Council Approves Plaza de Panama Plan

Critics spoke passionately against the plan's parking lot

After six hours of impassioned public comment, the San Diego City Council approved the controversial Plaza de Panama project for Balboa Park Monday.

But in less than 24 hours after the contentious 6-1 approval of the renovation, it already faces a legal challenge.

The Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) released a statement Tuesday announcing that it plans to file a lawsuit against the City of San Diego, claiming the city violated a municipal code by charging for parking at a "free" park.

Councilmember Todd Gloria spoke on KPBS' Midday Edition when the lawsuit was announced.

"[The lawsuit] is regrettable but it was predicted," he said on the radio.

Project backers said the lawsuit will likely be quickly thrown out.

The plan to build an 800-space underground parking garage that would cost $5 per 5 hours to park will move forward now after the council's 6-1 vote.

Councilwoman Sherri Lightner was the only councilmember to vote against it. City Council President Tony Young was not present for the meeting.

Click here for a timeline of Plaza de Panama

Tension was high throughout the night, with many speakers becoming emotional or angry during their alloted time for comment.

"This is one of the most important decisions you will ever make in your life," said Save Our Heritage Organisation Executive Director Bruce Coons during the public comments.

At times, opponents of the plan booed Qualcomm Founder and one of the plan's major supporters Irwin Jacobs as he was called to answer questions from councilmembers.

Councilmember Gloria asked several questions of experts about the plan after the public comment period. He acknowledged that although the arguments against the plan were strong, he saw more long-term benefits will outweigh the costs.

“I make this decision with the confidence that when it’s completed, that the vast majority of San Diegans will enjoy it,” Gloria said, making a motion to pass the plan. Councilwoman Marti Emerald seconded his motion.

Councilman Carl DeMaio also echoed Gloria's praise of Jacobs' plan. He encouraged critics to continue contributing ideas, saying their alternatives are not all "mutually exclusive" with the bypass bridge.

Later, Councilman David Alvarez said he too supported it, but encouraged the plaza's committee to reexamine projections of revenue the parking garage will bring in.

Councilwoman Sherri Lightner opposed the plan. She said it would result in more traffic around the park and in surrounding neighborhoods.

"I simply cannot support paid parking in Balboa Park," she said.

Watch Highlights:
Bill Walton: I Grew Up in Balboa Park
Bruce Coons: Exercise Leadership for Once in Your Lives
Kate Sessions Called to Speak

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.

The plan has been at the forefront of development debates in the city for several years, with concerns over the parks parking beginning as early as 2003. The plaza was only intended to be used only temporarily when it was built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition.

“We’ve been talking about this for over 50 years, and finally there an opportunity for us to move forward with this,” said Janelle Riella with the San Diego Downtown Partnership. “This meets the needs of our future generations.”

However the bypass bridge is of particular concern to preservationists, who say the impacts the construction would have on the Cabrillo Bridge are not worth the cost.

“Only a handful of new parking spaces are going to be created with this project, said Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) President Jayce Macaskill.

SOHO opposed the plan since its introduction in 2010, citing environmental and historical preservation concerns. Other critics urged the city to set higher standards for the park renovation before approving the proposal.

“Currently, the figures add up to about $80,000 per space, which is pretty ridiculous,” Macaskill said. “The parking behind Alcazar Garden is mainly going to be for valet, and that’s going to serve the Old Globe theater. It’s not worth destroying the architecture and integrity of the park for a handful of parking spots.”

Mayoral Candidate Bob Filner was among those to speak before the council Monday night in opposition to the bypass bridge.

Filner said the Jacobs plan runs the risk of dipping into the general fund, and that the construction would break the park's historical integrity.

In a moment of comic persuasion, Filner brought to the podium a Kate Sessions impersonator -- botanist and so-called "mother of Balboa Park."

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