Eighty-two years after Reid-Hillview Airport opened, Santa Clara County supervisors want to shut it down and consider converting it into affordable housing.
For decades, advocates and elected officials have pushed to close the airport and rezone the property for housing. But whether that happens depends on the soil’s lead levels. A study commissioned by the county in August already concluded dangerous lead levels in the air have contributed to elevated blood lead levels in children living less than one-and-a-half miles away. Doctors point to the use of leaded fuel in general aviation planes at the airport as the culprit.
If the soil comes back with acceptable lead levels, building low-income apartments could become reality in one of the most Latino-heavy and least affluent neighborhoods in San Jose.
“I feel like if there is going to be housing there, it should be teacher housing and for people who work at public schools in the area because they’ve also been harmed,” Maricela Lechuga, a commissioner on the Santa Clara County Airport Commission, told San José Spotlight. She’s also floated building an educational zoo or a women’s clinic at the airport site. “Whatever gets done with the land should be done with a lens toward reparations and making the nearby residents whole. Especially kids and women whose health has been impacted the most.”
The earliest the airport in East San Jose can close is 2031, which is when grant obligations to the Federal Aviation Administration will expire. Supervisors voted in August to fast-track the process for closing the airport.
Lead levels in soil
Whether or not lead levels in the soil are dangerous will be key to repurposing the property. It depends on the state’s metrics.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control establishes different acceptable lead levels depending on what the land will be used for. Soils with a total lead concentration of 80 mg/kg or less are usually considered acceptable for reuse. Soils with a total lead concentration of 320 mg/kg or less are usually considered acceptable for commercial or industrial use with state approval.
It’s unclear if Santa Clara County has tested the soil at Reid-Hillview Airport for lead. The county has not yet responded to an inquiry from San José Spotlight.
To build housing, Jay Turner, an environmental and chemical engineering professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told San José Spotlight there are different ways developers can reduce the amount of lead-laden soil to acceptable building levels. One method is called soil capping, which involves placing a layer of dirt or other similar material—known as topsoil—on top of contaminated soil. An extreme measure for particularly contaminated soil is to excavate land and place it in a landfill.
“There’s everything in between, even something very simple as amending the soil to dilute it,” Turner said.
The county’s lead study, which focused mainly on airborne lead exposure from leaded plane fuel, used 17,000 blood samples collected between 2011 and 2020 from children living near the airport. It comes amid a fight over the future of an airport that was originally constructed in 1939 for private-use only.
Officials fighting to keep the airport open announced in August the planes will switch to unleaded fuel.
“You’ve taken away part of the problem,” Turner said. “I would still claim you could only convince me the problem has gone away after you do the lead testing of the soil.”
Though eliminating leaded fuel is a first step for development, it’s not the last one.
When supervisors voted to fast-track closing the airport, they also voted to require planes to stop using leaded fuel. One flight school at Reid-Hillview has already committed to running all unleaded fuel.
Opponents say the airport serves a critical purpose for smaller planes and emergency operations. John McGowan, a spokesperson for the Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation, has lobbied the county to keep the airport open, saying there are other places for developers to place residential units.
“With the airport’s closure blocked until 2031, we’ve said repeatedly there are other sites for affordable housing that could be developed much sooner, ranging from the Hillview Golf Course to the fairgrounds,” McGowan told San José Spotlight. “The two primary issues linked to building affordable housing are the high costs and poor returns that discourages investment in such housing, plus the congestion and traffic resulting from such housing projects.”