By Bruce Coons, Save Our Heritage Organisation
SOHO continues to urge the City Council to move ahead with an alternate project that both removes parking from the Plaza de Panama and respects the integrity of the park and its own Municipal Code and land use plans.
The court ruling in favor of SOHO respects the City’s ordinances and plans that prohibit needless harm to any City landmark. San Diego landmarks may not be substantially harmed unless they would otherwise have no reasonable beneficial use. In the words of Judge Timothy Taylor, the “critical finding” made by the Council to comply with its own Code “is so lacking in evidentiary support as to render it unreasonable; it must therefore be set aside.”
The ruling could not be more clear. Without the damaging features of the Plaza de Panama project, would the historic Cabrillo Bridge and California Quadrangle still have a reasonable beneficial use? As a visit to the park any day of the week makes clear, the answer is most definitely yes! The marvels of the well-loved park are enjoyed by thousands of San Diegans and international visitors every week.
So what’s next for the Plaza de Panama? Council President Todd Gloria is now pursuing two alternate paths, according to a news release from his office. One is to set aside the City’s July 2012 approval of the Plaza de Panama project’s Centennial Bridge and simply remove it from the Balboa Park Master Plan and Central Mesa Precise Plan. SOHO supports that option as it would cure the Code violation and protect the park’s historic qualities and National Register status.
The second option is to amend the Municipal Code to exempt the project from its protective terms. The City Council would attempt to cure its “unreasonable” violations of the Code by eviscerating the Code!
SOHO’s attorney, Susan Brandt-Hawley explains what that would mean: “The strong provisions of the City’s own ordinances are there to protect historic landmarks for the people of San Diego. The Code is not a ‘technicality’ and should be respected. It logically requires that landmarks not be substantially harmed unless necessary. The Code also requires that projects must adhere to key provisions of the City’s adopted land use plans.”
SOHO trusts that no member of the City Council will choose to weaken or avoid such important protections and goals for a City asset as magnificent as Balboa Park, when there are many alternatives. And doing so would not resolve further legal problems relating to land use plan inconsistencies, because the Plaza de Panama project violates other sections of the Municipal Code.
For example, the Code requires that the project not adversely impact land use plans. The project EIR concedes, and the City Council agreed, that the project has significant impacts due to inconsistencies with the City’s General Plan Urban Design Element, Historic Preservation Element, and Recreation Element.
In relevant part, the General Plan requires that “all City-owned designated historical resources” be “maintained consistent with” the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards - the federal rules governing alteration of important historic properties. The City and the project EIR both concede that the Plaza de Panama project does not follow mandatory Secretary’s Standards 2 and 9. The project is also undeniably inconsistent with the Balboa Park Master Plan and Central Mesa Precise Plan. Those two plans direct removal of parking from the Plaza de Panama without a bypass bridge.
Judge Taylor’s ruling did not address the Code’s mandate against adverse impacts on land use plans. Since the project permit required by the Municipal Code must now be set aside because the City “abused its discretion,” the judge ruled that it was “not necessary” at this point to address the other Code violations alleged by SOHO. Courts generally rule on the narrowest possible ground to resolve a case. But these additional blatant violations also prevent the project’s reapproval.
SOHO further notes that Municipal Code violations are not the only legal impediment to the Plaza de Panama project, as there is a pending case by San Diegans for Open Governments challenging the legality of $17.4 million in bonds issued by the City to raise money to pay for the new parking structure proposed in the park.
As to alternate parking solutions, nationally-prominent San Diego architect Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, who worked with the City on many projects in Balboa Park before serving as California’s State Historic Preservation Officer, warned the City in July 2012 that it should not approve the Plaza de Panama project because removal of “the cars in the Plaza could be resolved in many ways not requiring alteration of the [Cabrillo] Bridge…” Mr. Donaldson confirmed today that he stands by his prior statements “regarding the needlessly devastating impacts that this project would have to Balboa Park. The Municipal Code protections should be honored and one of the many alternate solutions to remove parking from the Plaza de Panama should be pursued. I stand ready to assist.”
“A simple, fast, and light touch on the park is eminently do-able, ensuring that the Plaza could be fully available for Centennial celebrations, just as it has been for many events in the past,” said SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons. “The Plaza could be resurfaced in a day if the City chose to do it, reclaiming the parking area for pedestrian use and providing a managed traffic solution for the bridge traffic.”
At the mid budget hearing on Monday, March 11 Mayor Filner sought $500,000 to make the dream to reclaim the Plaza de Panama a reality, hearing the majority of supportive testimony for the item at the publically noticed hearing, Council President Todd Gloria postponed action on the item, even though he had the votes to approve it. He did so proclaiming that he wanted to hear from District 3 on it. It is worth noting that SOHO who spoke in favor of it has 3 businesses in District 3 and several thousand SOHO subscribers in the same district. It was Todd Gloria who just months ago said he was approving the 45 million dollar destructive project because his District 3 constituents wanted the parking out of Plaza de Panama at any cost! Even at the cost of destroying the park’s historic integrity and risking its national landmark status. At “any cost” but apparently not at the cost of Mayor Filner’s $500,000 simple, flexible solution that is ready to implement immediately.
Something is terribly wrong with this scenario. In his 100-day report as Council President on Tuesday, March 12 he said when discussing the 2015 celebration, “I am disappointed, however, that the celebration will not likely include a fully reclaimed Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California. The City Council will soon better understand our options related to the future of our crown jewel since a judge determined the pedestrian focused Plaza de Panama renovation project approved last July cannot move forward. As the City Attorney provides insight on potential alternatives to rectify the conflicts between the law, the Balboa Park Master Plan and Precise Plan, the needs of the park, and the desires of San Diegans, I will ensure public input is an integral part of the decision-making process.”
Why is Councilman Gloria digging his heels in for a dead project that today’s sitting council did not vote for and that was deemed illegal by the courts, and that the proponent of the project. Dr Jacobs has said he is no longer interested in pursuing. Why proclaim that he cares deeply about “a pedestrian focused Plaza de Panama.” on the very same day he postpones the vote for a pedestrian focused Plaza de Panama? That is the question District 3 constituents should be asking.
What should the City Council do next? Surely the answer is that it should proceed with an alternate, lawful solution that can remove parking from the Plaza de Panama in plenty of time for the 2015 Centennial Celebration. Surely the leadership shown by Mayor Filner should be both applauded and supported instead of creating more delay.
Editor’s note: San Diego Uptown News published a portion of this editorial in the March 15, 2013 issue. It is included here in its entirety.