Executive Airport may one day sprout houses
It’s just an idea on a piece of paper, a faraway possibility. But a suggestion by city planners to close Sacramento Executive Airport one day and redevelop it into a new high-density, transit-friendly neighborhood is already drawing fire.
It’s the first real whiff of controversy to come out of the city of Sacramento’s general-plan process—which has been quietly chugging along this year along without garnering much attention.
The general plan, which has to be updated every 10 years, serves as a sort of blueprint for guiding the city’s transportation, land-use and housing policies over the next two decades.
Among the ideas being included on the city’s planning maps is a whole new neighborhood on the 540 acres of city-owned land on Freeport Boulevard where the airport is now.
“We’re not recommending closure of the Executive Airport. We’re just identifying some options and some opportunities for growth,” said Steve Peterson, the city’s principal planner.
But a loosely organized movement to “Save the Executive Airport” is making a lot of noise about the idea and wants it pulled from documents being presented at public meetings.
“Don’t pick on the airport, just because you’re not a flier,” said Doyle Carroll, a retired American Airlines pilot who uses the facility for his own airplane.
Like other pilots who use the airport, along with business owners and neighbors, Carroll was dismayed to learn that city planners were floating the idea of redeveloping the facility at town-hall forums.
As a starting point, planners are presenting the public with three scenarios. The first is to leave things pretty much as they are. The second is called the “infill/compact” scenario. It suggests pushing development into several large vacant or underutilized parcels in the city. Among those are big infill development opportunities, including the airport, the rail yards north of downtown and the Delta Shores area in South Sacramento. This scenario also suggests limiting the suburban growth of the city, at least for a while. The area north of North Natomas would be designated “urban reserve”—and development there would be put off until the city had used up its existing land.
The third scenario is dubbed “city expansion.” In this scenario, Sacramento is allowed to become a bit more sprawling. Scenario 3 anticipates the development of about 9,000 acres north of the city. The Executive Airport would be off the table in that scenario.
The scenarios are just that—suggestions for how to go about developing the city, which is expected to grow by 200,000 people in the next 25 years. The city could pursue a mix of different ideas borrowing from each scenario—and leaving others out.
The Executive Airport is 540 acres. That’s almost twice the size of the 240-acre rail yards north of downtown—currently being planned as a new neighborhood extending downtown. The rail yards are expected to include at least 10,000 new housing units, along with retail and possibly even a new arena for the Sacramento Kings.
The redevelopment idea is in many ways just as tantalizing as the rail-yards proposal. There are two light-rail stations now within a quarter mile of the airport property. Peterson said that a mix of mid-rise and single-family housing could be built there, along with parks and other amenities to create a pedestrian and transit-friendly neighborhood that’s more livable than the typical suburban development.
“If we think it’s a good idea not to convert all of the open farmland around the city, doesn’t it make sense to at least consider a really cool new neighborhood at this location?” said Peterson.
No, it doesn’t, say Carroll and others who have been attending town-hall forums to fight against the airport proposal.
“If all the vacant land in the city has to be developed, why not pave over Land Park?” said Carroll. “I don’t see Bing Maloney [the golf course next-door to the airport] on the list. And I don’t think they’re making money.”
The Executive Airport provides about 400 jobs on site. And it generates about $3 million a year in state and local taxes.
One of the business owners is Ivan Eakle, the owner of IvanAir, a repair shop that operates on the airport site.
“People have made investments here, thinking the airport would be here. I bought a house over here, so I could have access to the facility,” said Eakle, who lives in a neighborhood called Fullerton that backs up to the airport. “If the airport closes, I’m out half a million dollars.”
Executive is also the last significant “general aviation” facility in the region, providing services to private pilots, corporations and even state agencies. The governor sometimes flies into Executive Airport because it’s so close to the Capitol.
The airport is run by the county, which leases the land from the city of Sacramento. It’s a 25-year lease, renewed every year. But Peterson said the lease can be modified if the city and county agree.
Karen Doron, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento County Airport System, said the operations of the Executive Airport could be relocated, but it may not be easy.
“There is enough capacity at other airports in Sacramento County and throughout the region to support the traffic. However, moving this air traffic would affect the relationships of those airports to the surrounding communities,” Doron explained. In other words, there’s potential for more friction with neighbors.
While the decision ultimately rests with the city, Doron said, “the Sacramento County Airport System supports keeping it open.”
Opponents of closing the airport also point to a joint resolution passed by the Sacramento City Council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in 1993, expressing support for “continuing indefinitely the availability of this valuable asset to the Sacramento Region.”
“This policy was settled back in 1993. It shouldn’t even be on the table now,” said Carroll.
Ernie Lehr, president of the Golf Course Terrace Estates Neighborhood Association, agrees, calling the redevelopment proposal a “breach of trust,” by city officials.
But Lehr said that his neighbors are more concerned about traffic impacts to the existing neighborhoods than they are about the fate of the airport.
“Let’s say that they put an additional 20,000 people in here. Well, the streets are already congested,” Lehr said, adding that most of the neighborhood associations around the airport are opposed to any large-scale development in the area.
“We’re all solidly agreed that it’s inappropriate to try and stick that kind of development in here,” said Lehr.
The neighborhood groups have the support of Lauren Hammond, whose 5th Council District includes the airport.
With the city expected to grow by 200,000 people in the next 20 years, and the increasing need for alternatives to automobile-oriented suburban development, these kinds of conflicts seem inevitable.
“In my opinion, the evolution of our city is going to be the densification of our city,” said Bruce Starkweather, president of Lionakis Beaumont Design Group and the vice-chairman of the General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC).
Though Starkweather said it’s too soon to tell if closing Executive Airport is the right move, he thinks it’s worth exploring. He also thinks the issue isn’t being framed the right way—that it’s hard for people to accept change in their own neighborhoods if they aren’t convinced that it makes sense for the larger community.
“Everybody loves the idea of smart growth. We just don’t want it in our backyards,” said Starkweather.
Panama Bartholomy, a UC Davis grad student in community development and a member of the GPAC, agrees.
“If there are 200,000 people coming, we’re going to need to put them somewhere,” said Bartholomy. “If everybody is going to take their areas off the boards, then we’re looking at Natomas.”
But supporters of the airport say the matter isn’t up for discussion.
“Even talking about it is going to mean that word will get around that the airport is being closed down. That’s only going to hurt the airport,” said Carroll.