Current Plaza de Panama parking confounds nonprofit; final ruling expected soon
By Anthony King | SDUN Editor
Updated: Judge Timothy Taylor issued his final ruling on Monday, Feb. 4 after hearing oral arguments on Friday, Feb. 1, the day this article was published. Taylor stood by his tentative ruling from Jan. 25 and declared the City in violation of their own Municipal Code.
Due to a tentative ruling handed out Friday, Jan. 25, the court case brought by Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) against the City could end the $45 million, Council-approved Plaza de Panama Project. In the tentative ruling, Judge Timothy Taylor said the city violated their own municipal code regarding property deemed historic.
Initially, the City said it would suffer “economic hardship” if the Plaza de Panama project were not approved, and that there was currently “no reasonable beneficial use” of the Balboa Park plaza, which serves as parking as well as a throughway for automobiles.
In this instance, Judge Taylor disagreed.
“The code does not say there ‘will in the future be no reasonable beneficial use of a property.’ It says ‘there is no reasonable beneficial use of a property’ – denoting today, right now, based on present facts, not future facts,” Taylor wrote.
The case involves three counts, two of which Taylor tentatively ruled in favor of the City. The third, regarding “beneficial use of property,” could be decided in SOHO’s favor once the final ruling is announced, potentially as soon as Friday, Feb. 1. In similar cases, the judge releases a tentative ruling to help attorney’s focus their arguments come final deliberation.
Following the Jan. 25 announcement, both SOHO and Council President Todd Gloria released statements.
“We are thrilled with the court’s strong tentative ruling regarding the City’s abuse of discretion in violating its municipal code, and we look forward to the final ruling on Feb. 1,” SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons said in a statement.
Gloria, however, was not as pleased.
“The judge’s ruling is a blow to the people’s dream of polishing our City’s crown jewel in time for the 2015 centennial celebration,” he said in a separate statement. “This is a sad day for those of us who understand the need to reclaim precious parkland from cars and give it back to the people for their enjoyment.”
Judge Taylor came to a similar conclusion in his tentative ruling regarding beneficial use, saying, “The fact that the Plaza de Panama is now used (and, if SOHO has its way, will continue to be used) as a parking lot perforce establishes that is has a reasonable beneficial use.”
While the centerpiece to the conclusion is false – SOHO has repeatedly stated they in no way support the continuation of parking in the center of Balboa Park – the fact of present parking on the current Plaza de Panama seems to have helped their case.
SOHO representatives said they did not agree with the parking comments nor the perpetuation of the idea that they desire parking to remain in Balboa Park as it is today.
In his same initial statement, Coons said the tentative ruling will allow the nonprofit to work with others “to achieve the long-held goal of eliminating parking in Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama in a non-destructive and un-intrusive way.”
Additionally, SOHO representatives said the proposed project would actually increase cars in Balboa Park.
“This project in no way whatsoever reclaims the park from cars,” they said. “It, in proven fact, does exactly the opposite. One small area is freed up while the rest of the park is awashed in a sea of automobile traffic, new buildings and acres of concrete, and turns once tranquil park areas, such as the Alcazar Gardens, into an automobile, bus and semi-truck delivery zone.”
Construction on the project was to formally begin October 2012, and was halted to hear and decide the SOHO suit. Supporters have said they wanted construction to be complete by the Balboa Park centennial celebration in 2015, however in Taylor’s tentative ruling, he brings the feasibility of this into question.
“Not lost on the court is the very real possibility that this decision will cause [the Plaza de Panama committee] to abandon its efforts to raise money for a long-desired project in Balboa Park, and at the minimum render very difficult a centennial celebration along the lines hoped for by so many,” he wrote.
In response, SOHO called any plans to “destroy our crown jewel” for the centennial “ludicrous.”
“The work of the community and the people that are represented by more than 30 organizations, including elected planning groups, neighborhood, environmental and civic groups, along with historic organizations and tens of thousands of citizens, is the people’s dream that should be the concern of our elected officials, not the dream of a select few,” SOHO representatives said.
“We thank the tens of thousands of San Diegans who agreed that the historic integrity and character of Balboa Park’s landmarked structures, gardens and open space must be preserved,” Coons said. “This important victory is yours.”