On Nov. 12, 2020, a single engine personal aircraft crash landed on Sutter Street in Pacoima, just 50 yards from the Whiteman Airport runaway destroying two cars, damaging three homes and killing the pilot. Fortunately, no one was killed on the ground.
This tragedy was one death in a long line of deaths and injuries suffered at an airport that by its owner’s own admission is “substandard” and whose runways do not meet Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
The owner of this outdated urban airport is LA county.
To the credit of the area representative, LA City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez immediately called for the closure of a 75-year-old municipal airport that serves 600 private individuals and provides no ascertainable benefit to the local largely Latino community. Rodriguez went on further in her public statements and legislation to challenge all of us to think bigger and see the airport as an opportunity to bring equity, environmental justice, economic investment, and housing to Pacoima.
Concurrently, the economic justice organization of the San Fernando Valley, Pacoima Beautiful, reiterated its decades-long opposition to Whiteman Airport, called for its closure and assisted the residents and those impacted by the latest in a long line of tragedies.
Whiteman Airport occupies 187 acres or over eight million square feet of land surrounded by residential and industrial uses in Pacoima. It is the most developable piece of property in the San Fernando Valley.
With easy access by bus, freeway, train, and bicycle, the Whiteman Airport land could be a beating heart for Pacoima residents to live, work, exercise, and enjoy their community. Instead, for nearly 80 years private planes have passed over these Angelenos, dusting them with toxic air and pollution and reminding them that this airport is not for them.
A community driven re-imagining process could create open space, educational and recreational opportunities, and light industry supporting future thinking jobs, workforce housing and relevant retail space. Developing just one quarter of this space with industrial and commercial space would generate upwards of three thousand jobs.
A similar amount of space used for residential space could create over 1,000 homes for families.
Of course, any development would need to be preceded by soils and air testing in order to really understand the toxic impact this airport use has had on Pacoima. After 75 years in operation, the combination of airplane fuels and oils will necessitate significant study and potentially major remediation.
There are defenders of the airport. The county has said there is a need for Whiteman Airport, even though by their own admission, there are no plans for improvement to the substandard landing conditions for the next five years. On the other hand, there are two other airports in the vicinity of Whiteman: Van Nuys and Hollywood/ Burbank, as well as others north in Palmdale, and south at El Monte and Hawthorne.
In this time of an unprecedented discussion about equity and social justice in our country, isn’t it time we all rethink what it means to live in a “liveable city”? And how does an airport that serves 600 non resident plane owners contribute to the livability of Pacoima?
After all, there is precedent for closing down a municipal airport in LA county. The Santa Monica Airport will close at the end of 2028, following years of negotiations between city and county leaders. Surely the same case that was made for the closure of that facility in that affluent, largely Anglo, beach city can be made here in the mainly Latino community of Pacoima to shutdown Whiteman Airport.
Dr. Benitez is president of Initiating Change in Our Neighborhoods Community Development Corporation.