The courtroom was packed Friday afternoon for a hearing on the plan to clear parking and cars out of the Plaza de Panama. Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor, perhaps remembering the boos and hisses the project engendered last July, warned the crowd that the afternoon was “not a free-for-all” but a “dignified search for the truth.”
Taylor did not make a ruling Friday. He said he knows the issue is being closely watched by the public and that he’d rule as soon as he could. His tentative ruling last Friday favored the city’s opponents on one key point. The city and Plaza de Panama plan proponents were there today to try to change his mind.
The proceedings went about an hour-and-a-half and featured arguments from the Save Our Heritage Organisation’s attorney, Susan Brandt-Hawley, and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, Deputy City Attorney Andrea Contreras and the private counsel for the philanthropic committee spearheading the plan, Scott Williams.
Williams was the attorney in the July City Council meeting who went over the finding that was the most crucial point in the judge’s tentative ruling last Friday.
That point had to do with the city’s own law. When the city is contemplating a project that would make a big change to a historic resource, like the Cabrillo Bridge, it has to find that without that project, the property would have “no reasonable beneficial use.”
So much of the hearing was spent on the word “reasonable.” Williams even read a list of synonyms he said he found in “online dictionaries.” The city and proponents argued that the city’s decades-long effort to get parking out of the Plaza de Panama indicates that the city doesn’t find the use of the plazas as “reasonable” now.
Goldsmith, arguing for the city, urged a more flexible read than a “mechanical, rigid test” on whether the land is usable as-is. He and Williams both spent a lot of time asking about how reasonable the Plaza de Panama is now.
“Particularly in San Diego, things aren’t always done reasonably,” Goldsmith said.
The judge suggested later that the City Council could have added more specificity to its statute when it made the law.
Brandt-Hawley pointed out in her rebuttal that SOHO also wants to get parking out of the plaza, but disagrees that the only way to do that is with the plan on the table.
One interesting feature of the judge’s tentative ruling was how conflicted he seemed — he said he liked the project and its goals, but in a “reluctant conclusion” had to rule that the city broke its own law.
Today the judge reiterated that if SOHO wins this suit, the Plaza de Panama will remain a parking lot. Brandt-Hawley suggested SOHO and the committee could try to work out a way to change that, but the judge stopped Brandt-Hawley’s speculation: The plaza would remain, at least for now, a parking lot.
One other interesting point:
Brandt-Hawley, arguing for SOHO, disagreed with the judge on one of the purposes of California’s environmental law. Brandt-Hawley argued that the law obligates governments to take the most minimally invasive route. But the judge suggested that the environmental review process instead gives lawmakers all of the relevant information to make their decision. The electorate can vote them out if they don’t like the decision, he said.
I appeared on KPBS’s roundtable show today to talk about the Plaza de Panama project and the tentative ruling. You can listen to that discussion here.
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
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