Riders listen to Frank Gruber as planes and jets idled and landed. All images via Bryan "Orange" Baretta/Santa Monica Spoke. For more pics from the ride, click here.
Riders listen to Frank Gruber as planes and jets idled and landed. All images via Bryan “Orange” Beretta/Santa Monica Spoke. For more pics from the ride, click here.

By design and by coincidence, it was a day of contrasts.

On one hand, you have a group of roughly fifty advocates riding bicycles, many of whom are involved in local civic organizations snaking in a pattern across the outside of an airport, occasionally listening to Loyal Marymount Professor Michael Brodsky, Santa Monica Spoke leader Cynthia Rose or community activist and lawyer Frank Gruber, one of the co-chairs of Santa Monica Airport 2 Park. On the other, you had airplane owners and renters flying high above the community, maybe taking in the view of the city. Maybe just flying by.

On one hand, you have a small park, teeming with children playing, families picnicking, and soccer teams racing towards the goal. On the other, you have a gigantic airstrip in the middle of a mostly residential area, that happens to share a fence with the aforementioned park. Brodsky estimated that there were 250 people at the park, at 10 in the morning, when the ride began. By contrast, there would be about 500 people total that would use the airport in some way, shape, or form.

One one hand, you had the smiling advocates politely moving out of the way of automobile traffic accessing the airport. On another, you had a mazaratti driver smirking at and complaining about the rabble in his way as he and his daughter (girlfriend?) drove past.

Yes, it was a day of contrasts. It was also the start of a serious campaign to change the way the Santa Monica Airport is used by and for the community. In the words of Rose, “This isn’t a protest, it’s a discussion.”

Riders gather at the start of the ride.
Riders gather at the start of the ride.
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Brodsky and Gruber played the roles of good cop/bad cop throughout the half-dozen-stop tour of the airport. Brodsky lamented the environmental and social costs of so much public land being used for the least sustainable type of transportation while Gruber outlined a plan of action to bring about change and gave an abbreviated history lesson on the aiport. Over a dozen times, they were interrupted by aircraft noise that drowned out their words, despite each of them using a megaphone.

But the brewing battle over the Santa Monica Airport’s future is more complicated than a simple 99% vs the 1%. Yesterday’s crowd wasn’t a collection of motley advocates that you would expect to see at Critical Mass. I would estimate the median age of riders was in the 40’s or 50’s and included lawyers, a City of Santa Monica Planning Commissioner, middle class families, and even an airplane owner.

Supporters of keeping the airport open aren’t just Film and Television Industry Executives and Donald Trump wanna-bees, but working class flight instructors (some of whom pledged to come to Airport 2 Park’s next event to learn more) and small business owners that surround the airport who worry that change will harm their business.

But the first step of Airport 2 Park isn’t about closing the entire airfield, it’s about shortening the runway by 2000 feet to build some park space. Incidentally, at that space, the airport can no longer land jets (as opposed to the one and two propeller planes that the airport was originally designed for) and reclaiming some of the hangers for artists studios.

On July 1, 2015, the City of Santa Monica’s agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that allows for a 5,000 foot runway and the lease of buildings on airport property for aviation use expires. To prepare for this opportunity, the City held a series of small meetings to discuss planning for the airport space in 2012. Earlier this year,  the City Council directed city staff to investigate reclaiming from the airport the “Quitclaim Parcel,” which includes the western 2,000 feet of the airport’s 5,000-foot runway, when the City’s 1984 agreement with the FAA expires.

Supporters of keeping the airport open to all users, including private jets, argue that the airport is an economic engine for the region. However, Brodsky pointed out that while there may be some jobs that will be repurposed, the City as a whole isn’t seeing a benefit from the Airport. While the issue of jobs wasn’t a central one on yesterday’s ride, the idea of dramatically changing the space at the airport and usage of the hangar space for arts, high technology and small business could more than offset any job loss.

“Every year that the airport can’t meet its obligations to the city, it’s another $1.5 million subsidy,” he claimed of the airport’s $15 million in unmet fees owed to the city over the last decade. “For the record, the Big Blue Bus, which moves thousands of people sustainably, does not get a subsidy from the city.”

A recent study conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and funded by the EPA found elevated levels of lead near runway sites and surrounding communities, but at levels that are still below federal and state standards. Brodsky brought in an expert to show lead poisoning in his front yard caused by jet fume pollution. Former Los Angeles City Council Member Bill Rosendahl led protests onto the tarmac against airport operations. “There is no buffer between the airport and my constituents’ lungs,” he told Streetsblog (and the Los Angeles Times) in 2011.

Virtually, unmentioned in yesterday’s dreaming was the Federal Aviation Administration, the federal agency determined to keep the airport open despite the unhealthy conditions it creates for the hundreds of thousands of people within breathing distance of the airport. In the past the FAA has sued to stop Santa Monica from enforcing noise and other bans arguing that they were “stealth bans” on jets.

“As we ride past the children’s playground, you’ll notice they’re not more than 25 feet from airplanes which are powered by lead gasoline. Led gasoline was allowed for automobiles in the 1970’s, but it’s still allowed in airplanes,” Brodsky noted at the start of the ride. True to his word, there were several stops where park space and airport space nearly overlapped.

I was standing next to Baretta when he took this picture. My back was to a park fence.
I was standing next to Beretta when he took this picture. My back was to a park fence.

On April 23, 2007, the city of Santa Monica passed a resolution to shorten the runway by a total of 1,200 feet—600 feet at each end. When the city tried to enforce this, the FAA took them to federal court where a compromise was reached. Whether the FAA would step in again is unknown, but it’s hard not to see them choosing to get involved again.

Because the airport was once an army airport, during the world wars, it is considered federal “surplus property.” To the FAA that seems to mean that it should be open for use to all airport users. Whether they would seek legal relief against plans to shorten the runway to 3,000 feet, which would basically end the airport’s use as a landing area for the jets of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, or vacationing casino magnates.

Joining them is the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The advocacy group worries if a community is able to close all or a portion of the airport that it will prove an important benchmark for other communities who place air quality for the hundreds of thousands  over the rights of a few hundred people to fly airplanes wherever they want to. AOPA has its own web page on the Santa Monica Airport, which has not been updated since 2011.

Of course, there are many ways that the airport could be improved. One of yesterday’s riders, Eric Weinstein, is a tireless advocate for a bike path around the airport property. The airport itself has its own sustainability plan to improve conditions around the airport. It doesn’t include creating more park space, although the airport points to the 8.3 acre “airport park” as an example of its own good neighbor policy.

There are truly many obstacles to overcome before something as transformative as turning an airport into a large open space for all users, but yesterday was a day about imagery and contrasts. Giving the thousands of Santa Monicans a safe and spacious park seemed pretty appealing as the sun beat down on four dozen cyclists snaking around the airport. For the hundreds of thousands of Westsiders that live with the air and soil pollution the airport brings, a park would be a godsend, even if they never used it.

“The city has a decision to make in 2015, that’s why we’re doing this now,” Gruber said in his opening comments.”We have to let them know, this is no longer the right place, and no longer the right time, for this airport.”