After years of controversy and a court battle involving local schools, the Long Beach Airport is moving ahead with a $136-million improvement project designed to modernize the facility without sacrificing its historic Art Deco terminal or reputation among travelers for convenience.
The project also satisfies community groups and city leaders who worked to scale back earlier proposals, which they feared would have weakened the city's noise ordinance that limits commercial and commuter flights at the airport because of surrounding residential neighborhoods.
Plans call for a new 1,989-space parking structure, ramp improvements and a concourse with a central garden and 11 gates that will replace the temporary trailers where travelers now wait for flights. About $2 million will be spent to refurbish the old terminal, which was built in 1941 and declared a historic landmark by the city decades later.
The project, however, will retain the open-air feeling of the current terminal complex, and passengers will still walk across the tarmac when boarding or leaving their planes. Baggage claim also will be partially enclosed as it is today.
"It will be pleasantly unlike other airports," said Mario Rodriguez, airport director. "Passengers will enter through a vintage terminal and pass into a modern concourse, all in a low-stress environment."
The parking structure, which will replace two surface lots and the airport's remote lot, is underway. After the City Council approves the final design in June as expected and contracts are awarded, work on the concourse and terminal improvements could begin by year's end. Everything should be completed in 2013.
"The project is designed to meet the needs and demands of our passengers," said Sharon Diggs-Jackson, an airport spokeswoman. "We want to keep it simple and efficient."
Long Beach Airport, which has been owned by the city since 1923, handles about 3 million commercial passengers a year, served by six airlines. The airfield is also popular among private pilots, commuter services and corporate jet operators, which account for about 300,000 takeoffs and landings annually.
The airport is known for its terminal, easy access by car and convenience for travelers who can usually get through check-in and security substantially faster than at Los Angeles International Airport or other major airports in the region.
Passengers say they welcome the new concourse and improvements as long as they don't lead to an increase in passengers or interfere with what makes the airport so attractive.
"We love this airport. It actually makes travel pleasurable," said Marlene Meng of San Pedro, who was there last week to pick up her grandsons and daughter. "They could use some new facilities. The airport is sort of a throwback."
The plan for the terminal and concourse will almost double the complex to about 74,000 square feet. Officials say the work will be financed with bonds sold to investors and the debt will be paid off over time with fees charged to airlines and passengers.
Officials at JetBlue Airways, which established its West Coast hub in Long Beach, said they were glad that the airport was finally proceeding with the project. Citing frustration with a lack of improvements, the discount airline indicated in April 2009 that it might cease operations at the airport.
"We had expressed our concerns earlier. The city has now really started to move forward. The parking structure is going full speed ahead," said Rich Smyth, vice president of corporate real estate for JetBlue. "We still have some things to work out, but there is nothing significant."
Earlier options for the project called for a much larger terminal complex: 133,000 square feet. But the proposals ran into opposition from community groups, who feared that the larger projects would encourage more flights and prompt attempts to weaken the city's noise ordinance.
Under the measure, commercial flights are now capped at 41 per day and commuter flights at 25. Today, the commercial slots are filled, and 16 commuter slots remain vacant.
In 2006, the Long Beach Unified School District joined the dispute when it filed a lawsuit alleging that the city's environmental analysis for the project was flawed and that dozens of schools would be affected by noise.
Two years later, a Superior Court judge upheld the city's environmental impact report, which concluded that the project would not affect noise and air quality.
Because of community concerns and the severe economic downturn in the airline industry, city officials steadily reduced the scale of the proposal to its current size.
"It's fabulous. It's the compromise everyone was hoping to reach," said Long Beach City Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who opposed earlier versions of the project. "It serves the airlines, the project better represents the city, and it respects the noise ordinance that protects the community."