Plaza de Panama Back on Track: Mayor

Superior Court judge rules in favor of Balboa Park makeover

A Superior Court judge has ruled the funding mechanism for the proposed revitalization of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama is legal.

The tentative ruling issued Monday clears the last remaining legal hurdle, the San Diego mayor’s office said, paving the way for the long-delayed $80 million project to make the park more pedestrian friendly.

“Today’s court victory shows what can happen when we continue to push bold ideas and don’t let a small group of naysayers stand in the way of progress,” said Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

The project to create acres of pedestrian-friendly public space in Balboa Park was approved by the San Diego City Council in 2016.

Proponents believe the changes will help preserve the park for decades to come while environmentalists and historic preservationists fought the efforts through city hall and legal challenges.

Attorney Cory Briggs, however, said the legal fight may not be over.

Briggs represents the plaintiffs in the case, San Diegans for Open Government, and argued the city does not have the authority to borrow the money for the project without getting voter approval.

“The last time the city celebrated a trial court victory was the Convention Center case,” said Briggs, referencing the ongoing legal limbo of a $520 million bayfront expansion after an appellate court ruled in 2014 the financing plan was unconstitutional. “They may suffer from a bad case of Déjà vu all over again.”

Last week, a well-financed coalition of business and labor interests backing an initiative to finance the convention center expansion failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Briggs said he would be meeting with his clients to decide whether to move forward with an appeal of the Plaza de Panama bond financing.  

Efforts to divert traffic from the Cabrillo Bridge and relocate parking from two plazas in the center of the park, at least got a major boost forward Monday.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that borrowing $50 million for the project required voter approval, in a ruling that has not yet been made final. Another $30 million is being raised privately for the park makeover.

The long-awaited project will remove traffic from the historic heart of Balboa Park; create 6.3 acres of parkland, gardens and pedestrian-friendly plazas; and increase parking, the mayor’s office said.

“We’re absolutely thrilled. We think this is as good as it gets,” said Jim Kidrick, the president of the San Diego Air & Space Museum and chairman of Balboa Park United, a coalition of park institutions that supports the project. “It will be the most transformational improvement to the park since 1935.”

Kidrick said the Plaza de Panama project could break ground as early as February or April of 2019. Construction is expected to take about 24 to 26 months, he said.

Besides the funding mechanism, Briggs’ clients also object to city agreements that give naming rights of several park facilities to a non-profit, the Plaza de Panama Committee, established by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs.

“The city can’t give away control over public property to a private corporation. But that’s what they’re doing giving away naming rights to the Plaza de Panama committee,” said Briggs.

The project is a public-private partnership between the city and the non-profit Plaza de Panama committee, Kidrick said.

City officials will take the lead on construction and work collaboratively with the Plaza de Panama Committee to design the project. Contractors will be selected through a competitive bidding process with a projected groundbreaking in 2019, according to the mayor’s office.

Faulconer’s office said the mayor decided to revive the dormant project, started in 2009, after years of legal challenges.

 “This project will mark the largest investment in Balboa Park in decades and transform the plaza to its original grandeur with acres of new park space for San Diegans to enjoy,” he said.

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