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"Nobody thought to ask FAA if City Hall would be too tall"

Thursday, October 19, 2000

Nobody thought to ask FAA if City Hall would be too tall
The San Jose (CA) Mercury News

With its 320-foot tower, San Jose's new City Hall would take downtown to
never-before-seen heights. So high, in fact, that the building may never be
constructed without a redesign.

Responding to questions raised by the Mercury News, city officials
acknowledged Wednesday that they have not yet checked to see whether the
proposed building -- by far the tallest in the city -- would violate San
Jose International Airport airspace restrictions.

That's a surprising omission, given that the city has had to seek similar
reviews on every other downtown high-rise constructed in recent years. Many
of those buildings have been modified to win favor from federal aviation

It probably would be no easy matter to redesign City Hall, given that it
took months of controversy to reach the current building plan.

City officials say they hope the Federal Aviation Administration can be
persuaded to sign off on that plan. But they admit they have no real reason
to be hopeful.

``I don't think anybody knows what will happen,'' said Bill Ekern, director
of project management for the city redevelopment agency, which oversees much
of the development downtown.

So far no one is taking responsibility for neglecting the height issue.

Architects with Los Angeles-based Richard Meier & Partners said they had
been told by city officials there were no airport-related issues at the
building site at North Fifth and East Santa Clara streets.

Paul Marino, a city public works architect assigned to the City Hall
project, said last week that ``it would have been the redevelopment agency''
that reviewed the airspace issue.

But the agency's Ekern said ``any discussion would have come through public
works or Meier's office just to test the waters.''

Problems seem real

What does seem clear is that the airport restrictions are a problem.

There is no maximum allowable height for buildings downtown; it depends on
where they're located and the materials from which they're constructed,
among other factors. But an airport-generated map of airspace for the entire
city makes it clear that height is an issue at the proposed City Hall

``Clearly the building would penetrate the imaginary surface on the map''
that defines when the FAA needs to be notified, said Cary Greene, a planner
with the airport who said he wasn't consulted about the height issues until
this week. ``That doesn't mean necessarily it would violate the airspace,
but it does trigger the need for review.''

FAA officials in Los Angeles said they could not comment on the proposal
until they reviewed an application from the city.

San Jose would not be in this mess had the City Hall design never become
controversial. Meier's first architectural effort called for a 230-foot-tall
building, which would have been lower than many other buildings in the heart
of downtown that are closer to the airport flight path.

But when Mayor Ron Gonzales pushed for a grander structure, Meier came back
with a design that peaks at 320 feet above the street, or 400 feet above sea

That is far higher than any building that has previously been approved in
downtown San Jose.

The airport's airspace map shows an arc running along a radius 10,000 feet
from the end of the airport's main runway. That arc represents an imaginary
surface 208 feet above sea level, which is the point at which the FAA takes
interest in building heights. The FAA grants waivers to go well beyond that
height, but it has also imposed some maximum limits.

For instance, last year, Knight Ridder was allowed to place its sign atop
the building at 50 W. San Fernando at 264 feet above ground, or 352 feet
above sea level. The company had hoped to place the sign above the roof,
extending another 11 feet into the air, but the FAA rejected that proposal.

The same arc that runs through the Knight Ridder building also encompasses
the City Hall site four blocks east and one block north -- even though the
City Hall site is farther from the main flight path. As proposed, City Hall
would rise 48 feet higher than the Knight Ridder sign, raising serious
questions about whether the FAA will approve.

Obeying the FAA

The FAA does not have the last word on permitting development -- the city
does -- but city regulations call for respecting any FAA recommendations on
airport hazards.

``The only one that can give us a definitive answer as to whether that's a
problem or hazard is the FAA,'' Marino said of the City Hall design.

City officials could not say whether a redesign would end up adding to the
cost of the project or further delay it. That, said Deputy Public Works
Director Gary Thompson, would depend on how significant a redesign would be

At present, groundbreaking for City Hall is not scheduled until the spring
of 2002.

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