Feb. 13 2013 10:31 AM

Rise above the surprise

Irwin Jacobs
Photo by David Rolland

"Never let defeat have the last word."

—Tibetan Proverb

Dear Dr. Irwin Jacobs, First off, thank you. As a billionaire, no doubt you've had to endure enough groveling, begging, cajoling, schmoozing and all-around backside-kissing to fill 20 lifetimes. In a world where the chasm between haves and have-nots grows wider, what a mixed blessing it must be to be the Go-To Guy when some people's dreams require big bucks.

That said, I had a hard time swallowing all the sky-is-falling media handwringing over your decision—"at this point," as you couched it—to get the hell out of the public-park-makeover business before you really even got started.

(Now, don't get Spin wrong— sinking 8 million simoleons into studies, pretty drawings and a crack crew of loyal soldiers is nothing to sneeze at. And as a door prize, you've apparently donated to the city all the paperwork and knowledge from two-plus years of public wrangling over your plan to redesign much of Balboa Park. So again, much obliged.)

But here's the thing: You had to see this coming.

"I am saddened at the court's decision that has effectively ended the Plaza de Panama project," you opened in your statement after Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor's ruling last week that the city of San Diego had disobeyed its own laws in approving last July the massive solution you proposed to a simple problem.

Now, about that problem. When we first heard of the "Jacobs Plan" in the late summer of 2010, the U-T San Diego headline trumpeted, "Jacobs champions Balboa Park effort / Removing parking from the Plaza de Panama is first priority."

Removal of parking. That was the overriding sales pitch. No one—save for maybe a few park employees and other early arrivers—could argue with that. Still can't. As Eric Naslund, chairman of the city's Planning Commission, once summarized with distain, "It's a shopping-center parking lot. It's a disaster! ... Unbelievable that it got that way."

Indeed, everyone seemed on the same page in those early days of heady anticipation that something for the better was about to happen in the ugly center of San Diego's most prized public space after decades of inaction and neglect.

But for some, Dr. Jacobs, giddiness turned to suspicion when it became clear that your plan, born from a sketch on a napkin as then- Mayor Jerry Sanders liked to say, was the only plan that would pass your muster.

That intransigence has clearly served you well in your professional pursuits. "You don't compromise on those things that you really believe in," your friend and Qualcomm cofounder Harvey White said at your 70th-birthday celebration nearly a decade ago. "You can compromise the periphery, as long as you don't compromise the core values."

In the business world, that's sage advice. But in the public arena, particularly when it comes to a beloved resource whose alterations over time have generated so much emotion, Spin is reminded of the adage, "Stubbornness does have its helpful features—you always know what you're going to be thinking tomorrow."

So, Spin understands your sadness over the judge's ruling. But when you continued on, in statements that are being echoed by other local philanthropists, that other cities may be more worthy now of your largesse in the face of this recent setback— well, frankly, that didn't sound sad. That bordered on, in all due respect, spitefulness.

Again, your philanthropy over many years rivals that of San Diego's forefathers. But in contributing $20 million toward the completion of the new Downtown library, for example, Spin doesn't recall you influencing its design or what books would be housed there. When you've donated generously to countless cultural endeavors, you've presumably allowed the shows to go on unimpeded. When you give charitably to medical institutions, it's doubtful any patients expect to see you pop up in an operating room wielding a scalpel.

And yet, when it comes to the heart of our city—an incredible park hurtling towards its centennial—your line in the sand has resulted in harsh feelings and, through sheer incompetence displayed by city leaders seemingly transfixed by your wealth, the current stalemate we now witness.

Indeed, a few of your biggest fans—for reasons that some believe stray from altruism into the realm of self-indulgence and political ambition—continue to rattle cages that all is not lost, that the city can simply travel back in time and erase the bruising your project took in court.

But consider this: When city pols start down the slippery slope of referring to a portion of its own Municipal Code as a "technicality," where does it end? What lessons are we instilling in future generations?

Because that's what this is about. Not 2015 and what all hope will be a fitting 100th birthday party, but well beyond. Besides, little has been mentioned of the other legal challenges lurking in the wings—most notably regarding the city's bond-financing scheme that would introduce paid parking in Balboa Park—that would likely forestall any shovel hitting park dirt for some time to come.

Certainly, the last thing you'd hope to instill in your adopted city is animosity toward your benevolence. We've never met, but Spin can't imagine that you take kindly to being labeled a "plutocrat" by opponents of your park-remodel plan. Sure, there are likely tax purposes for your generous giving, but Spin also believes in your desire to give back to a city that is lucky to have you among its citizens.

But as you told a group of Cal State San Marcos students in 2010, "Leadership is always about people. It's important that, although you may do your best work individually, and that's fine, that you not go off and bang people's heads and go around screaming."

While those with an eye toward your wallet may behave that way in your defense, Spin believes your corporate experience has thickened your hide against tougher battles than this.

Can Balboa Park's problems be resolved more easily in a way embraced by everyone? Of course. Maybe the idea proffered by local planners Howard Blackson and Mike Stepner is a start. As you told those students, "No matter what you go into, there are always ways of doing things better."

Don't give up on San Diego, Dr. Jacobs. There will always be room for heroes among us.

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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