The long-simmering debate over closing Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose and replacing it with a neighborhood development is expected to heat up again next week as Santa Clara County supervisors consider potential uses for the land.
The Reid-Hillview airport, built more than 80 years ago, occupies nearly 200 acres that advocates say could be better used amid Silicon Valley’s housing crisis.
However, others say closing the general aviation airport would deprive the community of an important resource for jobs, education and fire protection.
Supervisors on Nov. 17 will review two preliminary reports on land-use options. A nod from supervisors could direct county staff to begin the master planning process. The airport would continue operating for at least the next decade while legal and design plans are created.
Teresa Alvarado, chief of Local Impact at SPUR, said the best use of the Reid-Hillview is no longer for aviation, and other airports could handle its chores.
“We have an opportunity to plan for mixed uses and create a complete community here,” Alvarado said. “We have an opportunity to amplify the voices of local communities and create healthy accessible neighborhoods that meet long-term community needs.”
In 2018, Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese, and former Supervisor Ken Yeager, voted 3-2 to stop accepting Federal Aviation Administration grants for Reid-Hillview. This action allows the county to close the airport sometime after 2031. Officials contend they only have an obligation to keep the airport running 20 years since its last accepted federal grant, which was in 2011.
In a study, county staff compared the airport site to the similarly-sized Cottle Transit Village project in San Jose. All told, the Cottle project is set to include more than 3,000 homes and two commercial centers. Theoretically, the Reid-Hillview site could accommodate a similarly sized development.
“This site could provide new land uses,” said Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair and a member of the Si Se Puede! Collective.
The site could be a place where “families can access quality and dignified education, economic mobility, public transportation, high quality green space, services, programs and most of all the badly needed affordable housing,” Llanes-Fontanilla said.
Through several public meetings, residents told the county their main desires for the space include affordable housing, open space and parks, educational/job training facilities and social services.
Among those who want the airport to remain open are the Federal Aviation Administration and prominent San Jose attorney Jim McManis, who has sued over the issue.
“They’ve let that airport deteriorate to the point where it’s dangerous and it’s a waste of a valuable asset,” McManis said. “This is obviously intentional. If it becomes a wasteland, which is what it’s approaching, everyone will say we have to do something else with it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Many residents wrote emails to the county pleading to preserve the airport.
“There is already a lack of airports available for the (Bay Area) … don’t damage the aviation community by closing such a precious resource as a local general aviation airport,” wrote resident Kacy Anderson in a September email. “Once they are gone, they will likely never be replaced.”
Others pointed out that during the SCU Lightning Complex blaze this summer, fire fighting teams used the airport to stage their response and protect the community.
“The airport is a much-needed resource,” resident LC Boro wrote. “As wildfires grow in frequency and ferocity, it would be short-sighted to raze it and install more commercial and residential units.”
A lawsuit by McManis alleges the county has wasted $400,000 in taxpayer dollars on studies for alternative uses of the airport property. It also alleges the county declining federal grants has, in effect, allowed the airport to deteriorate, creating multiple safety hazards.
Supervisors next week also will review a report assessing how shutting the airport would affect emergency response in the region.
Currently, two emergency response teams, Disaster Airlift Response Team (DART) and the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), use the airport as part of their operations. They are not first responders; instead, they provide support as part of a larger regional network.
According to the county, agencies such as Santa Clara County Fire and San Jose police and fire departments don’t use the airport for emergency response. CalFire is said to use it one to two times a year for wildfire response.