Judge Pulls Plug on Balboa Park Plaza de Panama Project

A judge rules the City must throw out the permit needed for the Plaza de Panama renovation

Despite an 11th hour argument by planners and the City three days earlier, a San Diego judge issued his ruling Monday pulling the plug on a multi-million dollar plan to renovate Balboa Park in time for the city's Centennial Celebration.

The controversial project included the 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.

Judge Timothy Taylor ruled the City of San Diego and The Plaza de Panama Committee (RPI) violated municipal code.

Read entire ruling here

In response to a petition filed by project opponents Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), Judge Taylor ruled the City must set aside its approval of the Site Development Permit needed for the project because of the violation.

Read: Timeline of Plaza de Panama Project

The RPI was not accurate in describing the area of the park as having "no reasonable beneficial” a requirement for the permit.

Despite arguments presented in a hearing Friday, the judge maintained his tentative opinion released last week.

"While the court agrees with RPI and the City that the evidence establishes that the status quo in the Plaza de Panama results in an 'undesirable park experience,' this is unfortunately not the legal standard enacted by the City for approval of the SDP," the judge wrote in his ruling issued just before 2 p.m. Monday.

A spokesperson for the RPI said the team was disappointed with the finding of “reasonable beneficial use” of the car-dominated plazas.

Planning leaders had been working on the proposal for more than two years when it was approved by city leaders in July.

Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee 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.

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.”

Mayor Bob Filner agreed, saying the ruling throws the project into uncertainty, and that mediation talks should begin soon to agree on a mutually acceptable vision.

“What today’s ruling means to me, is that it is time to come together as San Diegans who care about this City and move forward in a way that is best for all of us," Filner said in a statement.

As word of the ruling got out, many supporters and critics of the project responded to the news.

“I remain committed to clearing cars out of the heart of Balboa Park and returning the Plaza de Panama to the people,” said San Diego Council President Todd Gloria in a statement. “Today’s decision provides us with options to continue to pursue this vision and I will be evaluating all of these options with the City Attorney in the days ahead.”

SOHO issued a victory statement, that said "Balboa Park is saved."

"This project embodied broader and darker implications for Balboa Park's future," wrote SOHO executive director Bruce Coons. "The plan would have caused significant, irreparable and irreversible harm to Balboa Park's historic structures, its environment, its canyons and roadways."

San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said they will announce their course of action in the near future, saying he is "carefully reviewing the judge’s interpretation of the City’s ordinance at issue."

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