Friday, June 29, 2007 | Nestled in the center of San Diego and touched by four of the region’s busiest freeways, Kearny Mesa is conveniently situated for the many employees and few residents who commute to and from the community everyday.

Historically, Kearny Mesa has served as a haven for manufacturing and industry, as well as the airport operations at Montgomery Field.

But, faced with a dwindling stock of available land for housing, some in the political arena have eyed the centrally located Kearny Mesa and, more specifically, the 549-acre municipal airport there to satisfy the region’s housing demands.

The debate has surfaced a handful of times over the last decade, pushed by interests ranging from an affordable housing panel to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“I think it’s incumbent for the city to look at its real estate asset holdings and to look at possible uses that are more beneficial to citizens,” real estate magnate Malin Burnham said. “From a master planning standpoint, if you had your choice of where to put airports, you certainly would not put Montgomery Field where it is today.”

The casual debate over the best uses available for the 3,600-acre Kearny Mesa community escalated into a political cacophony with the recent controversy involving Sunroad Enterprises. Its 180-foot-tall office tower near Montgomery Field violates government height limits by 20 feet.

For the past year, a land-use conflict between the structure and the airport has transpired, evolving into a major political drama involving government officials and Sunroad, which agreed to lower the building to comply with federal guidelines Tuesday.

The controversy has deepened suspicions that the building’s nonconformity with the Federal Aviation Administration’s guidelines is an affront to the area’s industrial future: A way for real estate developers to reroute aircraft away from the building — or close the airport altogether — to make way for other high-rise development in the area.

“The process is backwards,” said City Councilwoman Donna Frye, Kearny Mesa’s delegate to the council and a vocal critic of Sunroad. “Any decision about changing land uses at an airport should not be the result of an oversized building.”

On the other hand, civic boosters have suggested that opening the airport up to development would solve the city’s affordable-housing crunch. They say the Sunroad saga has tainted a once-earnest discussion.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s a strong assertion out there that developers are ganging up to make this happen, and knowing the level of paranoia in this town, that’s a pretty significant issue,” said former City Manager Jack McGrory, who chaired a city panel in 2002 that suggested the airport as a potential affordable-housing site.

Sunroad spokeswoman Karen Hutchens said the company never intended to ignite a larger debate over the community’s future with the construction of its building and two other adjacent buildings that are designed to be even taller.

City officials claim any decisions to change Kearny Mesa are far off. The blueprint to guide the neighborhood’s growth isn’t slated for an update for several years, and it’s possible that Montgomery Field will have to remain an airport forever

“No one has approached me about a real proposal, and I would hear about it if it were a real proposal,” said Bill Anderson, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ city planning director.

A Changing Landscape

Kearny Mesa was a largely agricultural area in the early part of the 20th century, playing host to beekeeping, flower farms and cattle grazing. After the Second World War, the community became a defense industry hotspot. Tens of thousands of employees helped produce missiles and other military equipment at General Dynamics.

The decline of manufacturing in San Diego since then has shaped Kearny Mesa’s landscape. The closure of General Dynamics’ plant in the 1990s ushered in the potential for a business park and more than 1,000 homes. The controversial Sunroad office project is located on this redevelopment site.

Demands for housing and office buildings have continued to creep into the largely industrial community, said aviator Buzz Gibbs, chairman of the Kearny Mesa Community Planning Group.

Gibbs said most of the planning group’s members are businesses cool to the encroachment of homes. The businesses are wary that the noises and odors emitted from their facilities could spur resistance to their operations if there are residents nearby to complain.

It has been a sticking point for Frye. “The more industrial land that gets wiped out, the more likely the city of San Diego will become an economy of low-paying, service-oriented jobs and the military only,” Frye said.

Anderson said the pending citywide development guide, known as the general plan, contemplates protecting the area to be largely industrial. Business parks and manufacturing will be predominantly featured in Kearny Mesa under the plan, he said.

Subtle Moves

Gibbs, who applauds saving the airport and the industrial land, says the city should also consider changing the allowed land uses there. He said he realizes the region is in a crunch for available land for housing and office space.

Planning for taller buildings away from downtown — which could transform the area into another University City — will likely become a reality for communities like Kearny Mesa, Gibbs said.

“If you throw out my partiality for the airport, this is certainly a land-use planning issue that the city should look at,” Gibbs said.

Leaders from around the city have looked directly at Kearny Mesa very recently when considering wide-open patches for development.

In 2002, the Affordable Housing Task Force led by McGrory presented its suggestion that Montgomery Field and the city’s operations yard at Rose Canyon be among the areas the city weighs as a possible location for subsidized housing for low-income families.

The recommendation to study the two sites was turned down unanimously at a council committee meeting in 2003. The idea was never considered by the full council.

A similar idea floated around the city’s business community that same year. The plan proposed to redevelop the airport into 9,600 homes, thousands of square feet of office space and a maintenance yard for the city’s fire department.

Mitch Mitchell, the chamber’s vice president for public policy at the time, said the proposal never gained traction at City Hall, partly because Frye opposed closing the airport.

Officials at the city and the FAA noted that the airport, which serves smaller airplanes, will likely not be closing any time soon, if ever. Operators of airports that receive grants from the federal government must in return make a guarantee. If the grant funds capital improvements for the facility, the airport is not allowed to close for 20 years. If federal money is used to purchase real estate, air operations are never allowed to cease.

But neither the city nor the FAA knows whether the airport has received federal money for land, making it unclear if the airport could ever close under FAA rules. Mike Tussey, the city’s deputy director for airports, said his office has an application dated 1949 for the city to receive a grant for land, but he is unsure if it was ever allocated that way.

“It’s quite possible that is a land grant, but that is still to be confirmed,” he said.

Tussey said closing an airport as busy as Montgomery Filed — the 13th busiest general aviation facility in the nation, according to Airport Journals — could put a future strain on the region’s air capacity. He said the airport now absorbs about 230,000 flights a year. Without Montgomery Field, those flights would have to be moved to other local airports including Lindbergh Field, which is the only regional facility that accommodates large commercial airliners.

“I wouldn’t say we have a perfect airport system, but I would say it would be an advantage to conserve what we have,” Tussey said.

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