April 21, 2024 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

SMO (So Many Options) Part 2

SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) 

Last week’s column was Part 1. If you did not have the opportunity to read Part 1 then, you can find it here

Part 2

The city’s planning study will not be just the design of 227 SMO acres as an extension of the existing Clover Park adjacent to SMO but will involve analysis for helping to solve some part of the City’s enormous financial obligations, as well as determining funding sources for implementing a change of use to the existing airport land. As the principal city planner presented to the City Council in January 2023, which you can read here, there are no funds available to proceed with additional park construction, regardless of size, and he points out that historically such park projects often lay dormant for years for that very reason. SMO is not expected to be an exception. 

Reality

The city reality of 2023 does not resemble the city reality of 2014.  In 2014 there were still reasonable height and density limits, there was no light rail to Santa Monica, and the Council had authority over land use.  All of this has changed with the State exercising more and more control over local planning decisions, including housing mandates. 

Should the decision to close SMO, per the Consent Decree, be successfully voted for by a council majority (i.e. four individuals), on or after January 1, 2029, any portion of the airport land that is not actually designated as a park, recreational use, or educational purposes, will lose the federal protections on development that the current airport use provides, and possibly be subjected to the state Surplus Lands Act wherein:

“The SLA is a “right of first refusal” law that requires all local agencies 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.” 

The risks to Santa Monica residents from the emerging reality of 2023 (and 2028?) are multiple:  (1) the 7th Cycle RHNA process could significantly add to the number of residential units the city needs to build (above the current required 8,895 units) and (2) the state Surplus Lands Act is constantly evolving and expanding, prescribing what can be done with municipally owned land.  The defects of Measure LC (See Part 1 link below), the realities of the costs involved with developing an urban park, combined with the city’s actual financial situation, along with the city’s potential loss of land use control to the state, have created a completely different picture than the assumptions in place during the 2014 LC vote, which even then garnered support from only 23% of registered voters. While there has been a consistent reference to the closure and development of a “great park” by one anti-airport group, they seldom if ever discuss the realities of financing and building a 187-acre park.

The RFQ (Request For Qualifications)

The city’s lead planner presented to the City Council in January made some adjustments in March and has now prepared an RFQ to solicit bids for the consulting contracts (see link [c] below), stating: 

“The City is seeking support in land use scenario planning and urban design, to develop conceptual design options…”.  “Scenario” options, which include instructions to/for: (emphasis added)

  • Estimate the market potential for various types of land uses that enjoy solid market support, including housing and commercial sectors
  • Identifying market gaps 
  • Market demand studies should concentrate on the types of businesses that have the greatest potential for growth and sustainability
  • Recommendations for developing housing at various affordability levels either as stand-alone projects or within mixed-use projects
  • Economic analysis services are required to provide the planning efforts with accurate information in order

And it noted that “The conceptual alternatives should investigate the feasibility of a Mello-Roos Community Facilities District, an Assessment District, and/or Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District (EIFD), and potential revenue generation from supporting land uses.” i.e. property tax assessments for Santa Monica residents. It is unclear whether such an assessment district would extend into adjacent Los Angeles and to the homeowners there that will experience the greatest benefit of a park, should there be one on closed SMO land. The easterly 17 acres of SMO are actually within Los Angeles.

Scenarios

The general public has been consistently told by pro-closure interests and local headlines that 227 acres of SMO (187 acres after deducting L.A. land and existing structures), will be closed to aviation on 12/31/28, and will become a “great park”, with no housing or other development. The city, however, recognizes there are limited (or no) funds available and outlines various “scenarios”, that may generate needed funds, and they are listed for study within the RFQ.

One likely ‘scenario’ that would occur in the event of a closed SMO, to finance a park development, would be the development of housing. The RFQ has a single-line statement in it that says “…Measure LC prohibits housing at the Airport”. But there are a couple of things to consider with that statement, and they are addressed in the RFQ; one of which is what will be necessary to finance the construction and maintenance of a park. Selling the land to a developer to help with financing is not prohibited ‘per se’, but LC is now a part of the City Charter legally, as Section 640, and it states:

 “If all or part of the Airport land is permanently closed to aviation use, no new development of that land shall be allowed until the voters have approved limits on the uses and development that may occur on the land. However, this section shall not prohibit the City Council from approving the following on Airport land that has been permanently closed to aviation use: the development of parks, public open spaces, and public recreational facilities; and the maintenance and replacement of existing cultural, arts and education uses.

Therefore, housing would, potentially, require a vote of the public, but housing and other uses could indeed be developed by public vote. More importantly however, and also addressed in the RFQ, is the state Surplus Lands Act which, as mentioned above, would be given first priority to a housing developer on any portion of vacated land, and would not require voter approval, nor would college expansion and other dense public uses.

The Real Costs Become Apparent

In 2019, park construction costs ranged from around $6.8 million per acre for Tongva Park to around $8.3 million per acre for Memorial Park.  Just for comparison, the airport runway shortening of 2017 was essentially a demolition-only project without any added development or remediation.  That basic demolition-only project cost around $700,000 per acre.

Applying the above park construction costs to the 187 acres at SMO indicate costs in the range of between $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion, and with five years of inflation, maybe up to about $1.8 billion.

In comparison, the City estimated in 2015 that the planned (but still unfunded) basic sports field expansion on the south side of the airport would have cost an estimated $36.3 million for the 12 acres or $3+ million/acre eight years ago. Likely over $4 million/acre today.  With inflation to 2030, park development would be +/- $4.7 million per acre.

Timeline Requirement and State Land Use Risks

As the City’s presentation makes clear, a signed-off plan is essential before any change of use, including closure.  Why?  Because if the airport is closed without an approved plan in place, the land could become subject to the state Surplus Lands Act and subject to housing development. The City has noted that the preferred option would be to keep the airport open until such an agreed plan were in place since airport use is the only land use that cannot be challenged by the state.  

So…

So, it is clear that SMO is not, by any law or regulation in effect at this time, going to be closed on 12/31/28, and the public should not be deceived by such claims that it will be closed. The  +/-50,000 voters that may only now be becoming aware of the potential loss of the last meaningful open space in Santa Monica should SMO cease aviation operations can still have a say in its future. 

The challenge for the residents is that under Section 640, SMO can be closed by a Council vote. So no matter how much residents may object to the development options the City allows (at its sole prerogative), the one option residents might want to consider more desirable, keeping SMO open, would be gone. 

With no, or very limited, funds for a park, and knowing the development frenzy the council has championed for years, combined with egregious State housing mandates and the Surplus Lands Act, there is only one alternative action: understanding that the most livable and sustainable option will be a vote to maintain SMO open and operational. We will address environmental issues in a future column.

SMO remaining operational will require either no action by the council on or after 1/1/29, or a minimum of four council members that will seriously evaluate the negative impact on everyone’s quality of life that will occur with a closed SMO, and put aside any desire to continue the rampant development of the last 15 years. There are two or three more election cycles to achieve that goal. Not a call for a litmus test, just ringing an alarm bell for what is the best option.

Bob Taylor, AIA
For SMa.r.t.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Thane Roberts, Architect; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, Architect AIA Planning Commissioner; Sam Tolkin, Architect, Planning Commissioner; Michael Jolly ARECRE

[a] SMO (So Many Options) Part 1
https://smmirror.com/2023/04/smo-so-many-options-part-1/

[b] A Public Process to Determine the Future of the Santa Monica Airport
https://www.smgov.net/departments/pcd/agendas/Planning-Commission/2023/20230315/s20230315-8A.pdf

[c] City Of Santa Monica Request For Qualifications (RFQ)
https://www.santamonica.gov/media/Document%20Library/Project/Future%20of%20Santa%20Monica%20Airport%20Project/Airport_RFQ_for_Posting.pdfÐ_

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

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