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Judge promises quick park ruling

Hearing highlights pros, cons of Plaza de Panama plan

Written by Roger Showley
2/1/13 - San Diego Union Tribune - Original article

Following a 2 1/2 hour hearing Friday, Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor promised a final ruling within a few days on the proposed $45 million redo of the center of Balboa Park.

Taylor had earlier issued a tentative ruling that would effectively kill the proposal to build a bypass bridge off the Cabrillo Bridge as a way to clear cars and parking from the Plaza de Panama in front of the San Diego Museum of Art and the Plaza de California in front of the San Diego Museum of Man.

The judge did not indicate if he might change his mind. He pressed City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and Jacobs' committee attorney on the project's compliance with the city's historic site preservation ordinance.

On the other hand, Taylor told the Save Our Heritage Organisation, which sued the city and the Plaza de Panama Committee, that if he rules in SOHO's favor, the project is dead and any hope for a new compromise is just that.

"A hope is not a plan," Taylor said.

Irwin Jacobs unveils his Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park in August 2010. A judge's ruling on its legality is pending following a court hearing Friday. - Peggy Peattie

More than 50 people gather at the Hall of Justice to attend to hearing on the Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park. - Roger Showley

Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, which sued the sued the city over the Plaza de Panama plan and its "Centennial Bridge" that would divert traffic from the Cabrillo Bridge toward a parking garage south of Spreckels Organ Pavilion. - Howard Lipin

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, left, confers with Irwin Jacobs prior to the Plaza de Panama court hearing. - Roger Showley

Irwin Jacobs at the July 2012 hearing before the City Council, when his $45 million Plaza de Panama plan was approved - Peggie Peattie

This touched-up aerial photo of Balboa Park shows the route of the proposed bypass bridge from the Cabrillo Bridge to the Alcazar Garden parking lot. - Plaza de Panama Committee

You have to be lucky to find an open parking space in Plaza de Panama. - Union-Tribune file photo

SOHO had sued the city and the plaza committee, set up by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, saying the "Centennial Bridge" bypass would harm the historic character of the west entrance to the park. Many alternatives that are less expensive are available to achieve most of the committee's aims, SOHO argued, and it offered alternate solutions that it said have less impact.

Goldsmith's office said in its brief that the city considered continued parking and traffic use in the plazas is not "reasonable beneficial use" but the judge disagreed in the tentative ruling. The reasonable use standard is set forth in the city ordinance that SOHO cites in its lawsuit as being violated by the city.

If the judge upholds his ruling, the city and Jacobs can either appeal or concede defeat. Jacobs had promised that his committee would raise about $30 million for implementation with the remaining $15 million coming from a city-issued revenue bond, funded from the new garage parking charges. Jacobs has personally covered the $8 million spent on the plan to date, a spokesman said.

The judge said in his tentative ruling that he considered the Jacobs plan's benefits "far outweigh the negatives." He also said it would be a "sad day for San Diego" if the promised donations cannot be replaced by others for any alternate plan.

"SOHO's opposition to the project seems short-sighted, as the project appears to offer many net benefits in terms of restoration of historic resources," Taylor said in his ruling.

But he said city has to "be held to its own law" when treating historic sites and cannot "pretend away the very words of the Municipal Code."

Scott Williams, attorney for the Jacobs committee, argued that the judge should find the present parking and traffic use of the center of the park is "unreasonable" even if it is beneficial to motorists.

Susan Brandt-Hawley, SOHO's attorney, said the primary goal is to rid the Plaza de Panama of cars and that many alternatives exist to achieve that goal. But she conceded that it is not within SOHO's finances to underwrite a different approach.

In her brief prior to the hearing, Brandt-Hawley said "SOHO and other stakeholders" will press to eliminate parking in the Plaza de Panama "in a non-destructive and un-intrusive way."

On earlier occasions, SOHO's executive director, Bruce Coons, has said an alternate plan would be far less expensive and his organization would help find the money to make it happen. But so far he has not identified any major donors who have stepped up to lead such a fund-raising campaign.

Jacobs, who attended the hearing with other members of his committee, said previously that if an alternate plan were adopted, he would support it, but only if it achieved the goals he had laid out, which included both eliminating parking and traffic. It's possible he might change his mind if the judge rules against his plan.

Mayor Bob Filner, who opposed the Jacobs plan, said earlier in the week that he hopes SOHO and Jacobs will return to the mediation table and see if a new plan can be fashioned.

Jacobs, backed by former Mayor Jerry Sanders, had unveiled his plan in August 2010 with the hope it would be completed in time for the 2015 start to a year-long centennial celebration of the Panama-California Exposition that made the park the city's crown jewel of art and recreation. The City Council approved the plan last summer.

Park supporters have hoped for years to rid the Central Mesa of cars and parking and return the space to pedestrian-only use. The park's master plan, completed in 1989 while Filner was on the City Council and represented the park, and a more specific precise plan called for eliminating parking from the Plaza de Panama but continued traffic over the Cabrillo Bridge and a parking garage behind the organ pavilion.

Other options have been proposed over the years, such as extending the San Diego Trolley to the park, building the garage at Inspiration Point across Park Boulevard from Palisades area of the park's southern entrance or handling parking at a massive underground garage at the San Diego Zoo's parking lot.

The only move to restrict parking took place in the 1970s, when the eastern Prado was closed to traffic and the Bea Evenson Fountain was built in the Plaza de Balboa at the avenue's eastern entrance. In the 1990s the late Mary Elizabeth North donated the tile fountain in the middle of the Plaza de Panama as an inducement to clear out 54 to 67 parking spaces there and turn the area into a pedestrian-only zone.

But park institutions resisted removing any parking spaces and through-traffic, fearing the public would not flock to their doors because of the entrance they would have to walk.

Jacobs' plan addressed those access problems by promising a tram service between his new garage and the Plaza de Panama and concentrating handicap parking spaces and valet service in the Alcazar Garden, located south of California Quadrangle where the Museum of Man is located.

But the price to be paid was his bypass bridge -- and that was what SOHO has fought against. The National Park Service, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the state Historic Preservation Office and the city's Historical Resources Board all warned against adding the bypass because of its visual impact on the California Quadrangle and its 190-foot California Tower.

Jacobs' team countered that the bypass would be screened by eucalyptus trees and its design would not take away from the overall look of the existing tower and buildings, which were designed by New York architect Bertram Goodhue for the 1915 fair.

With the start of the centennial celebration less than two years off, time is running short to get construction under way on Jacobs' plan to be finished by the end of 2014.

SOHO has suggested carrying out a version of the 1989 park master plan, but no one has stepped forward to cover the costs, which have not been itemized. It is unclear how much time it would take to prepare construction drawings for any alternative and whether a new environmental impact report could doom its success as well.



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