Plaza de Panama Plan Reboot: Too Late for the 2015 Party

A controversial, $45 million plan to overhaul the heart of Balboa Park has been on life support since a judge ruled against it two months ago.
By Thursday, officials at City Hall officials seem to have 'pulled the plug' on it – that, after legal opinion offering a new approach apparently comes 'too little, too late' to resuscitate the project.

The decision to pursue a 'Plan B' is really up to the Plaza de Panama Committee, headed by Qualcomm's billionaire co-founder, Irwin Jacobs.
But Council President Todd Gloria has checked the 'vital signs' and 'course of treatment', and sees no realistic way of pulling it off.

“While it is helpful to understand there is a course to pursue,” Gloria said in a news release, “it is unfortunately apparent that the improvements could not be complete in time for the 2015 (Balboa Park) Centennial Celebration because of the likelihood of additional litigation and the project’s complexity and construction timeline.”

The most controversial elements of the plan to remove vehicles from the heart of the park involve a bypass ramp from Cabrillo Bridge ... leading to an 800-space underground parking structure behind the Organ Pavilion, for which parking fees would be levied.

On Feb. 4, Judge Timothy Taylor ruled that  the city's approval of the plan was a technical violation of the Municipal Code.

On Wednesday, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith  suggested in a “memorandum of law” that an "exemption" process might work for a new effort.

But historic preservationists whose lawsuit led to the plan’s invalidation are poised to challenge that too.

"This was a primary preservation law and we would do everything we can to defend it,” said Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, said in an interview Thursday.   “Plus, there's all the other issues with the General Plan, the Precise Plan and the Master Plan that requires similar findings than just this.  This was just one aspect."

As for the construction timeline, said Coons, "Even working 24 hours a day, I see no way they would have been completed.  Besides that, I doubt the litigation would have been over for a number of years -- probably four or five more years.”

Goldsmith offered these thoughts on the turn of events:  “Anything involving Plaza de Panama is going to be messy, given the political structure.  So I respect Todd's assessment of that. And you know, it's pretty realistic … we are the lawsuit capital of the state, when it comes to … a city-type project."

Mayor Bob Filner, an outspoken critic of the project, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Jacobs, through a spokeswoman, gave this response: "I'll pass at this time."

He and his Plaza de Panama Committee washed their hands of further involvement in the project on the day of the adverse court ruling.

Assuming there’s no change of heart or minds, some 'low-impact strategies' for traffic management and parking will have to fill the void during the 2015 centennial celebration.

This cautionary note, from Kelly Bennett, who’s extensively covered Balboa Park issues for Voice of San Diego:  “The hardest thing about Balboa Park is that everybody has their own routes and paths on how they get there and where they park and where they go. And retraining the whole city to do that? No matter what plan you go with, it's going to be tricky."

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