Mountain View Voice

Opinion - September 17, 2010

Expo at Moffett an enticing idea

Just last week, the idea of turning Moffett Field's iconic Hangar One into the Western outpost of the Smithsonian Museum seemed a bit grandiose. That's all changed, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pitch this weekend to make the sprawling site the host of the 2020 World Expo.

With all of the innovation that has gone on here in the last few decades, Silicon Valley seems an obvious choice for a World Expo. And Moffett Field is an unbeatable location.

In Shanghai, the site of this year's World Expo, the governor said Moffett Field's location in the heart of the Silicon Valley is the natural home for a fair dedicated to showing off the world's innovations and futuristic ideas. "I want the world to come to California," Gov. Schwarzenegger said.

Bringing the Expo to Mountain View certainly won't be without its challenges, but the benefits could be enormous. World Expos draw millions of visitors from around the world over a six-month period — hundreds of thousands of visitors a day. For Bay Area residents already weary of traffic jams, the prospect of adding to the mess for half a year is not a happy one. But the project could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally spur redevelopment of Moffett.

A realistic assessment of the pros and cons must be undertaken right away so that local officials can understand the whether short-term headaches will be worth the projected long-term benefits.

Once the Expo's visitors pack up and head home, backers say that Mountain View could be left with vastly improved public transit facilities and new buildings that could be converted into a home for the much-desired University of California campus in Silicon Valley.

"Everything that's built could be used for a whole multitude of purposes, whether academic, business-related or nonprofit," said the Bay Area Council's Jim Wunderman, the president of a group representing 270 Bay Area companies that is promoting putting the World Expo at Moffett Field.

The conceptual sketch from the Bay Area Council depicts a dreamy aerial view that harkens back to nostalgic notions of the Worlds Fairs of decades past. The concept calls for the runway and airfield at Moffett to be replaced by a waterway, promenade and other structures. Moffett's large hangars would morph into grand exhibition halls. At the north end would be a ferry terminal on the Bay and a "Google pavilion" near Google's undeveloped Moffett property.

The community may have to decide if it wants to let go of the airfield once and for all, which may not be a bad thing. Mountain View has blocked previous plans to increase its use, while NASA Ames officials say it's not financially viable under the current cap of 25,000 flights a year.

If the projected economic benefits to the region hold up to scrutiny, it would be a huge boon. This year's world exposition in Shanghai is being called an "economic stimulus package" that is estimated to generate an $11.6 billion net economic impact on Shanghai and the surrounding region, including $40 billion worth of improvements to roads, subway lines and airport terminals, according to Gov. Schwarzenegger's office.

There's no doubt that Moffett Field is an underused asset with great potential. A former United States Naval Air Station, Moffett Field encompasses about 1,800 acres of federally owned land. There are dozens of vacant Navy buildings destined for the wrecking ball to make room for the university and NASA Research Park development. It is home to NASA Ames Research Center, a U.S. Army and Air National Guard presence, numerous private companies and a lightly used but very large airfield.

Moffett Field is also home to about 30 threatened, rare or endangered plants and animals, including burrowing owls. Any plan to create a site for the World Expo obviously will have to protect these sensitive habitat areas.

With tens of millions flocking to Moffett to see the wonders assembled there, it will be hard to imagine it would go back to being largely vacant and underused. And the Expo represents the best chance for restoration of Hangar One. Organizers couldn't ask for a better exhibition hall than the massive hangar, and it could spur efforts to use it to house a permanent air and space museum operated under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.

Time is short — California and the U.S. must submit the formal Expo 2020 candidacy application in 2011 — and the competition for the privilege of hosting the event will be stiff.

Bringing the World Expo here clearly would be a major boost to efforts to renew Moffett Field and speed its progress toward becoming a truly world-class hub of research, education and innovation. We hope the City Council will act quickly to get behind the idea.

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