“Outlandish.” “Logistically ludicrous.” “Impractical.” “Expensive.” This is the mythic framing of the proposal for building a floating airport three miles off the coast of San Diego. Myths in San Diego are easy to construct: When developers allied with politicians, government agencies and the San Diego Union-Tribune say something is so, it is so. Even Erik D. Aker's recent story in CityBeat about Ron Roberts' “Twinports” proposal for a bi-national San Diego/Tijuana airport reported Roberts' dismissal of the floating-airport idea without any qualification. This demonstrates how the construction of myth by the powerful class also becomes the construction of common sense.
You may have figured this out already: San Diego lacks vision. The best idea for improving this town that has gained any traction during my 31 years of life in San Diego has been buried under a mountain of misinformation, political malfeasance and cowardice. Here's how greed-driven, mundane, visionless city planning works: If a concept that stands to serve more than the narrow profit motives of the powerful class hasn't been implemented before, it must be outlandish and too expensive, so to hell with evidence, debate or serious consideration. A committee is formed with the word “authority” in it—like “The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority”—to reject the visionary idea; sellout lawyers are hired to write some pseudo-technical bullcrap that sounds authoritative; the U-T colludes to dismiss or ignore it, and—voila—the brilliant idea has been transformed into “Fantasy Island.” Who needs a horseless carriage, an Eiffel Tower, a voyage to the moon, etc.? Outlandish!
If you're a newcomer and want the back-story, you might consider spending 47 seconds looking up Lindbergh Field (aka San Diego International Airport) on Wikipedia. But for those who'd rather spend their 47 seconds watching a Mentos and Diet Coke experiment on YouTube, and are yet, for some reason, still reading this column, here's the short version of what happened: San Diego International Airport (SAN) was built in the 1920s and, unlike almost every other major airport in the world, has only one runway upon which to land and take off, and it's short and in close proximity to South Mission Hills/Middletown/Bankers Hill. Pilots hate it. It's also out of expansion room, close to reaching “capacity,” and a neighborhood nuisance. I've lived in Loma Portal, and on Laurel Street, and in Ocean Beach, and have had to scream over the jet noise and breath in the jet fuel. And I've flown in a 727 that had to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles because a landing-gear warning light came on in the cockpit. The pilot said, “We can't make an emergency landing in San Diego.” SAN needs to be replaced.
Back in 2003, the Airport Authority was formed. It hired a consulting firm to analyze something like 20 sites. The firm misreported that the floating airport was proposed for just off the coast of Mission Beach instead of its actual proposed site three miles off the tip of Point Loma—and still scored it the highest among the proposals. But the Airport Authority rejected the idea based on “concerns.” On its website, the Airport Authority claims these concerns are over issues like the feasibility of building a tunnel, over landing on an “undulating platform” and over security. But a Floatport wouldn't “undulate” significantly, for one thing, and it makes you wonder where these concerns come from. In the CityBeat interview with Roberts, he said the issue was cost. Roberts claimed it would cost “five times” as much as any other airport. Wikipedia reports that it would cost as much as $30 billion. The U-T argued that it would cost $5 billion to $10 billion. Elsewhere, you'll see the figure $20 billion tossed around. If you dig deep enough, you'll discover that expense estimates, like “concerns,” have been pulled right out of the asses of people who fear the novelty of a floating airport-or have a hidden agenda.
If you want the untold story, talk to Don Innis. I did. He's very accessible. The U-T has decided not talk to him. The paper won't publish his editorials. In the 1960s, Innis was the chief designer of Terminal One at Lindbergh Field and has designed other major San Diego engineering/design projects. He also designed Floatport (Floatinc.com). Here's what he told me:
In the late 1960s, Innis formed his own firm and got to work on the logistics of the Floatport concept. Back then, San Diego Mayor Frank Kern had enough vision to get behind the idea. Cut to the current decade. After the consulting firm Landrum & Brown scored Floatport the highest among all the proposals, the Airport Authority scrapped the idea without consulting Innis about its “concerns.” And this June the Airport Authority recommended Miramar as its favored site (even though the military won't give up the land). Scientists like Walter Monk and environmentalists like Jim Bell have defended the Floatport proposal, and Innis has an answer to every one of the “concerns” raised, including cost (he claimed it could be built for far less than the estimates mentioned above), technical logistics, environmental impact, etc. He argues that Floatport would be an improvement on every standard by which airports are measured, including noise, flight-time restrictions, pollution, safety and accessibility. Floatport could also simultaneously serve as a major shipping port, with room for expandability. It can generate and use hydroelectric power. Talk to Innis about the benefits, and if you're not convinced, you'll at the very least want to know why he wasn't called before the Airport Authority to address its concerns. You'll wonder why the U-T won't publish him or allow its reporters to write about him. And if you're an old-school San Diegan, you may wonder who stands to profit from putting the airport at Miramar.
But this column isn't about the specifics of the proposal. You could, with very little effort, learn more than the Airport Authority did. This column is about how great ideas aren't given a real chance in a visionless city fueled by greed-a city that used to call itself America's Finest City, then ditched the motto, and has now undeservedly readopted it. Undeservedly: because it takes more than a motto to be the “finest” anything. It takes decency, vision and courage.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and editor@SDcitybeat.com.