July 6 2016 11:08 AM

Plan that won’t go away is fraught with problems

    Former mayor Jerry Sanders, Irwin Jacobs and Mayor Faulconer salute the return of the Jacobs Plan for Balboa Park. Dead? Neener?
    Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

    If at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer.

    —Alan Lewis


    At 2:30 on a shimmering Fourth of July Eve Sunday afternoon, the supposed not-good-enough Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park literally pulsates with human activity. The world’s languages waft by as people of all makes and models shuffle, skip, skate, jog, bike, you name it through this reclaimed slice of the San Diego public realm.

    But a mere three days prior, our newly re-elected Mayor Kevin Faulconer stood just to the east of here—weird he wouldn’t hold a presser in the actual location he was referencing (maybe it was too crowded!)—and proclaimed that this beehive of enjoyment wasn’t up to his standards, that there’s a better automobile mousetrap right around the corner, that what’s worth fighting for sometimes can wait until after an election, but not a minute more.

    Ladies and germs, we’ve jumped forward to the past, to a land once thought abandoned after the previous mayor, otherwise odoriferous, did one thing right and rid the Plaza de Panama of parking. Yes, the concrete-heavy park-remodeling dream of billionaire Qualcomm co-founder and philanthropic whiz Irwin Jacobs, seemingly shelved permanently when legal and fundraising woes mounted, is back with a vengeance.

    First announced in the summer of 2010 by Jacobs and then-Mayor Jerry Sanders, the so-called Jacobs Plan, at a cost of $45 million, was hailed as the salve to all of Balboa Park’s car-oriented woes. But critics immediately jumped on the over-engineered nature of the proposal, which called for a bypass “Centennial Bridge” grafted on to the historic Cabrillo Bridge at the park’s west entrance that would lead via tunnel to a massive subterranean paid-parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

    Proponents argued the bypass was a necessary evil to get cars out of the center of the park and return roadways to pedestrian use. Local preservationists with Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) filed suit in 2012 to stop the project. A local Superior Court judge eventually agreed, but an appellate court decision last year overturned that ruling, and the state Supreme Court—which rarely intercedes on municipal matters—declined to review the case.

    Last Thursday, the mayor and his backers glossed over the legal wrangling during the surprise announcement, acting as though Sleeping Beauty had now awakened from her forced respite and was ready to shovel some serious dirt.

    “The Plaza de Panama project will make Balboa Park safer, easier to get to, give us even more breathtaking sights to enjoy,” Mayor Faulconer preached to the assembled choir. “It will remove cars and traffic from the heart of Balboa Park, allowing visitors to reclaim these public spaces by eliminating the current mix of cars and pedestrians.”

    “So, you know, the fight’s over, the project’s been approved, the courts have blessed it,” City Attorney Jan Goldsmith added at the revival meeting. “The opponents went to the Supreme Court. They’ve had their day in court. Now it’s time for the community to move forward, um, together uniformly in making this possible.”

    Earth to city leaders: The park didn’t just sit around waiting for this moment. Last year, the San Diego Zoo completed its own 650-space parking structure near the Old Globe Theatre, and the California Department of Transportation has completed a $40 million rehab of the Cabrillo Bridge.

    And it’s not like Jacobs has let go of the past, either. Bruce Coons, SOHO’s executive director, said Jacobs continues to seek legal fees from his organization, a matter that continues to meander through the court system.

    “He’s trying to punish us,” Coons said before adding, “We have not yet begun to fight.”

    The battle over a billionaire’s attorneys fee did allow for an interesting opportunity for Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor, who originally ruled in SOHO’s favor that the city had violated state and municipal law in approving the park plan.

    While noting the project’s site development permit had expired in July of last year, Taylor in an early 2016 ruling took issue with the logic of the city’s argument, upheld on appeal, that without the extreme makeover, “current use of park area was not a reasonable beneficial use.”

    While praising the city’s outside legal counsel for “first-class legal work,” tongue may have been planted firmly in cheek when Taylor noted, “He persuaded the Court of Appeal that ‘no reasonable beneficial use of a property’ does not in fact mean “no reasonable beneficial use of a property.”

    Taylor went on to write “it is certainly arguable that the only ‘significant benefit’ that was ‘conferred on the general public’ was the stopping of the project and the avoidance of the Centennial Bridge and the parking structure (which in turn gave rise to the much more modest changes ordered by Filner.) Said another way: It is more than arguable that SOHO was the ‘successful party’…”

    So, is that what’s this is all about? Scrubbing from our memories any last vestiges of the distasteful Filner Era? A toilet-swirly to the head of anyone who opposes those with money to burn, an inkling of an idea and a willing pair of mayoral ears desperate for a legacy?

    Speaking of Sanders, who now heads up the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and earned glowing remarks Thursday from the current Republican mayor: Wouldn’t it be funny if this all had to do with Mayor Faulconer looking to the future—not the park’s, but his own. With dwindling options for political climbs, perhaps he envisions a future as Sanders’ chamber-made successor.

    That would certainly be a more logical fit than a parking garage in the center of Balboa Park. And Jacobs, part of a development team proposing massive changes at Seaport Village, can move on to other battles. He recently told The San Diego Union-Tribune that he won’t spend another dime on the project but will lead the fundraising.

    So let’s review: A mayor reelected by touting a Climate Action Plan kicks off his second term by reviving an auto-centric park proposal straight out of the 1960s that even its chief “architect” won’t support further financially. What could go wrong?


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