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A little more than two years after an ambitious, controversial plan for Balboa Park was rejected by a San Diego Superior Court judge, the so-called Jacobs plan is back on the table – barely.
A few months have passed since a state appellate court overturned Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor’s ruling, clearing the way for San Diego to reconsider the project.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Judge: Plaza de Panama Approval Violates City Law
Since then, two City Council candidates vying to represent Balboa Park’s neighborhood have said they wouldn’t support the project. The mayor has said the city would need some time to consider the impact. And it doesn’t even look like the Jacobs plan’s namesake backer will step back into the ring to bring the plan to fruition.
Meanwhile, the group most vocally opposed to the plan isn’t done with the legal fight — it recently filed a petition with the California Supreme Court that blocks any movement within the city.
It’s a new chapter in a years-long story for the city, but it’s tough to judge at this point how strong a chance the project has in its second life.
Getting Up to Speed
The Balboa Park bypass plan was introduced in 2010, to be included in a package of developments to celebrate the anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition. The Union-Tribune gave a good summary of the proposed additions:
[Philanthropist Irwin] Jacobs’ plan, approved by the City Council after extensive environmental analysis and public debate, would have detoured cars off the Cabrillo Bridge onto what was called “Centennial Bridge,” past the Alcazar Garden behind the House of Charm and on toward a new 800-space garage south of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The top of the garage was to be landscaped as 2.2 acres of new parkland and new walkways would have replaced the present traffic pattern from the Plaza de Panama to the Pan-American Plaza at Presidents Way.
Members of communities around Balboa Park weren’t thrilled, and neither was the Save Our Heritage Organisation, or SOHO. The preservationist group challenged the plan in court in 2012, and Irwin Jacobs, the philanthropist who’d been its champion, dropped it in the wake of Taylor’s ruling.
In May of this year, when the appellate court overturned the ruling, Jacobs told the Union-Tribune he wanted some time to review things before commenting further. I reached out to see whether he’d had enough time to consider diving in for Round 2.
“Joan and I have many other projects we are involved with at this time and are simply watching legal and other developments within the city,” Jacobs wrote in an email. He clarified the legal developments referred specifically to the Balboa Park project.
So right now, the revived plan doesn’t have a substantial funding source. That isn’t the only potential roadblock.
On July 8, SOHO filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, after its petition for a rehearing by the appellate court was denied. The Supreme Court has 60 days from that filing date to consider taking up the case, and may extend that time another 30 days.
Gordon Kovtun of KCM Group was Jacobs’ chief consultant on the plan. Kovtun said the “legal issues” would need to be resolved before anyone commits to moving forward, but said he couldn’t speak for Jacobs. Gerry Braun, spokesman for the city attorney’s office, confirmed the city must wait “as it’s technically still up on appeal.”
Craig Gustafson, press secretary for the mayor, said Faulconer “was supportive of the project as a Council member and continues to believe it represents a wonderful opportunity to improve Balboa Park. The city is waiting for full resolution of the litigation before determining whether to proceed with the project.”
Faulconer and Councilman Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park, both said earlier this year that reconsidering the plan would involve taking another look at the park itself, and the many changes it’s undergone in the last three years.
Former Mayor Bob Filner pushed through a deal after the 2013 rejection of Jacobs’ plan that mostly removed vehicles from the plaza. The Cabrillo Bridge experienced a $40 million retrofit. There’s also the new parking garage for zoo employees, and renovations to Old Globe Way.
Does the Jacobs plan still make sense for Balboa Park? That’s what the city has to consider in coming months.
“Supporters of Balboa Park have rightly used the last few years to invest in the park’s infrastructure and institutions so that it remains San Diego’s crown jewel,” Gloria said in a statement. “While I still believe in the benefits of Dr. Jacobs’ vision, I am not aware of any current efforts on the city’s part to bring back the Plaza de Panama project.”
Despite its hurdles, the plan’s got some support, and it’s coming from inside the house. Tomas Herrera-Mishler, CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy, and Betty Peabody, founder of the Friends of Balboa Park, represent two of the four chief organizations within the park. Both of them endorsed the plan during our live podcast event in July. Here’s Herrera-Mishler:
“The Conservancy, let me be very clear, has always been in favor of this project, and continues to be in favor of this project. That’s the policy of the board. What I want to say is, I think it’s really important that we look at the whole park, and look for those conflicts between people on foot and people in cars and get rid of them, because they’re so dangerous, and there are so many of them throughout the park.”
And here’s Peabody:
“The bypass bridge was not appealing to some people. We had members of our board as well as our membership who fell on both sides of it, so we tried to take a neutral position last time, although I served on Irwin Jacobs’ committee. No one will come out with everything they want. Everyone will come out with something, and we’ll all be better off as a result of it. We absolutely cannot have that conflict [between cars and pedestrians] any longer. The pedestrians are totally oblivious; they just wander all over in every direction and I can live with the bypass bridge … We’ve had the best people in the world – literally – working on that team, and if we can’t solve it for Balboa Park, I think we’re in trouble as a civilization.”
Beyond park boundaries, though, two potentially powerful voices are singing a different tune. Chris Ward and Anthony Bernal are running to represent District 3 on the City Council, which includes Balboa Park. Gloria fought to keep the Jacobs plan alive in February 2013, just after Taylor blocked the project.
Ward and Bernal won’t carry the same torch.
We talked with Ward and Bernal at our live podcast in June. Here’s what Ward told us when we asked whether he’d support this project if it came before the Council:
“I have a lot of really deep concerns that a lot of the community members shared from the communities that surround Balboa Park – the impacts that a project like that would have … The idea that we’re gonna have paid parking in Balboa Park was something that really, really troubled me. Balboa Park has always been free for everybody, for the public, and to be able to come there and enjoy a Saturday or Sunday afternoon free of charge – we shouldn’t have a requirement for paid parking. And putting that garage in, that was the only way the thing could pencil out … There are a lot of really good components there but I know there was some other areas of disagreement around how we would change up the Cabrillo Bridge. I’m open to ideas, and certainly was not at a level of discussion as Councilman Gloria probably was with all the stakeholders involved, but I have my doubts that I would’ve been supportive.”
Bernal said he wouldn’t support the plan either:
“Because of that new parking garage, I’m not sure if right now at this point that project needs to move forward … We have about $225 million in deferred maintenance and capital inside the park, so we gotta really focus in our investments over the next four years of where we want to spend that money. We want to make sure that we have a world-class park for the next generation and when we talk about that, we want to say … we need to rebuild some of the buildings inside the park.”
So, the two guys running to replace Gloria are against the project he helped champion. That’s a sizable hole blown in the contingent that once backed the big plan to reimagine San Diego’s crown jewel.
Add to that the pending legal challenge and absent funding source, and the future of the plan is murky at best.
Clarification: An earlier version of this piece said the Plaza de Panama was now “vehicle free.” The renovations pushed by former Mayor Filner did not completely remove vehicles — a roadway passes through the edge of the plaza.
Disclosure: Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.