Cleared for Takeoff?

Cities across the nation are debating whether to convert aging municipal airports into prime sites for development.

America’s urban landscape is dotted with old municipal airports that long ago were eclipsed by today’s huge international air hubs. Many of these aging airfields sit unused in (or in close proximity to) the middle of city centers; they were built in a bygone era of less-crowded skies and smaller populations, a time when city planners assumed that the most convenient place to put the airport was in the middle of town.

When they first opened, many of these municipal airports served as the city’s sole destination for international flights in the early days of commercial aviation. Now, almost all of them are classified as general-aviation facilities, available (if they’re still operating) for use primarily to owners of private planes. Most of the dwindling number of municipal airports that still are in use are not profitable, forcing host cities to cover their deficits in municipal budgets.

But the status quo for municipal airports may be about to change: these fading relics from the halcyon days of air travel have become a hot commodity in the evolving growth strategies of metro economic development agencies across the country. As the number of large sites available for development continues to shrink in major cities (and greater metro areas rapidly morph from suburban to urban), mothballed municipal airports are getting a second look as prime candidates for conversion into multi-use or industrial developments.

As detailed in a report this week in The New York Times, there isn’t a firm consensus on the wisdom of taking existing municipal airfields off the map, even if clumps of grass are growing out of cracks in the pavement in front of empty terminals and potholes are proliferating on unused runways.

One faction is urging caution in continuing to reduce the number of smaller public-use airports in the U.S. (the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association estimates that the U.S. loses 50 public-use airports each year). Advocates for reactivating old airfields are concerned that the the steady loss of municipal airports is adding danger to America’s already stressed air-traffic system by eliminating a multitude of landing sites that could be needed in a national-security emergency (like the order to immediately ground all commercial flights that was issued during the 9/11 terrorist attacks) or to respond to natural disasters that cause the diversion of large numbers of aircraft.

ED agencies and city planners who are eager to convert unused municipal airfields into prime development sites also are being warned to consider the risk factors associated with fully decommissioning these sites. As the Times noted in its report, there have been some notable failures among the success stories generated by these conversions.

The biggest debate over what to do with a shuttered municipal airport currently is taking place in Detroit, where Coleman Young International Airport sits unused on 264 acres of prime real estate in Motown. Named for Detroit’s first African-American mayor (who served from 1974 to 1994), Coleman Young International was once one of the nation’s busiest airports. While the Detroit Metro international airport grew over several decades into today’s mammoth 4,850-acre hub in the suburbs (the official name for the Romulus, MI-based air hub is Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, but everyone calls it Detroit Metro), the municipal airport named for the former mayor withered.

City officials want to bring the municipal airport’s site back to life, but are divided over whether it will survive as an airport or be remade for other purposes, the Times reports. The City Council is preparing to consider options including using the land for a new industrial park. Unless the city uses the site for an economic development project, Mayor Mike Duggan told the Times, Detroit soon will run out of large, open city-owned spaces that can be offered to companies for new facilities, expansions or relocations. [The demolition of thousands of abandoned houses in neighborhoods throughout Detroit that commenced after the city emerged from bankruptcy has resulted in a mosaic of small empty lots, but no industrial-sized parcels, officials said.]

A significant number of council members want the city to reinvest in the airport; they point to decommissioned airports in other locations (we won’t embarrass them here by naming them) that were offered up for developments that did not materialize.

But there also have been some impressive success stories, including airport conversions in Austin, TX and Denver, CO. Both cities shut their old municipal airports down in the 1990s and replaced them with billions of dollars worth of mixed-use, master-planned development. Closing the Austin airport “magically released land in the center city,” Pam Hefner, redevelopment project manager for Austin, told the Times. “That doesn’t happen. It’s so rare and it’s such an incredibly valuable resource.”

Other locations are moving forward with plans to convert old municipal airports into new development. The regional planning agency for Kennewick, WA, is in the process of finishing a master plan for the now-vacant 103 acres that used to be home to Vista Field, a public-use airport.

There’s another factor that tilts the argument in favor of eliminating old city airports, but it’s not one that city officials are comfortable speculating about in public. In an age of terrorism that escalated to a horrifying scale with the 9/11 attacks on two American cities using passenger jets as weapons, is it really wise to facilitate takeoffs and landings of smaller planes in the middle of large population centers?