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Debate over whether to close Santa Monica Airport is predictably partisan and treads familiar ground

By Tony Peyser

An airstrip in an exclusive part of town may close. Sides are taken by aviation supporters and development opponents. Talk of a huge public park commences.

The current state of the Santa Monica Airport? Nah, I’m talking about the Orange County Great Park that emerged when the El Toro Marine Corps Station was decommissioned a little over a decade ago. I bring this up since Santa Monica Airport is, at least according to city officials, up for grabs next year (though federal officials insist it must remain an airport through 2023).

Using the Great Park as a template, here’s some of what to expect if SMO does close: bitter accusations, pervasive foot-dragging, epic fiscal mismanagement and nothing actually happening for years. My favorite part of the Great Park boondoggle was the hot-air balloon ride they installed several years into the project so that locals could get a bird’s-eye view of all of the work that hadn’t been done.

The debate about what to do with the 227 acres of the 90-year-old Santa Monica Airport is predictably partisan. One of the key groups putting their two cents in by way of a city ballot measure protective of aviation uses and the prospect of future development at the airport site is Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions. Yes, people, that is a name that someone likely paid somebody to come up with. The words “Santa Monicans” are used to ensure everyone will believe these are just plain-spoken local folks with no corporate axe whatsoever to grind. In truth, it’s a political action committee with support from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assoc. “Open and Honest” — aren’t those pretty much the same thing? That’s just lazy writing. “Development Decisions” has a little alliteration going for it, but not much else. All told, this is the kind of bland, colorless branding you would expect from lawyers whose idea of creativity is anything with Tim Allen in it.

On the other side is an assortment of groups with genuine grassroots appeal. One is called CASMAT, as in Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic. The fact that the acronym rhymes with HAZMAT (an abbreviation of “hazardous materials”) is clever because it provides a sense of danger. The acronym for Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions would be SMFOAHDD, which sounds like an expletive of recent vintage that one would have to consult the online Urban Dictionary to define. Another organization with a view on all this is Airport2Park, a moniker which sums up its whole shebang with just 11 letters and a number.

Santa Monica Airport loyalists can point to it having been the birthplace of Douglas Aircraft and the site where the company’s legendary DC airliners were manufactured. Santa Monica Airport is undeniably famous in aeronautical and World War II history, creating both revenue and jobs. And yet part of the airport’s history was Douglas’ departure in 1958 to Long Beach after residents voted down expanding the 5,000-foot runway. The combative relationship between locals and SMO has been ongoing for nearly 60 years. Speaking of locals, their biggest complaints include air pollution from fuel as well as noise pollution — let alone the 11 plane crashes since 1989, five of which resulted in fatalities.

Around 1999, my family moved out of the Fairfax District right before the beloved Farmers Market at Fairfax and Third was overwhelmed by the arrival of The Grove. We — and our neighbors — hated the idea and didn’t believe property values would go up or that the project would succeed. Of course, it did, and way beyond everybody’s expectations. However, I still pine for the funky old-school casualness of the original Farmers Market.

If Santa Monica Airport does disappear, I sympathize with those who’ll miss it for economic and nostalgic reasons. But I can get behind the idea of a park in its place that the whole community can regularly use and enjoy, not just a small number of private pilots and flying enthusiasts. Such momentous ideas by local leaders are tough but necessary steps to keeping cities vital, modern and thriving.

Tony Peyser has worked as a journalist, advertising copywriter, music columnist and editorial cartoonist, but he prefers poetry because that’s where the big bucks are. Find him at peyserpoem.blogspot.com.

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