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Firm Has an Offbeat, Offshore Idea for Airport in San Diego : Travel: Company floats proposal for 'Floatport,' a facility atop the ocean off Point Loma, as an alternative to Lindbergh. While planners see it as the wave of the future, there are doubters.

August 28, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — If this is Monday--or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday--there are San Diegans somewhere discussing the need, the absolute cannot-live-without-it need, to find an alternative to the city's main airport.

Since World War II, civic boosters have been trying to find a location to replace or at least supplement Lindbergh Field, considered too cramped and limited for a city of San Diego's stature. No less than three dozen studies have been done by various governmental agencies without much success for the last half a century.

But now there is a new idea being floated. Really floated.

Enter Floatport , a proposal for an airport atop 60 fathoms of water three miles off Point Loma.

Although clean and homey and convenient for the traveling public, Lindbergh Field has shortcomings that have formed a mantra for those engaged in public discourse over the city's aspirations for the future.

Lindbergh is dangerously close to downtown. Lindbergh's steep approach is a nightmare for pilots. Lindbergh's runway is too short for the jumbo planes needed for most international flights. Lindbergh needs more cargo capacity. Lindbergh's noise spews into nice neighborhoods and drowns out the actors at the outdoor Starlight Theatre in Balboa Park.

All of this is quite true, but it is also true that there is no NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) like the NIMBY fighting an airport plan. The list of politicians bloodied by the airport wars, including a former mayor named Pete Wilson who wanted a new airport on Otay Mesa, is a long one.

Numerous attempts at finding an outlying site for a new airport--north of San Diego, south of San Diego, in the desert east of San Diego or straddling the U.S.-Mexico border--have been beaten back by aroused homeowners. One civic power bloc, led by defrocked- mayor- turned- talk- show- firebrand Roger Hedgecock, would like the city to take over Miramar Naval Air Station but, to the bloc's chagrin, the Pentagon shows no signs of abandoning Miramar.

The wise San Diego politician agrees that a new airport is desperately needed but leaves the NIMBY fighting to others. Just a week ago, Mayor Susan Golding, viewed by observers as one of the city's wisest politicians, was scolded in the opinion section of the local newspaper for not risking her political capital by tackling the airport issue.

The bald truth is that, despite the editorial page and Chamber of Commerce fulminations, the move to replace Lindbergh Field is at ground zero.

"The myth of a new airport for San Diego is akin to the Loch Ness Monster," said lawyer Michael McDade, a member of the Board of Port Commissioners, which runs Lindbergh. "Something surfaces every so often, but it turns out not to be real."

Now, however, has come an unsolicited proposal from a physicist, an architect, an oceanographer and a computer programmer/wave energy specialist who believe they know a way to overcome the NIMBY opposition and political paralysis and give San Diego the modern airport it needs to fulfill what it sees as its economic destiny as a "world-class" city.

As envisioned by the four founders of Float Inc., the San Diego "floatport" would be like nothing the world has ever seen. Imagine an airport, a marina, a deep-water port for cruise ships, and maybe a hotel and resort, all kept afloat by a bold advance in naval engineering and all connected to land by a bridge or underwater tunnel for cars.

The Navy is so interested in what is called the pneumatic stabilized platform concept of Float Inc. that it just awarded the company a $1.5-million contract to do more work on how the concept could be used to build deep-water air bases.

Sliding the design from military to civilian use would be no problem, say the Float Inc. principals. To prove their point, they wrote an article for this month's Marine Technology Society Journal about building a floating airport for San Diego.

"You can call us screwy visionaries, but we're convinced that San Diego will never build another airport on land," said the firm's president and chief executive officer, Howard Blood, a physicist and former director of the Navy's Naval Oceans Systems Center in San Diego. "An offshore transportation corridor is the only alternative."

There is no shortage of doubters about an idea that would use revolutionary technology and cost in the multi-billions of dollars. "We will all be dead and in our graves before San Diego builds an airport offshore," said political consultant John Kern.

In the 1960s, then-Mayor Frank Curran suggested using blocks of compacted trash to build an island off Coronado to serve as an airport. A rival councilman had suggested blowing the top off the mountains east of San Diego to make an "airport in the sky."

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