San Diego to Improve Long-Neglected Brown Field

Mayor: "This project will mark the first significant new development at Brown Field since the city took ownership of it in 1962."


For the first time in more years than most pilots and tenants can remember, San Diego's elected leaders are working to draw new business to Brown Field.

Mayor Jerry Sanders unveiled a plan yesterday that he hopes will prompt lucrative development at the aging airport. If it succeeds, Brown Field could see new hangars, fixed-base operators, manufacturing plants and more.

"This project will mark the first significant new development at Brown Field since the city took ownership of it in 1962," Sanders said at a late morning news conference on the Brown Field tarmac. "The time is right to support and encourage economic growth of the region."

The first step in the plan involves the formal release of what's called a request for qualifications. Basically, the city wants to identify qualified developers who want to bid on projects that would be built on 65 acres -- a relatively small portion of the airport's 900 acres.

The vacant land is east of the World War II-era terminal. One parcel is 25 acres and the other is 40 acres.

Junkyards

The mayor's proposal -- the first major economic push at Brown Field since the council rejected a cargo project in 2001 -- does nothing to address the dozens of junkyards and other nonaviation businesses that federal officials want evicted.

Sanders' office conceded that most of the nonaeronautical companies probably will be allowed to remain beyond April, when they were supposed to relocate under orders from the Federal Aviation Administration.

When San Diego took ownership of Brown Field 45 years ago, city officials promised the FAA to use the property for flying-related businesses. Instead, it has permitted dozens of wrecking yards, tow companies and other firms to operate there, in part because they pay $600,000 or so a year in rent.

City Hall relies on that rental income to pay for upkeep and operations at Brown Field. But the place has seen almost no public investment in years and the north portion of the property is strewn with litter, wrecked cars, oil and fuel spills and other hazards.

Good first step

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said yesterday that the request for qualifications was a good first step, but he also said the city needs to continue making progress at the Otay Mesa airport.

"We want and expect all of the issues to be completely resolved, but at the same time we recognize there isn't an immediate demand for all of the land at the airport," he said. "Sixty-five acres is a very good and significant step forward."

The request for qualifications probably will be advertised nationwide to 100 or more development firms, with résumés due at City Hall by Feb. 23. Once the firms that respond to the request are vetted for past projects, financial standing and other criteria, one will be selected and projects will be proposed.

A formal development agreement or memorandum of understanding would then spell out what would be built.

"Is it guaranteed to work? No. But this is the best opportunity to move forward for the city and Brown Field in years," city Real Estate Director Jim Barwick said. "The city now has the will to move forward with aviation development when in the past the city had less of a will."

Elected officials have not always had such a will. In 2001, the City Council rejected the air-cargo project that staff spent years putting together.

That project would have generated hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in revenue. But council members buckled to complaints from Otay Mesa homeowners that the hub would disrupt their quality of life and lower property values.

Proposal welcomed

Pilots and tenants at Brown Field welcomed Sanders' action yesterday. Almost any new development would improve the business climate at the airport, they said.

"Brown Field has been a diamond in the rough," said Buzz Fink, chairman of the Airport Advisory Committee, which has criticized the city's management of the airstrip for years.

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