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Two seemingly uncontroversial measures with long-term ramifications for city parks, particularly Balboa Park, sailed to victory Tuesday despite the surprising emergence of opposition.
Measure I, which gives city leaders the authority to keep San Diego High in Balboa Park, and Measure J, which aims to speed park improvements in regional parks including Mission Bay Park, Balboa Park and others, both passed overwhelmingly.
Proponents likely expected far less opposition when they introduced the measures. Then came the agitators. At least one is pledging to sue.
Both campaigns started out warm and fuzzy enough.
Measure I, after all, would amend the city charter to save San Diego High from a 2024 eviction while Measure J would allow the city to invest a greater share of Mission Bay Park lease revenues in regional parks like Mission Trails and Balboa Park while pursuing more projects simultaneously in Mission Bay Park. Each campaign assembled bipartisan support from prominent local politicians. San Diego High students and alums jumped aboard the Measure I campaign while a few well-known Balboa Park leaders joined the pro-Measure J ranks.
Then came the adversaries.
David Lundin, a prominent critic of the Balboa Park Centennial debacle, was critical of Measure I early on. He unsuccessfully sued to try to keep the San Diego High measure off the ballot, alleging misleading ballot language and other violations. A judge rejected those claims.
Lundin later published an argument against the measure in the guide mailed to voters citywide. He’s continued to argue the lease the city’s likely to reach with the school district could violate two state laws. And he wants to ensure the city gets what it’s owed for the park property rather than the meager lease payment it now receives.
The grassroots campaign against Measure J came months after Mayor Kevin Faulconer pitched his proposal to throw 10 percent more city revenue from Mission Bay Park leases at parks other than Mission Bay Park and tweak language to allow the city to pursue more quickly multiple projects in that park.
Mission Bay Park advocates began organizing against the measure this fall after keying in on that reduced share of lease revenues and ballot language they feared could lead to more commercial development in Mission Bay. A mayoral spokesman said Tuesday that language would in fact allow revenues to be invested in new areas rather than allow for more commercial uses. Measure J opponents, including former Councilwoman Donna Frye and onetime Democratic mayoral candidate Ed Harris, have since spoken out against it and passed out thousands of fliers urging a no vote.
Those efforts weren’t enough to stop Measures I and J. They won handily. Now the city and the school district can proceed with their plans.
But those opponents vow they won’t be going away.
Lundin’s already promising to file another lawsuit after the district and the city approve a new San Diego High lease, a process that’ll likely play out years from now.
School board trustee Richard Barrera, who represents the district that includes San Diego High, expects the new lease agreement would come closer to 2024, when the current lease expires.
And he thinks the district will probably seek lease terms similar to those already on the books. That means the lease payment would be closer to the laid out in the current agreement than the steeper amount some Balboa Park supporters have pushed to help pay for the park’s many needs.
Barrera said the district’s tight budget wouldn’t allow that. If the cost of the lease goes up, Barrera said, the district would have to start charging the city for allowing residents to using playgrounds and buildings across the district outside school hours to offset the new bill.
“We’re not going to sacrifice the needs of students at San Diego High and throughout the district without finding an alternative way of making up that revenue,” Barrera said.
Lundin sees the situation differently. He believes the law requires a market-rate rent and the district and the city should have sought other plans for San Diego High if they didn’t think they could pay up.
Gerry Braun, a spokesman for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, said it would be premature to comment on Lundin’s concerns given the fact that the city and the district haven’t written or approved a new lease and Lundin has yet to file suit.
But Barrera said the district and city attorneys are confident they’d prevail against Lundin.
“Anybody can sue anybody over anything at any time and that doesn’t mean that there’s any legitimacy,” he said.
Measure J opponents aren’t publicly threatening lawsuits but some are pledging to keep close tabs on the city’s next steps.
Now that Measure J is approved, the city will likely revise its proposed 10-year plan for Mission Bay Park projects and make plans for additional projects in other regional parks.
Many of those regional park investments could be funded with a bond made possible by Measure J’s extension of a past city measure co-authored by Faulconer and Frye that directed Mission Bay lease revenue toward regional parks and promised a significant share for Mission Bay Park.
Katherine Johnston, the mayor’s director of infrastructure and budget policy, has said the city could ask the City Council to approve up to a $44 million bond for regional parks other than Mission Bay Park.
It’s not clear how soon the mayor might push that bond. He said Tuesday night his staffers will hash out plans in coming weeks.
She and Faulconer have emphasized repeatedly that Balboa Park would be a top priority but that none of that new cash would flow to the controversial Plaza de Panama project, which the City Council is set to vote on next week.
Measure J opponents are suspicious about all of the above.
Frye believes that frustration could have been avoided if Faulconer had consulted stakeholders from groups like the Pacific Beach Town Council before it sought to place Measure J on the ballot.
Instead, Mission Bay fans sought answers and raised grievances long after the City Council voted to put the issue before voters.
“There was a way to approach this which could have addressed all of these issues and brought everyone together,” Frye said.
But those beefs weren’t enough to stave off an overwhelming win on Tuesday. Shortly before initial voting results were released, Faulconer promised opponents wouldn’t get the raw deal they feared.“We’re continuing keeping money in Mission Bay and our regional parks for decades to come, extending it and doing it now and not waiting so [we can pursue] all the improvements that we want to do in Mission Bay and more in the regional parks,” Faulconer said. “That’s a win-win for San Diego.”