Judge blocks Plaza de Panama project at Balboa Park

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SAN DIEGO — A judge Monday affirmed his earlier tentative ruling that the San Diego City Council violated the city’s municipal code when it approved a bitterly contested plan to remove cars from the center of Balboa Park.

In a lawsuit filed by preservationists, San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor decided there was no evidence to support a finding by the council that the project area would have no reasonable beneficial use if the plan wasn’t approved. The finding was necessary because of the park’s historic status.

plaza de panama

Proposed parking structure for Plaza de Panama.

He had found in favor of Plaza de Panama plan supporters on two other issues raised in the Save Our Heritage Organisation’s suit, but his decision on the third point effectively derails the project for the moment.

In an updated ruling following oral arguments on Friday, the judge said he couldn’t find in favor of the plan even after he adopted the city’s interpretation of the municipal code. He said the fact that the park operates now shows there is a beneficial use without the plan.

“SOHO is extremely gratified by the court’s ruling,” said SOHO Exec. Dir. Bruce Coons. “Balboa Park is a rare and extraordinary site, filled with history, culture, and beauty. It would have been nothing short of a travesty to lose this treasure to a remodel better suited for an industrial park.”

SOHO primarily objects to a proposed bridge on the west side of the park that would carry traffic around the Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California, and toward a mostly underground parking structure that would be built behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The organization contends the bridge would be unsightly and place the park’s historic status in jeopardy.

SOHO otherwise agrees with the basic concept of removing vehicles from the park’s core, though Coons said the overall effect of the city’s plan would increase the presence of cars in the park.

“While one small area was to be freed up, the rest of the park was, in fact, designed to be dominated by vehicles in a sea of traffic, new buildings and acres of concrete,” Coons said in his statement. “It would have turned once tranquil park areas, such as the Alcazar Gardens, into an automobile, bus, and semi-truck delivery zone.”

The judge’s ruling sets aside the City Council’s approval of the project, but he conceded the issue would probably be appealed. He also said he was reluctant to make the ruling, since it could cost millions of dollars of funding put forth by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs.

City Council President Todd Gloria said he stands by the plan.

“In this particular case the judge felt as though with one technical aspect that we weren’t in complete conformance,” said Gloria. “But we were in conformance with environmental law and with state law. It’s the municipal code with this particular very finite piece that he just couldn’t get past.”

Gloria said the city will continue working toward a plan to make Balboa Park more pedestrian friendly. He said some options include appealing the decision, trying mediation and even changing municipal code.

“What’s interesting is that the judge, despite his ruling, agreed with the city,” said Gloria. “He said very, very clearly that the plan had more positives, more benefits than negatives and he reluctantly ruled in the direction that he did. I think that’s telling. And the members of the public need to know that, that the guy who rendered this decision would like to see the project move forward.”

Mayor Bob Filner said Monday he would like both sides to continue mediation.

“I call upon SOHO, Dr. Irwin Jacobs, and the Centennial Park Committee,” said Filner. “To work cooperatively and expeditiously toward a plan that converts the Plaza de Panama to predominantly pedestrian use.”

The plan’s supporters had hoped to complete the project within two years, in time for a planned yearlong celebration of Balboa Park’s 100th anniversary.

The city attorney’s office also released a statement Monday: “We are pleased that Judge Taylor’s ruling upheld the City’s CEQA process and the proper vetting of the Environment Impact Report.  We are carefully reviewing the judge’s interpretation of the City’s ordinance at issue and will be discussing options with our client. At this point, we are not prepared to announce a course of action but we expect to do so in the near future.”

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