Op-Ed: We Need a Cohesive Vision for Silicon Valley’s Airport

“Begin with the end in mind,” is the wisdom businessman and educator Stephen Covey taught us decades ago. It is important to have a clear and common vision that aligns the strategies necessary to accomplish something big and bold.

When we look at the proposed changes to San Jose’s Airport Master Plan, we see a capacity planning exercise, not a vision.

What we don’t see is how this incredible community asset ties into other nearby assets such as the adjacent Guadalupe River and its associated park, downtown and Diridon Station to the south, the Santa Clara train station to the west, BART to the East and the economic engine of North San Jose.

It's time to reimagine the airport as more than just a place that facilitates the movement of people and goods. It can be so much more than that and can be an integral part of the community as a place to live, work, shop, and play.

Author of the blog Airport Urbanism and University of Minnesota professor Max Hirsh indicates that this happening today in places like the Netherlands, Finland and Singapore. He suggests that creative use of airport land can help an airport’s finances by dampening the economic volatility of the airline industry.

Hirsh writes: “Leading global hubs like Amsterdam Schiphol, for example, generate up to 20 percent of their overall income—and more than a third of their profits—through land-side real estate. That’s because the profit margins on commercial developments are considerably higher compared to aeronautical charges.”

The 20-million-passenger Helsinki Airport, located in the nearby city of Vantaa, Finland is creating a dense, urban walkable city center, Aviapolis, where people from bag handlers to knowledge workers will live. It will also provide foreign visitors a first impression of Finland. Tapping the creativity of the crowds, Vantaa held an international competition to elicit ideas on how to shape this innovate urban airport district.

When you look at SJC’s strategic location on a river next to a park—really the Central Park of San Jose—near transit hubs, it is in a good position to help alleviate some of the city’s housing, commercial office space, transportation and limited parkland issues.

We have several activities going on that should be considered as inputs to the master plan, including the one engine inoperative study, the upcoming community meetings for the Diridon Station Area—aka the Google village—the airline lease negotiations. All these things will impact each other, and they are especially going to impact the Master Plan’s projections for future growth.

As the community and city participate in these activities, it is important to have a mindset of what will be in 2037 and beyond, not what is today. From air taxis to shared electric, autonomous vehicles to the standardization of modularized, car-free, micro-housing, both mobility and the built environment are going to be significantly different two decades from now.

Whether this means reduced parking demands or new feeder routes from on-demand air taxies, technology and operational improvements will have impacts on both the land-side and airside operations of the airport.

None of these potential changes are addressed in the master plan.

It's time we stop checking the boxes as part of planning exercises and begin thinking outside the box to create a vision—a vision that aligns seemingly disparate projects into a cohesive community, making for a better San Jose and a better Silicon Valley.

Ken Pyle represents San Jose’s District 1 as a commissioner for the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. This column is excerpted from a recent submission, by Pyle, Dan Connolly, Ray Green and Cathy Hendrix, to the city of San Jose regarding the Airport Master Plan. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected]


  1. I envision an organized tent city of homeless people living peacefully on the southern approach to the airport.
    That would be progressive use of land!

  2. “None of these potential changes are addressed in the master plan.”

    Specifics please. What, exactly would you put in the master plan?

  3. > the standardization of modularized, car-free, micro-housing, both mobility

    I’m against the standardization of modularized, car-free, micro-housing.

    Don’t put that in the Master Plan.

    There. I’ve provided community input to the local planning process. Am I civic minded or what!

    • To be clear, we aren’t talking about poorly constructed, inefficient mobile homes from the 1960s, but factory-built, technology-infused housing that is more energy and space efficient and quieter than stick-built construction at lower cost. There are a number of companies in this evolving space, from Blokable, to Factory OS to Honomobo.

      If we can create housing near where people work, such as the airport, this allows people to live near where they work and reduce their need for a car, which leaves more money in their pockets and reduces demands on the roadway. As a transportation hub and given its central location, SJC should be a puzzle piece that includes North San Jose, the Santa Clara Train Station, Santana Row area and Downtown/Diridon

      Here is an interview with Patrick Kennedy, a long-time developer of affordable housing, that provides more background on the concept of micro, modular and car-free


      • > If we can create housing near where people work, such as the airport, this allows people to live near where they work and reduce their need for a car, which leaves more money in their pockets and reduces demands on the roadway.

        Sounds like you have people’s lives all planned out for them.

        You might also have added that planning peoples’ lives for them will save money on education. There will be no need for them to think for themselves, or even to read or write. So we can save hugely on schools and teachers.

        All the the government will need to do is just train people to eat out of their supperdishes and use flush toilets.

      • Thanks, but I don’t work for the city or government. Again, the views expressed are my own and certainly not the city’s or airport’s view. The Airport Commission is an advisory body to the San José City Council. Commissioners are volunteers.

  4. This is a very interesting article. I like the idea of affordable housing being built for the airport workers. I’m pretty they are not making enough to afford the cost of living in the Bay Area. Living within walking or biking distance to your job is a real benefit. I bet it would help significantly with employee turnover also.

    • Thanks! I agree that employers at and nearby the airport could see this as a great benefit to help retain employees. It is also a convenient location to downtown and North San Jose.

      Also, how can the river be an asset? Several decades ago there was talk of creating more of a San Antonio Riverwalk feel along the Guadalupe. Could something like that be part of a 50-year plan and could it extend to the airport? Indianapolis has done an amazing job with its 3-mile Canal Walk.


  5. > I like the idea of affordable housing being built for the airport workers.

    Why not just build affordable housing for everyone.

    Also, let me be the first in San Jose to propose a Universal Basic Income of $50,000.

    And, if that’s not enough for a decent standard of living for everyone, I’m willing to go higher.

    And, people shouldn’t have to pay for their free health care and their free college tuition out of their UBI.

  6. Yes, we should figure out how to build housing that is affordable. As implied in my response regarding modular, car-free, and micro, let’s find all means, both from a construction technique (e.g. factory-built, efficient space use, etc.) and regulatory reform (e.g. permit streamlining for modular construction) so that we can create naturally affordable housing.

    At the same time, let look at public lands (e.g. above public parking lots, as mentioned above in the referenced interview with Patrick Kennedy) as opportunities. If we are going to build publicly subsidized housing, then we should first look to publicly-owned lands and associated air rights to see how we can leverage taxpayer dollars.

    To see an example of what an idea for how to maximize public lands, please see this post


    • Building housing IS affordable! That’s not the problem.

      The land under it is more than three-quarters of the cost.

      How are you gonna reduce the cost of land? With modular, car-free, micro baloney?

      • Part of what I am advocating is building housing on public land that is underutlized, such as a parking lot or above a road. The land isn’t free in that circumstance, but it is much cheaper than land devoted solely to housing. As an example, please see the example given in this link how 4-acres could be potentially used above the VTA-North bus yard. This would be near jobs, and, literally, right on top of transit. That same link features an interview with Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests. He is a pioneer in this area, but there are many others working on similar ideas. http://winchesternac.com/2016/08/16/10000-homes-in-a-year-on-underutilized-land-part-2/

  7. Remember the people mover? San Jose Airport needs to embrace Light Rail, Caltrain, Bart and High Speed Rail with an in terminal train station with one stop access to downtown, hockey, soccer & football stadiums. The Guadalupe Creek Trail needs a @FordGoBike station and no crosswalk connection for bicyclists. An in terminal hotel, museum and conference center would help. High density housing and business towers along one side of the runway would be better than the 19 story height limit downtown.

    • @Riptide360 – thanks for the comments and the ideas, particularly for the idea of better utilizing spaces with various ways to activate spaces.

      Regarding the people mover idea, a transit connector is part of VTA’s 2040 plan (T-18, referenced on page 38 in the VTA plan) at $81M. This is called a “Financially Constrained Transit Project” at this point. This is probably worth a closer looks, as applying the Boring Company’s costs, a connector might be constructed for a 1/4 cost. At that rate, private capital might be interested. The following link provides a high level view of what it might look like from a financial perspective:


      Views are my own.

  8. Ken,

    Master Plan, What Master Plan? Taking out 94th Aero Squadron in favor of San Jose Jet expansion? The price of food tripled. No Light Rail Directly to the Airport? No Airport Off Ramp from Either 880 or 101, without going through a maze of gas guzzling stop lights? The Airport Mall project Nixed by the City Council. The People Mover was set for 1995, then cancelled, too far from the airport to North First Street . Build the Residential Towers on Metro. no wait we need more office space.
    Planners didn’t think it would cause any extra Vehicle Congestion. Until the neighbors figured out it would & complained to, Cindy or David, or Tom or Susan or whoever had tromped through District 3 over the past decades.
    Skyport was supposed to run to North 4th Street But Master Planner Pete said, lets put these towers here. No Overpass from Zanker to North 4th Street to alleviate traffic, even though that was on the master plan from the 1960’s.

    When is Plan not a Plan?
    When it is a City of San Jose Plan.

    The 300 plus houses torn out on Hedding because it was in the flight path, never made into a park or even totally cleared, the sewer pipes were still connected, and until the homeless figured that out & made a large encampment. Then it was a concern.

    I always think the storage centers would make great homeless shelters, often secured with fencing & guards, a door, and a small place with different sizes., for differnt size families. Put in a few bathrooms & shower areas, and have counselors on site, all types of counselors.

    Teacher barracks on every school campus, Rounding up disused light rail cars & converting them for housing use, like in the 40’s & 50’s.

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