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Judge throws Balboa Park plan in doubt

Jacob's park plan in doubt with judge's tentative ruling

Written by Roger Showley
1/28/13 - San Diego Union Tribune - Original article

Besides changes to the Plaza de Panama and El Prado, the plan calls for a bypass bridge off the Cabrillo Bridge to detour traffic through the Alcazar Garden parking lot and on toward the new garage. - Plaza de Panama Committee

The $45 million plan to clear cars and parking from the center of Balboa Park might never get off the ground.

That may be the result if Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor upholds his tentative ruling issued last Friday that would halt the plan put forth by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs. A hearing is scheduled Friday, Feb. 1., on the lawsuit by the Save Our Heritage Organisation against the city and Jacobs' Plaza de Panama Committee.

Taylor said the city is violating its own ordinance as it applies to Balboa Park and economics of changing historic sites, including Balboa Park, a national historic landmark district.

"The court's duty is to do likewise when others demand that the city be held to its own law," he said.

Jacobs' plan would remove cars and traffic from the Plaza de Panama in front of the San Diego Museum of Art and from the Plaza de California in front of the San Diego Museum of Man as a way to return the spaces back to pedestrian use.

But to accommodate continued car access, he proposed the "Centennial Bridge," a bypass off the Cabrillo Bridge on the west side of the park to funnel traffic to a new 800-space parking garage south of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

It is the bypass that SOHO and other opponents have criticized because they believe it would alter the look of the west entrance to the park, built for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. The city concedes that adding the bypass does harm the historic look but it would result in more park space for visitors. It would also restore the plazas to pedestrian-only use of a century ago.

Jacobs was hoping the improvements would be ready in time for the January 2015 kickoff to the year-long expo centennial celebration.

SOHO has not been campaigning to keep cars in the center of the park. They just want a different, "nondestructive and unintrusive" approach that protects the park's national historic landmark status, said SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons.

SOHO has backed various alternatives, including a different bypass or continued vehicle access through the plazas but removal of some parking to make room for pedestrian-only use. But Jacobs has not promised to fund any other alternative and no other donor has stepped forth to take his place.

The judge calling SOHO "shortsighted" because the Jacobs' plan offers "net benefits in terms of restoration of historic resources."

Although the bypass bridge has been the touchstone of controversy, the continuation of parking in the Plaza de Panama is the linchpin in the project's fate. That's because the city says without the Jacobs plan, there is no "reasonable beneficial use" for the parking lot, whereas SOHO and the judge say parking, while maybe not desirable, is such a use.

If the city loses, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said it will be up to the council and Mayor Bob Filner to decide what to do next.

The removal of cars and parking from the center of the park is a key feature in the park's 1989 master plan. But the city has never implemented the plan - which calls for replacing the 67 spaces in the plaza -- because it lacked the funds to build a parking garage.

"This is a sad day for those of us who understand the need to reclaim precious parkland from cars and give it back to the people for their enjoyment," said City Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents Balboa Park.

Filner's office did not offer any comment on the judge's ruling, but the City Beat newspaper quoted the mayor as telling a Hillcrest gathering last month, "I hope that the court finds (with SOHO) and some of those who want to save Balboa Park, but I've got to follow whatever the court says."

Gordon Kovtun, principal of the KCM Group construction management firm for the project, said Jacobs' committee will have to assess its next steps if it loses in court.

"We likely would not be able to finish in time for the centennial," Kovtun said.

Project planners had hoped to begin construction in March for completion in late-2014. An alternative -- other than simply posting "no parking" signs in the plaza -- could take many more months to design, review and construct.



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