Judge nixes Jacobs’ plan to remove cars from Balboa Park plazas, add bypass bridge to park


By City News Service, staff reports

In a victory for preservationists, a judge today 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.

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.

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

In an updated ruling following oral arguments on Feb. 1, 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 is heavily used shows there is a beneficial use even without the plan.

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.

Bruce Coons, the executive director of the organization, said he is “extremely gratified” by the ruling.

“Balboa Park is a rare and extraordinary site, filled with history, culture and beauty,” Coons said. “It would have been nothing short of a travesty to lose this treasure to a remodel better suited for an industrial park.

He said the Plaza de Panama plan would have cleared vehicles from one small area of the park while subjecting the rest of the area to “a sea” of traffic.

“The plan would have caused significant, irreparable and irreversible harm to Balboa Park’s historic structures, its environment, its canyons and roadways,” Coons said. “It would have paved the way for what many San Diegans believe would have led to commercialization, privatization and new construction throughout the park, severely curtailing public access and destroying forever the experience of this singular place.”

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 Attorney Jan Goldsmith put a positive spin on the development, saying the ruling upheld the city’s process under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the vetting of the project’s environmental 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,” Goldsmith said, referring to the mayor and City Council. “At this point, we are not prepared to announce a course of action, but we expect to do so in the near future.’’

Mayor Bob Filner said last week he would try to get the two sides together for mediation talks after the ruling was issued. He said he believed he could accomplish the basic goal with six traffic cones.

In a statement Feb. 4, the mayor said, “I call upon SOHO, Dr. Irwin Jacobs, and the Centennial Park Committee to work cooperatively and expeditiously toward a plan that converts the Plaza de Panama to predominantly pedestrian use. The opposing parties in this issue have each shared a common and compelling goal: to beautify Balboa Park and make it more pedestrian friendly. Both sides had previously been involved in mediation talks. I hope these can begin again – and that, with good faith and hard work on each side, mutually acceptable vision can be agreed upon quickly.”

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