By Jack Stubbs
In the nine-county Northern California Bay Area, persistent considerations around the environmental viability of large-scale projects across the region continue to mount. Heading towards second quarter 2020, design teams are faced with a unique set of challenges with their respective infrastructural undertakings.
Before it became known as Silicon Valley—an area now synonymous with some of the world’s largest and most innovative technology companies like Google, Apple, eBay and Adobe, among others–Santa Clara Valley was once known primarily as one of the most expansive fruit production and packing regions in the world. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, however, the pristine agricultural character steadily began to be replaced by a spirit of technological innovation through inventions like the “cloud” and other tech-centered endeavors sweeping through the region.
Along with this expansion came the need for greater transit-oriented connectivity throughout the region. Mineta San José International Airport (SJC), located in the heart of Silicon Valley and serving a diverse region of nearly four million people and thousands of companies, has over the years become a focal point for the region; and it continues to evolve as the region around it continues its transformation.
SJC—which is bounded by U.S. 101 to the north, the Guadalupe River and State Route 87 to the east, Interstate 880 to the south, and Coleman Avenue to the west—recently underwent a landmark moment in its evolution.
At a public hearing held on March 11th, The San Jose Planning Commission unanimously approved staff recommendations for finalizing the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and amending the Airport Master Plan. The meeting was also attended by various private and public agencies and interested parties, who submitted comments and feedback regarding the EIR for the Airport Master Plan. The San Jose Airport Commission and the Santa Clara County Airport Land Use Commission had previously approved the Airport Master Plan Amendment.
While the recent hearing moved the Airport Master Plan one further step forward in its evolution—the EIR and Airport Master Plan Amendment are now scheduled to go to the City Council—it also represented the latest milestone in a much longer-term framework for SJC, according to Demetria Machado, Assistant Public Information Manager with Mineta San José International Airport.
“The overall objectives for the Master Plan Update remain the same as when we started this process, which are to extend the planning period ten years [from 2027] to 2037, outline the City’s overall future vision of the airport and provide a framework for specific improvements for the airfield and the terminal, and continue to keep SJC responsive to the forecasted long-term traveling needs of Silicon Valley residents and businesses,” Machado said.
The Draft EIR—and the Airport Master Plan, more generally–also involves a significant environmental component: in conformance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its guidelines, the Final EIR provides comprehensive information regarding the potential environmental consequences of the proposed project like considerations around air quality analysis, forecasts of aviation demand and noise and traffic congestion. “The EIR includes responses to the various comments we received during the public review process…the EIR for the Master Plan Amendment identifies the environmental impacts anticipated from future Airport growth and proposes mitigation measures to minimize these impacts to the extent possible,” Machado added, also emphasizing how the EIR, and the implementation of the SJC Master Plan more generally, would require a collaborative, comprehensive approach moving forward.
“Upon approval, those mitigation measures become part of the continued implementation of the Airport Master Plan, with some of the measures requiring direct collaboration with other organizations—most notably the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency for the mitigation of biological resource impacts,” she said. “We understand the important role that we play in our region’s long-term viability. We [also] created a Sustainability Plan to continue to address environmental impacts and accommodate our passenger growth. We must adapt to energy, water and other resource constraints by aligning our capital programs, working with our tenants to improve sustainability practices, and collaborating with our airlines to address air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.”
In November 2019, the City of San Jose circulated the Draft EIR to a number of local government, Santa Clara County and transportation planning agencies hoping to weigh in on the project–some of the notified agencies included Santa Clara County Airport Land Use Commission; the Planning Department; the Historic Landmarks Commission; Bay Area Air Quality Management District; and Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)/Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).
Many of the comments received on the Draft EIR raised similar concerns regarding the issue of noise pollution from aircraft flights over the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, and Sunnyvale, according to the project document on the city of San Jose’s website, an issue which is exacerbated by the presence of various other airports in the nearby vicinity, including San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), Palo Alto (PAO), and Moffett Federal Airfield (NUQ). However, The Draft EIR analysis concluded that increases in aircraft-generated noise between 2018 and 2037 would not be significant.
In addition to addressing various related environmental concerns, the hope is that the revised Airport Master Plan will allow for the expected increase in demand in and around SJC in the coming years, which remains a focal point of the regional economy, according to Machado. “The forecasted long-term growth in passenger traffic and flights reflects the continuing growth of the Silicon Valley economy, and SJC is a critical partner to help support that economy. The principal features of the… amendment include the next phase of expansion of terminal capacity with the addition of six gates, increasing landside capacity for airport access and parking, and improvements to the airfield,” she said.
According to data compiled on the city’s web site, demand at SJC is expected to increase across a number of metrics in the coming years: currently, the annual service volume (number of operations) sits at 240,363, and this figure is projected to increase to 241,700 by 2037. The average aircraft delay (in minutes) is also expected to increase as a result, rising from 0.5 minutes to 2.25 minutes. Additionally, there were a total 7.14 million enplanements (passengers boarded) in 2018, which is projected to increase to nearly 11.3 million by 2037. In 2018, the average annual number of enplanements per gate was 238,021, which is expected to rise to 312,944 over the next nineteen-year period.
In terms of the expanding Bay Area region, major transit hubs like SJC continue to play an important role in helping to grow the local economy. “Commercial-service airports are economic engines for their communities. SJC, in particular, creates (direct) jobs for some 6,000 community members. Many more thousands of jobs are created (indirectly) through tourism partners such as hotels, restaurants and local entertainment/sports venues,” Machado explained, noting how this was especially true for the increasingly tech-centric character of the Silicon Valley.
“It’s essential that residents and businesses have a convenient and accessible airport that allows them choices in airlines, nonstop destinations and competitive fares. SJC serves that need for our Silicon Valley community, especially for local hi-tech companies such as Adobe, Apple, Facebook and Google, whose employees need to travel globally to company headquarters, partners and customers,” she said.
And while the more recent review of the EIR and Airport Master Plan indicated positive progress for the airport itself and for the surrounding community, significant work still needs to be done to ensure that the shared vision can eventually become a reality, thinks Machado. “Council’s approval of the Master Plan Amendment and its Final EIR would allow the Airport and the City to proceed with implementation of improvements at the Airport to accommodate the anticipated future needs of SJC over the next two decades. However, specific projects [like this] will still require funding, design, and construction,” Machado added.
“The approval of the Airport Master Plan…provides a strategic framework for the many projects under the umbrella of the overall plan. The Master Plan Update and the EIR together represent a major milestone to make sure that SJC continues to serve Silicon Valley travelers well into the future.”