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Preservation & Sustainability

Goldsmith calls Plaza de Panama lawsuit 'meritless'
By DOUG SHERWIN, The Daily Transcript
Wednesday, August 3, 2011

San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith reacted strongly Wednesday to a lawsuit filed against the city for its actions regarding a proposed renovation of Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama.

A historical preservation group says the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, the city entered into with the Plaza de Panama Committee violates the California Environmental Quality Act because it constitutes a "pre-commitment" to the project before proper environmental review.

Goldsmith called the lawsuit "meritless" and said the city hasn't made a binding commitment to any project, but that City Council expressed its intent to look into options for the plaza.

"(The lawsuit's) purpose is to stop public discourse, stop the progress of evaluating options for Balboa Park, and that's wrong," he said.

The city plans on filing its 30-page response with the court as soon as a hearing date is set, but in the meantime, it is asking the Save Our Heritage Organisation to voluntarily drop its case.

The organization's complaint claims the MOU -- which describes Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) founder Irwin Jacobs' renovation plans in detail -- has effectively shut out other alternative ideas for the plaza. It asks the court to rescind the MOU until an Environmental Impact Review is completed.

"As a practical matter, if not set aside by this court, the Plaza de Panama MOU will lead to direct environmental consequences by influencing the shape of future development in Balboa Park," the complaint reads. "Circumstances have created momentum in favor of the Plaza de Panama project despite language in the MOU that alternatives will be considered in the upcoming EIR."

The lawsuit states, "The project as proposed would have devastating impacts on the iconic architecture and cultural landscapes of Balboa Park, a national historic landmark."

The proposed $40 million Plaza de Panama Circulation and Parking project, backed by Jacobs, seeks to return the plaza to a pedestrian-only area by building a parking garage over the current lot behind the Organ Pavilion and adding a bypass bridge to reroute traffic.

The Plaza de Panama committee has targeted 2015 - the year of Balboa Park's centennial celebration -- as the completion date for the project.

"It's a massive traffic circulation project that will bring more traffic into the park, where the original goal was to reduce traffic," said Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation. "What we know as the Central Mesa will be completely transformed. And the landscape will be changed, all to yield less than 160 parking spaces. It's just crazy to spend this kind of money to ruin the park."

The organization's officials say they have an alternative, less invasive way to fix the traffic problem but their option is not being considered.

The City Council rules committee declined to endorse the MOU in June, directing staff to look at issues related to CEQA, funding and whether temporary traffic closures at Balboa Park would be feasible.

On July 19, the full City Council considered the plan and approved the MOU.

"Balboa Park is part of the city, it's owned by the city," Goldsmith said. "It's not unusual to go forward and explore what to do with your property. We do it all the time in the city. And before you get to the point where you're even considering whether to approve or commit to a project, you need information. And that's what (City Council) wanted to do."



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