San Jose- City Planners/Council Get Reality Check

Tuesday, December 6, 2005
City’s towers spell trouble
By Deborah Lohse
The San Jose (CA) Mercury News

San Jose’s plans for more high-rise towers downtown could make it harder to attract new airlines or international flights to the city’s airport, an advisory group warned Monday night. In a resolution to San Jose’s city council, the airport commission voted 4-0 to forward their concerns that plans for high-rises, including the 22-story Almaden Tower behind the Hotel De Anza, are being made without enough attention to the disruption the buildings could cause for flights leaving San Jose. Three members were absent.

The problem, the commissioners say, is that about 15 percent to 20 percent of takeoffs are in the direction of the planned high-rises — southeast — rather than the typical northward route. That tends to happen in certain bad weather or in other cases when wind direction shifts.

The Federal Aviation Administration must approve the size of buildings in the flight path, to make sure they can be safely cleared by planes taking off. But even if a building is declared safe by the FAA, it can still pose problems for airlines, which have stricter rules about takeoffs over tall buildings. Those rules often require them to reduce planes’ weight load to ensure they can clear the buildings in an emergency, such as an engine failure.

That, in turn, means that airlines might have to cut back on passengers or cargo, affecting their bottom line. “That makes it less attractive to us, if we cannot fill our planes,” said Marilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, which has asked the FAA for an accounting of all high-rise developments planned for San Jose airspace.

Another option would be to carry less fuel, which could make it impossible for certain non-stop international flights to get to their destinations without having to stop and refuel.

The airport commission wants the city council to develop an official policy for reviewing the impact on airspace and airlines when weighing plans for new high-rises. “Building high-rise buildings downtown is good economic development, but so is expanding the airport,” said Steven Tedesco, chairman of the airport commission.

The resolution is expected to be presented to the city council early next year.

Almaden Tower, slated to be built at the site of the Palomar Ballroom, became a flash point for this issue. The building, a 22-story tower with 330 residential units, a garage and 8,000 square feet of retail space, was initially declared unsafe by the FAA at 259 feet. So the developer, KT Properties of Cupertino, changed its plans to fall under the 228-foot maximum, and the city council approved the development. But two airlines, Southwest and American, have asked the FAA to further review the matter, which it has agreed to do.

ALUC Ignored
Another airport group, the Santa Clara County Airport Land Use Commission, complained about the proposed building’s height a couple of years ago, said Ron Blake, a member of that commission, who added the city council overruled the group’s concerns.

City planning and development officials need to better factor in such concerns when deciding on new high-rises, Tedesco said. The greater the hassle or uncertainty for airlines, the less inclined they will be to expand or set up shop here, he said.

“You’ve got to encourage airlines to come in,” Tedesco said. “They need reliability that they will be able to fill up their flights.”

Editor’s Note:
The San Jose City Planners and City Council have a history of making bad choices, witness Ried Hillview Airport surrounded by a shopping center and housing. This time the airlines were alerted.

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