San Jose International Airport and City Planners Clash

Editor’s Note: Want to know why it is important to have an informed and active Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC)? Read this story. San Jose has continuously acted to ignore their ALUC when it came to business versus the airport. They now face an important safety issue due to their historical behavior pattern. San Jose’s plans for a downtown full of high-rise buildings are on a collision course with its ambitions for a vibrant Mineta San Jose International Airport.

At issue is the need for jets to have emergency routes available after takeoff from the airport. A consultant’s study recently indicated that at least a dozen high-rises envisioned for downtown would have to be shaved in height — from a few feet to several floors — to ensure airplanes can depart safely.

The prospect has local developers and business groups scrambling for an alternative — and in some cases, threatening to pull out of deals. The developer of the 25-story City Front Square downtown luxury high-rise — which hopes to lure upscale tenants with its high-vaulted ceilings, valet parking and concierge services — says he could not proceed if forced to cut his building by even one floor.

“We want to have a lot more people living and working in downtown — more riders for BART, more customers for retail,” said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association. If the new policy kicks in, “we may not be able to have that.”

Airline regulations

Although San Jose has long restricted building heights to meet basic federal safety standards, the problem of buildings obstructing emergency plane routes has taken on more prominence in the past 18 months in San Jose and nationwide. Airlines have been raising objections as more cities seek to build high-rises around their airports, even as aircraft are designed with fewer engines for fuel efficiency, causing them to need more clearance room in engine emergencies.

Federal and international regulations require airlines to have clear emergency routes for takeoff in the event that one engine of a plane fails.

If a pilot knows the plane can’t clear an obstacle with one missing engine, the pilot must make adjustments. That can pose problems for airlines because the most obvious pre-adjustment — limiting the number of passengers to reduce weight — cuts into profit margins. Cross-country and overseas flights, which carry the heaviest fuel loads, are most vulnerable.

In San Jose, the building height issue took on a new urgency in early December, when San Jose’s planning department sought to persuade the city council to approve revised regulations. The department’s proposal would severely limit the height allowed for buildings located in two downtown regions beneath airlines’ emergency-takeoff routes.

When the San Jose Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce got wind of the planned policy, they had it yanked from the council agenda.

“We were shocked at the proposal, which was essentially to scalp the downtown for potential future airline service,” Knies said.

For Knies and others in the business community, the issue had come up suddenly. For years, the requirement for airplane emergency routes hasn’t caused San Jose much of a problem.

Most of the time, planes leaving the city’s airport take off to the north toward Santa Clara, where they have plenty of clearance from buildings. In the minority of cases when planes must take off to the south — about 15 percent of all flights — airlines crafted emergency routes over the heart of downtown San Jose that avoided the tallest high-rises.

But about two years ago, a major problem surfaced when KT Properties sought permits to build 22 stories of condos along Almaden Boulevard, behind the Hotel DeAnza. To the surprise of city and airport officials, Southwest and American Airlines protested, saying an airplane with one engine out would not be able to ascend over the building fast enough.

One engine’ situation

The project was approved at the proposed heights, much to the chagrin of the airlines. But the episode convinced airport officials that they needed to get their arms around the “one engine inoperative” situation. So they hired a consultant at a cost of $250,000 to study the issue.

Results so far indicate that at least three high-rise buildings currently in the planning process ought to be scaled back. In addition, most of the dozen or so high-rise residences or corporate buildings envisioned for the Diridon train station area would have to be trimmed, perhaps by one-third.

And at least some of the buildings Adobe Systems initially planned for the former San Jose Water property could be too tall.

City officials issued a report estimating that losing just one future international flight could cost as much as $24 million in “economic impact” to the city including an estimated $750 in spending per international visitor. The report also estimated the lost tax revenue from shorter buildings in the Diridon area was much less: $700,000 to nearly $1 million a year, depending on whether the buildings were residential or commercial.

“The comparison to us was pretty compelling that you need to maintain your options for international and transcontinental flights,” said Paul Krutko, San Jose’s chief development officer. “There are other places in downtown where we could build high rises. You can’t move the airport.”

But those estimates provoked an uproar by business groups, who plan to hire their own consultant to study ways to meet the needs of airlines without trimming so many buildings.

Possible business losses

Knies said the city’s study fails to account for the affect of new rules on private business. “Just knocking off one floor of a commercial high-rise — 500,000 square feet — that would be $12 million in annual rent,” he said.

Mike Kriozere, principal at Urban West Associates of San Diego, the developer of City Front Square condos and apartments at Market and San Carlos, said his 25-story high-rise project cannot afford to lose even one floor. City officials say it may need to be shortened by 24 feet.

“We’ll be forced to walk away,” he said. “You can’t take your pro forma (balance sheet) and lop off $18 million,” Kriozere said, referring to the money that would be lost by having fewer condominiums to sell.

Airport officials say if a solution isn’t found, San Jose risks losing potential international flights and some cross-country flights to cities such as Boston, New York or Chicago.

Meanwhile, business groups insist some alternative can be found.

“We want to have our cake and eat it too,” Knies said. “We want a vibrant downtown core, and we want an international airport.”

SJC Downtown Picture

A airplane on its final flight path to the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport flies over downtown San Jose on Tuesday, January 23, 2007. The City of San Jose is poised to be at odds with itself, pitting its desire for a downtown full of high-rise buildings against the desire of the airport to provide safe glide paths for long-haul flights that bring in high-dollar landing fees

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