted unanimously to utilize the space to create a park potentially comparable to Central Park in New York or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Tuesday night’s Council meeting had already overrun as a result of returning to the study session later than anticipated from a closed session before Chief Operations Officer Peter James laid out the proposals for the airport in an extremely comprehensive presentation.
“Thank you for spending time with us tonight to learn more about our proposal to begin the reimagining process for the Santa Monica airport,” James said. “Everything in this presentation was timed at about 32 minutes, but I’m going to … try to get through as quickly as possible in support of the few brain cells we have remaining,” he added, lightening the mood in chambers somewhat.
“Before we jump into the content itself, I wanted to set a few expectations that will be really important for us to carry as we embark on this journey,” James said. “And the first is that finding consensus on a preferred scenario for the future of the airport will take time because — as we’ve seen in our own advanced planning efforts over the past several years, as well as in other communities that have wrestled with airport conversions, or military base conversions, or the reuse of large public parcels — the planning process can last from a few years, if you’re lucky, up to 25 years and implementation can, and will, span decades.”
James provided Councilmembers with an extremely thorough background and history of the airport. Originally known as Clover Field, SMO was, at one time, the busiest single-runway airport in the world. It played a pivotal role in aviation history and the Douglas DC-1, the prototype predecessor of the DC-3, was developed here. This was the first plane that could profitably carry only passengers without relying on mail subsidies and could fly from New York to Los Angeles in just 18 hours, requiring only three stops along the way.
More recently, it became internationally known through its use by celebrities and the accidental exploits of actor Harrison Ford after he was forced to make an emergency landing at a neighboring golf course.
The 1947 Instrument of Transfer meant that the Federal government had assurance on its lease of SMO and that it would continue to operate through 2023, when the position could be reviewed. This agreement remained in place despite objections from Santa Monica City.
In January 2017, under a consent agreement made between the United States of America, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and Santa Monica City agreed that all outstanding disputes be resolved and all claims by the Federal government be relinquished and that the City had the potential power, upon review six years later, to cease all aviation operations effective as of midnight on December 31, 2028.
“This consent decree legally obligates us to maintain the airport until the beginning of 2029, at which time the city can either elect to continue operations as has been suggested tonight or transition the land to other uses,” James said.
The airport sits at the south-eastern edge of the city and covers a total of 227 acres (approximately 10 million sq ft) 187 acres of that is open space, such as runways and parking lots and the remaining 40 acres is taken up by existing buildings. It is home to 166 businesses across 43 industry sectors, from aviation to cultural uses, including a museum, theater and art center.
James stressed the importance of sustainability and environmental concern. “There have been several questions in the community about why are we doing this now, when the airport’s not closing for another five years; why spend all this time and this money when there are other fires raging?” James said.
To answer that rhetorical question, he presented a slide to the Council quoting an ancient Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
“We expect that the community will come forward with a staggering array of theoretical possibilities for the use of the land in addition to a great park concept,” James said. “This will require a far reaching vision that goes beyond the lifetime of every single person left in this room and those watching at home. As this project is likely to be the most transformative urban planning event of the century for the City of Santa Monica.”
It is hoped that throughout this year proposals and project initiation will be heard by the Council throughout 2023 with every alternative and concept being explored in the next two years before a final decision is made in 2026.
Given the late hour following James’ engaging presentation, Mayor Gleam Davis opted to keep the comments to a minimum and instead focus on any questions councilmembers might have. However, no significant questions or issues were raised.
After thanking James for his presentation, Councilmember Caroline Torosis said, “I feel very clear on what the approach is and why it’s really important that we get a specific plan going, that we have a plan in place so we don’t have a situation where we have an airport that’s closed and sitting vacant for years. So I think it’s important that we move forward with all expediency.
“I think that we want to make sure that this is a space for everyone, that it’s very clear that all are welcome and that there’s information about all the different cultures and amazing things that make Santa Monica unique and fantastic,” she added.
Councilmember Phil Brock remarked on how much he liked the ancient Chinese proverb and thanked James, while Councilmember Oscar de la Torre reaffirmed the need for transparency during the community outreach and research.
“In addition to adding my thanks I want to add that I think we’re in this for the long haul,” Mayor Gleam Davis said. “There will be differences of opinion at various points and stages and the way we’re going to get to the best outcome for the City of Santa Monica, is if we all commit ourselves to this, but we also have to do it in a respectful way.”
The Council voted unanimously seven to zero to proceed with the park planning process and to confirm that the proposed scope, including existing conditions, diverse and inclusive outreach and alternative development, is sufficient to support the city’s interest in identifying the preferred scenario.
This story was updated to reflect that the Council voted unanimously to move ahead with the process of planning for a future park at the airport site.