Balboa Park's Friday court date full of drama
Written by Matthew T. Hall
1/31/13 - 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
Friday's San Diego Superior Court hearing to settle the fate of a $45 million plan to reduce car traffic through Balboa Park has all the star power and story lines of Sunday's Super Bowl.
For starters, it pits one of San Diego's few billionaires, Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs, against the city and state's oldest continually operating historic preservation group, the Save Our Heritage Organisation.
For another, if the ruling goes against Jacobs and the city of San Diego, the chances of completing the high-profile project by Balboa Park's 2015 centennial celebration would decrease dramatically, if not disappear completely.
What's more, a city and Jacobs victory Friday requires a Hail Mary.
In an unusually politicized tentative ruling issued last Friday, Judge Timothy Taylor reached "the reluctant conclusion" that the city had abused its discretion. He preliminarily sided with preservationists even while calling them "shortsighted" and lauding the merits of Jacobs' idea.
Then there's this: It won't surprise me if City Attorney Jan Goldsmith takes the rare step of arguing the case in court today, because he made a similar appearance in a related lawsuit that SOHO filed in 2011. SOHO won that decision.
Jacobs and his backers have pledged to provide about $30 million for this controversial project if the city floats a bond to cover the remaining expense. They first pushed the plan two and a half years ago.
Jacobs' Plaza de Panama Committee wants to clear all cars from the heart of Balboa Park and build a bypass bridge to the west to move traffic toward a new 800-space, paid-parking garage south of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. That brings up another controversial issue: the potential proliferation of paid parking in a public park.
The only way my Super Bowl analogy breaks down is that the litigants don't want to talk, unlike football players who won't stop yapping to the media.
In a wrinkle, the most loquacious person Thursday was San Diego's media-shy mayor Bob Filner, who talked about it during a San Diego Press Club forum.
Filner's opposition to Jacobs' plan has been well-documented and even ridiculed to the point where Filner apologized for making things too personal.
In July, here's what then-mayoral candidate Filner said when he urged the City Council, in vain, to reject Jacobs' idea: "Maybe Qualcomm loses its value. Maybe Irwin dies, heaven forbid. Maybe he won't like the next mayor. I don't know. But how do you put the financing on a private committee? ... There's virtually no confidence that the paid financing will meet the bond issue."
Despite some subsequent hedging on the campaign trail that he would support Jacobs' plan if it were ruled legal, Filner reiterated his opposition at Thursday's forum, calling it "much too intrusive and too expensive."
"I mean, $40 million to close down the park?" Filner scoffed. "I could do it with six traffic cones to stop the traffic from coming in.
"I'm going to urge the parties to mediate this," he added. "They were engaged in mediation before the council moved on this, and I was told that there was some progress there. But if you get into the legal system, it's not going to be ready in time anyway. There's a very tight construction schedule to get that done, so if you can't start construction soon, we probably shouldn't start it because then it interferes with the whole centennial thing."
Plus, Filner said, delaying or scuttling the project would allow the popular annual Earth Day fair to take place in the center of Balboa Park. The festival is in danger of being canceled or moved because of Plaza de Panama construction.
To call the stakes of Friday's hearing high would be an understatement. SOHO may be holding better cards, but would you want to bet against a billionaire?
It's obvious that SOHO executive director Bruce Coons is nervous.
Consider the telephone exchange I had with him Thursday about the possibility of renewed mediation, as his publicist complained in the background that he was "jeopardizing everything" by talking to me before the court ruling was final.
"Is (renewed mediation) even possible?" I asked him.
"Nothing's impossible, but there's nothing like that (now)," he said.
My next question: "Was there ever a chance (that last year's mediation) was going to work?"
"No," Coons said. "The other side never negotiated in good faith. It was, 'My way or the highway.'"
Coons' publicist interrupted: "We're done. We're done."
"There was no movement whatsoever," Coons continued.
"We're done," his publicist said again.
Gordon Kovtun, the construction manager for Jacobs' project, didn't even call me back.
Presumably, both sides will have plenty to say after Taylor's 1:30 p.m. hearing, which is expected to draw such a crowd that people are planning to arrive early to ensure a seat in Department 72 of the county courthouse.
This is Taylor's show, so we'll give him the last word for now.
From page eight of his nine-page ruling: "Not lost on the court is the very real possibility that this decision will cause (Jacobs' committee) to abandon its efforts to raise money for a long-desired project in Balboa Park, and at a minimum render very difficult a centennial celebration along the lines hoped for by so many.
"The court agrees with the city and (Jacobs' committee) that the positives from the project seem to far outweigh the negatives. The loss of the generous funding offered by (Jacobs and others) will be a sad day for San Diego, because no other funding source has been identified. ...
"SOHO's opposition to the project seems shortsighted, as the project appears to offer many net benefits in terms of restoration of historic resources. But the law is the law, and the court is bound to follow it."
Taylor is the referee in this story, and his agonizing tentative ruling was a coin toss to kick off the game. Will there be overtime in the form of an appeal? Perhaps. But SOHO is the favored side now, and the game is afoot.
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