PROPERTY: The site is currently the Santa Monica Airport but with an approaching potential closure date, it could become something else in the near future. Courtesy photo

Following the City Council’s vote to move ahead with the process of planning for a future park where the Santa Monica Airport is currently located, the issue of what to do with the 227 acre site has once again been propelled into public scrutiny. At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2028, the form and function of this substantial swath of land could significantly change.

In essence, the debate falls into two distinct camps: one is that the airport should remain open and the other is that the airport should close and the site be developed into a “park” of one sort or another. Each side offers a variety of different reasons behind their argument and we will be exploring the validity of those in a forthcoming feature.

However, in order to understand the fundamental factors at play, it’s necessary to provide some explanation of the legal and political terminology involved. To begin with, it’s worth remembering that prior to January 2017, there had been decades of different legal battles being fought between the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) for a variety of reasons, including efforts to mitigate noise and pollution and the attempted ban on larger and faster category C and D aircraft. Then a deal called the Consent Decree was struck between the two feuding government bodies that nullified all of these with two specific stipulations.

Santa Monica Airport, runway looking N to S
Looking South towards the Pacific Ocean along the runway at Santa Monica Airport with Barker Hangar on the left hand side

The first was that the FAA agreed to let the City shorten the runway from 4,925 ft to 3,500 ft, effectively preventing most large jet-powered aircraft from using the airport. The second was that the airport returned to City control on December 31, 2028, thus opening up the potential for the airport to actually close. This sets the stage to extensively plan for the future of the 227-acre site and creates an opportunity to invite community participation in designing what may be the greatest transformative event of this century for the City of Santa Monica and perhaps the region.

A piece of terminology that you might hear, is a reference to something called Measure LC (short for Local Control). This was passed by Santa Monica voters in 2014 and allows the City Council to approve the development of parks, public open spaces and public recreational facilities. However, new development is prohibited on Santa Monica Airport (often referred to by its FAA designation, SMO) land that is permanently closed to aviation use — unless voters approve limits on the uses and development that may occur on the land. In other words, it requires voter approval for any alternate or new developments on the airport land, except for parks, open space and recreational areas.

Another issue that will probably complicate matters is zoning. The purpose of zoning is to allow local and national authorities to regulate and control land and property markets to ensure complementary uses. Zoning can also provide the opportunity to stimulate or slow down development in specific areas. The airport remains unzoned however, it actually straddles both the City of Santa Monica and the City of Los Angeles and approximately 20 acres of the northeastern-most corner of the site rests in Mar Vista. Quite what the political and legal ramifications of this are going forward remains to be seen.

How the
How the significant parcel of land that makes up the total site of the airport is divided between Santa Monica and Los Angeles

The airport is home to both aviation and non-aviation industries within the 227 acre site, which is made up of 187 acres of open space, including the runway, car parks and areas for aircraft storage, together with 40 acres of existing buildings, such as Barker Hangar, the Museum of Flying and the Airport Arts Campus and many others. The site incorporates recreational facilities, arts, culture, education, retail and even a restaurant. There are 166 businesses in total, covering 43 different sectors, generating approximately $20million in annual revenue.

In essence there are two proposed alternatives to the airport: The first is the aforementioned park, which is non-revenue generating and could be potentially costly to build and maintain. The second is what’s called “mixed use,” which is revenue generating and could include housing elements together with both retail and commercial space.

Finally, it’s important to mention something called the Surplus Lands Act and while it isn’t a significant factor at this stage, by the time December 2028 rolls around, it might be. In short, it’s a California law that requires all local governments to offer surplus land for sale or lease to affordable home developers and certain other entities before selling or leasing the land to any other individual or entity. As with any law, it is altered, adjusted and amended over time and a concern is that when the next round of housing-dedicated space allocation is undertaken (referred to as Housing Element) in 2029, the site could, potentially, be required to be handed over for residential development and very little else.

Each element in the argument

“For many, it is a revered premise, filled with history, the home of Douglas Aircraft and so many others who contributed, and still contribute, to the growth of aviation in the world,” said Robert J. Young, former Vice President of the Santa Monica Airport Association.

“With many Silicon Valley companies moving here, this airport should be a crown jewel. Why not a focal point and hub for the coming air taxis and VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing] aircraft in development? Why not connect with Playa Vista and make it an accessible and profitable field for many who have business here nearby? Once the concrete is gone, an airport won’t be built to replace it,” Young said.

One of the aviation-related companies based at the airport is Angel Flight West, a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization that arranges free, non-emergency air transportation within the 12 Western states for children and adults with serious medical conditions and other compelling needs.

“After cost, transportation is the biggest barrier to accessing health care and the need is massive,” says Josh Olson, Executive Director, Angel Flight West. “We envision a future of Santa Monica Airport that continues to provide that lifeline to patients in need of treatment using clean and sustainable energy and emerging aviation technologies. We’ve seen miracles happen in the lives of our passengers thanks and we believe SMO can continue to innovate in aviation and affect positive change in our community.”

Barker Hangar
Barker Hangar, one of the most well-known event venues in the whole of Los Angeles is located at the Santa Monica Airport

A non-profit organization called the Airport2Park Foundation currently spearheads the debate on the side of closing Santa Monica Airport and, as the name suggests, argues the case of turning the site into either a dedicated park or a mixed use space.

As it states on their website, “A park could provide for recreation and sports; trails and facilities for walking, hiking, jogging, and cycling; playgrounds for children; activities for seniors; artworks, gardens, and the recreating of natural habitat. Airport buildings on Airport Avenue could become arts and cultural facilities. Buildings north of the runway now used for aircraft operations could become space for tech incubators; the rents to the city for these uses can support park operations. A park will also allow for improvement of north-south street connections to improve traffic circulation.”

John Fairweather, President & CTO of MitoSystems Inc. in Santa Monica and a key member of the Airport2Park Foundation said, “While there will be forces trying to create alternate futures for the airport site, the length and cost of the struggle so far for control of that land means that continuing the status quo is inconceivable, and as for other uses, we have Measure LC, now part of the City Charter, prohibiting all but park, cultural, and recreational uses without a vote of the general electorate.”

The Daily Press reached out to every member of Council, giving them the chance to comment on the debate as it currently stands. Not everyone responded however. Councilmember Phil Brock confirmed that he supported the cessation of flying activities at the airport. “We have not begun to secure any funding for a partial or total creation of park facilities. However, a park can be created over a period of years, if not decades and that is why the public process has begun,” Brock said.

“The creation of housing or any other development on airport land is at least six years away and the results of the 2014 election show that planning development on the property initially purchased by a park bond will be no easy task. I urge future developers who appear to be salivating at the possibility of developing the vast parcel of SMO land to respect our voters’ will.”

The Santa Monica Airport reimagined as a park
An architect’s rendering of just one possibility where the Santa Monica Airport site is turned into a mixed use park

Councilmember Jesse Zwick also expressed support in developing the site. “It’s such a rare opportunity for a city and a prosperous part of town where real estate values are so high to have a blank canvas; 227 acres that we can decide the best public use for. My stance is that we should close the airport. That’s the first debate that seems relatively settled, but won’t fully be until 2028. There are plenty of people who would love to keep it open.”

The all-important date of transfer is still more than five years and nine months away and alot can — and invariably will — happen between now and then. Many of the councilmembers we have currently elected today won’t even sit on the City Council at that point.

“As with any project of this scale and significance, there are multiple pressures that the City will need to navigate,” Said Peter James, Chief Operations Officer, City of Santa Monica.

“We have enumerated a number of these external forces in our early outreach to residents and the Council — including State laws mandating housing production, the Surplus Lands Act that is evolving to take a more aggressive posture towards public lands to accommodate growth in California — and the politics of change within our own city,” James said.

“Although there are already some great ideas out there for reuse of the Airport, finding consensus on a pathway to change is a challenging endeavor that must be carefully decided through a public and transparent process that involves all members of our community.”

Avatar photo

Scott Snowden

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.