The renovation of Balboa Park in time for the 2015 Centennial Celebration appears to be in jeopardy after a judge issued a tentative ruling that the City of San Diego and The Plaza de Panama Committee violated municipal code.
The controversial project includes construction of a bypass road off the Cabrillo Bridge and an 800-space underground paid parking lot in the large public park in the heart of San Diego.
Planning leaders had been working on the proposal for more than two years when it was approved by city leaders in July.
In response to a petition filed by project opponents Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), Judge Timothy Taylor ruled the City must set aside its approval of the Site Development Permit needed for the project because of the violation.
In calling SOHO’s argument “short-sighted,” the ruling agreed that the Plaza de Panama Committee wasn’t accurate in describing the area of the park as having "no reasonable beneficial” – a requirement for the permit.
“Certainly the rare Balboa Park visitor who actually finds a parking spot in the Plaza de Panama finds that spot 'beneficial' on that particular day,” the ruling states.
Even the judge recognized the ruling could deliver a real setback to the fundraising needed to complete the project and “at a minimum render very difficult a centennial celebration along the lines hoped for by so many.”
The ruling even suggests that the loss of the funds already raised by the committee would be a “sad day for San Diego.”
That opinion was echoed by San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria who issued this statement:
“The judge's ruling is a blow to the people's dream of polishing our City's crown jewel in time for the 2015 centennial celebration. While this is no doubt a setback, I am confident dedicated San Diegans will continue to selflessly champion needed improvements in Balboa Park just as they have for nearly 100 years."
A spokesperson for the Plaza de Panama Committee said "In plain language, the court stated that the Plaza de Panama Project’s benefits appear to 'far outweigh' its impacts."
The written statement went on to say the team was disappointed with the finding of “reasonable beneficial use” of the car-dominated plazas.
"We believe that this ruling is in error, and, if not changed in the final decision following oral arguments at the February 1 hearing, would make it difficult to remove cars from the Plaza de Panama until such time as the roads were impassable. This could not have been the intent when the code was approved.
It is appropriate that the city, charged with administering Balboa Park and making land use decisions more generally, could determine what are reasonable (and unreasonable) uses for park property."
A hearing set for Feb. 1 will outline the next steps in the project.
Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee have committed to raise $25 million in private funding to help pay for the project designed to remove traffic from the heart of the park and restore the central area to pedestrian traffic.
The remaining funding – approximately $15 million - would come from a revenue bond to pay for the parking structure, repaid by revenue generated from parking fees.