April 4, 2023 - From the April, 2023 issue

Santa Monica Airport to Cease Operations in 2028: Airport2Parks' Chair Neil Carrey on Plans for a ‘Great Park’ 

After years of legal battles with the FAA and others, the Santa Monica City Council approved a plan to formally close the Santa Monica Airport in 2028. As the city begins the visioning process for the 227-acre parcel in the middle of the beach city upon the airport’s closure, Santa Monica Airport2Parks Foundation Chair Neil Carrey spoke to TPR on the city’s long fight for local control over land use and operations at its airport.  In the interview, Carrey, who also serves as chair of the Santa Monica Travel and Tourism Board, highlights community support for increased parks and open space in Santa Monica and details the parameters included in Measure LC requiring voter approval of any additional use—like housing—to be included once airport operations cease in 2028.

“Without a vote of the residents to change the charter amendment, when the airport closes, they can only put in open space or recreation.”—Neil Carrey

The City of Santa Monica is set to begin a planning process re the future of the Santa Monica Airport after its anticipated closure in 2028. Elaborate on the findings of the City’s staff report and your organization's effort to realize a ‘great park’ on that site.

Neil Carrey: I'll take you back in time. There was a group that actually started even before I got involved. They were unhappy with a lot of things happening at the airport, so they started organizing against the jets and issues at the airport. 

What happened is the city wanted more control. There was an agreement signed with the FAA that originally was supposed to give the airport control over to the City of Santa Monica that was delayed until 2015. A group of pilots gathered the signatures to put on Measure D, which effectively would have given control of the airport to the pilot groups and eliminated the control of the airport from the city. 

We worked out with the city that they would put Measure LC, for local control, on the ballot which would be a counter measure to Measure D. They were both on the same ballot, so the measure that got the highest percentage would win. The pilots spent over a million dollars and there was a lot of controversy with the organizations that were backing them. We raised about $140,000. 

It turned out that our measure got 60 percent of the vote and the pilots’ got 40 percent. Our measure won, which effectively gave control of Santa Monica Airport to the city in 2015. One of the major changes was the fact that, up to this point, the city didn't control the leasing of the property around the airport. This enabled the city to raise the rents for property leased at the airport to market. 

After that, negotiations with the FAA began because it was the city's desire, based on a lot of the groups working with them, to see the airport closed. It was for a number of reasons. The noise problem is terrible. There are environmental problems created by the  airport affecting the neighborhood such as noise and pollution.  This airport, unlike many others, is right in the middle of a neighborhood, so there is always a safety issue. 

To take you back a little bit, originally there were no jets there. Then, jets started to come and the city passed measures to stop the jets. The FAA fought them and won, so the jets were allowed to come back. Finally, after Measure LC was passed, after negotiations between the city and the FAA, of which there was litigation involved, an agreement was reached that did several things. 

One of the immediate things, which made a big difference, is FAA agreed the city could shorten the runway by about 3000 feet. That effectively eliminated bigger jets, so the number of jets almost instantly was reduced. The other very important factor was the FAA, as part of this agreement, said that the city would have the right to close the airport at the end of 2028. 

An important part of Measure LC, and this was something we worked out with the City Attorney at that time, was putting it on the ballot as a charter amendment. Without a vote of the residents to change the charter amendment, when the airport closes, without the vote of the residents of Santa Monica. The airport land  can only be open space or for recreation. You could keep the buildings around the airport, but developers couldn't just come in and build Century City or Playa Vista. That was a very important factor for the people of Santa Monica. 

Now, the city council in 2028 can take the necessary steps to close the airport. The City Council could overturn the closing, but most people would be very surprised that we'd have a City Council that would get elected that would want to keep the airport open in 2028. 

Another important thing mentioned with Measure LC is the pilots and others that wanted to see the airport open were saying that this was going to be another Century City or Playa Vista. The only way this could become a Century City or Playa Vista is if the residents of Santa Monica voted to allow its construction. It's also the same issue with the housing. There are some housing people that would like to build affordable housing on that site. They would be happy if we could put affordable housing on my front yard, but again, to be able to build affordable housing there  would have to be a vote of the public to do that. 

One thing that we've already been talking to the housing advocates about is you have the business park, which is not airport land, right next to the airport. There's a lot of land there. One of the things that we're suggesting is to work something out with the business park. They don't need all that space. Put affordable housing there and then keep the open space because with building affordable housing you really need open space.

As a spokesman for Measure LC and for the Park agenda that you've been advancing for years, how do you respond to those who assert that opponents of the Staff Report  are “old, entitled NIMBYs” who liked Santa Monica the way it was and don't want it to evolve to be more inclusive and open to all the needs of all Southern Californians?

Again, that's the importance of Measure LC. When the airport closes, unless the residents vote differently, which I'd be very surprised, it can't happen. You have to keep it as open space. They're not going to be able to put development there.  Loke all parks, it would be open to all Southern Californians, not just the rich and famous.  Also, keep in mind that the land where the Airport sits was originally parkland and acquired with a park bond. 

What if the state came in and overrode Measure LC’s local control provisions related to land use?

I think it was SB 10 that was wanting to do that. One of our board members got the drafting of the bill  to make an amendment to SB 10, which actually cuts out the Santa Monica airport. I think the amendment exempted city-owned property that will be dedicated to be open space. Some people were still saying the state is going to take over, but they can't unless there's new and different legislation passed.

Elaborate on current vision for the airport park? What are the city and community’s hopes are for that space post-2028? 

The vision is really in steps. There's over 200 acres, and the city is not going to have the money to do it all at once. What money the city has is going to make a big difference. It’s definitely not going to have 100 playing fields. In addition to playing fields there should be community gardens and tennis and pickleball courts There could maybe be an amphitheater. Then of course some of the land should just be open space for walking and hiking and for wildlife.  Some of the tarmac could even remain for basketball and skate boarding.


In the past, we looked into many different plans. We actually worked with Mark Rios, who did the plans for the expansion of Airport Park. Even before Measure LC, we actually had an event with Mark Rios where people come and give ideas of what they would like to see on the Airport land and then he did a design.  We want to make sure the airport closes and that it's open space.   Of course there will be a public process to determine what should go in this park.

There have been hundreds of airports that have been converted into parks throughout the world. One interesting example is Tempelhof. When they closed it, the people said to just leave it. They closed the airport and opened up a park where they were using the runways for basketball and for skateboarding and all that.

We've done some community events and people are, again, mainly looking for the open space. We're not saying we want to see anything specific. We see that, clearly, Santa Monica needs more playing fields and more open space. We're at about 50 percent of the amount of parks that we should have in a city the size of Santa Monica.

Is the current absence of an abundance of parks because most people perceive Santa Monica as being a beach city with an incredible beach as part of its urban infrastructure?

That's true about the beach, but there's a tremendous use of our parks. I coached youth sports for 15 years, and I was a Recreation and Parks Commissioner for more than 12 years. There was always a shortage of space for Little League and Pony League, and youth soccer. Now you also have rugby and lacrosse and more. So, there's a great need for additional fields and open space. 

If you also look at the various neighborhoods, there are a lot of neighborhoods that don't have parks nearby. It's a beach city, but if you were to ask many of the people, they’d say they don't go to the beach. It's the younger people and tourists. Parks are an important part of being more than just a beach city.

Airport2Parks' letter to City Council related to the planning process for the future of the Santa Monica Airport, it mentions concern that the “language in the report may be interpreted as ‘pessimistic’ regarding the City’s ability to plan, create and operate a Great Park.” What's the source of your concern?

Our feeling is that a lot of what they put in the report is to protect themselves. They don't want to repeat what happened with the expansion of Airport Park. After Measure LC passed, we went to council and said that nothing was happening. It had been six or eight months and people are wondering what was happening. They immediately allocated funds to design the expansion of Airport Park. They were all ready to start doing that, but then the city didn't have the money. People were saying they promised something and then didn't do it. They can't do everything that people would like because they don't have the money, so they've covered themselves in this report.   However, there are ways to make the Great Park at the Airport work.  

We believe that there are potential sources of money to do some of the development. One thing is negotiating with the FAA so that when the airport closes any money that's in the airport fund can be taken over by the city. The airport used to be operating at a big deficit because the tenants paid below-market rent. Now, they're making money by charging market rent, so there could be available funds from the rents.  Until the airport closes, the money in the airport fund must be used for things relating to the airport.  However, Once the airport closes, the city keeps the rent which should generate money to help build and maintain the park.  There could even been another Park Bond.  In addition, the value of the property surrounding and affected by the Airport should increase, creating additional property tax for the city.

Our new Santa Monica city manager, David White, is a real believer in public-private partnerships. He even started a department that's now looking for them. I have to say, proudly being the immediate past president of the Kiwanis Club of Santa Monica, for our 100th anniversary, we were one of the first public-private partnerships by paying for new scoreboards at Belmont Park and Los Amigos. We think there's more of a willingness now to try get some money from businesses and private individuals to help develop the park.  There are also some grants that may be available from the county and maybe the state and federal government for parks. 

Lastly, give our readers insight into your background and many civic engagements in Santa Monica. You're a Wharton & Stanford Law graduate; you once ran for the school board of Santa Monica as a Republican prior to becoming a Democrat). Share how you're now invested in pressing for this airport to become a great park?

I first got involved because, with the number of kids I had, I was coaching Little League, soccer and softball. Then, I became president of one of the little leagues and went on the Boards for soccer and softball. I also was chairing three different committees for the school district. One of them was the Sports and Physical Education Advisory Committee. Another was the Title IX Gender Equity Committee. 

I therefore became known as someone that's heavily involved in youth sports and playing fields and all of that. In 1999, I got on the Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Commission. I was on that commission for more than 12 years and was chair at the end of my term.  Which broadened my interests to parks.

What happened is, even though I live on the north side of Santa Monica and can't hear the airplanes and the pollution doesn't bother me, when some Southsider’s formed a group to try to get the Airport closed and turned into a park, someone knew me and said that I knew the people in the school district, youth sports and field users. They recruited me to join their group. 

When the City agreed to put Measure LC on the ballot, I was one of the six executive committee members of the Committee that ran the Measure LC campaign. We worked so well together as the executive committee for Measure LC, when Measure LC passed, we formed  the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation and became its Board. I was asked to be the President (Chair), partially because of everyone sitting on the board, I was the most well-known in Santa Monica. That's really how I became very involved. 

I have been involved in Santa Monica with open space, playing fields and recreation for many years.  However, now I'm also chair of the Santa Monica Travel and Tourism Board. What the interesting thing is about that is I see a Great Park as a great tourist attraction. I think we could turn this into a place like Central Park, where we have big events and everything that goes on with open space, as well as more playing fields for sports Tournaments and other events attracting people from outside of Santa Monica. 


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.