Save Our Heritage Wins Battle: Plaza de Panama Plan
Preservation group Save Our Heritage Organisation has been granted a petition for writ of mandate filed last summer over the city of San Diego’s adoption of a memorandum of understanding lending support to a proposal to revamp Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama.
The plan, pushed by mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm founder/philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, would eliminate vehicle access by creating a bypass bridge which would loop around the heart of the plaza and lead to a paid parking garage.
Per a release from the preservation group, superior court judge Judith Hayes concludes that the memorandum “constitutes an approval of the proposed project without prior environmental review as required.... The [memorandum] constitutes action that effectively forecloses due consideration of project alternatives or mitigation measures that are essential parts of [California Environmental Quality Act] review.”
SOHO and other community groups had pushed for consideration of alternate proposals to convert the Plaza for exclusive pedestrian use, but Jacobs, who intends to contribute a major portion of the needed funding for the project, indicated his support hinged on adoption of the new bridge/parking garage scheme.
Sanders then contacted citizens, urging them to write city council members and push for approval of the memorandum supporting the plan touted by Jacobs and him. Though the council’s rules committee declined to endorse the agreement, Sanders still appeared before the full council and pushed for its approval.
“This evidence shows that the City publicly defended the project in the face of opposition and committed resources to its approval. The commitment of resources is also evidenced in the terms of the memorandum where the City is required to provide staff assistance and direction at no cost to the committee. In addition, the City is to secure tax-exempt bonds to construct the parking structure,” states the ruling by Hayes.
“We know that the majority of San Diegans will share our admiration for the court's cogent application of environmental law, upholding the fair and open public process mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act. Now the Plaza de Panama Committee and the City must comply with the law and consider alternate ways to remove parking from the Plaza de Panama without the needless compromise of a national landmark,” said Bruce Coons, SOHO’s executive director, on the ruling.
The memorandum of understanding, having been deemed illegal, must now be set aside. It is expected that such action will breathe new life into alternate proposals for eliminating vehicle access to the site, though full consideration and environmental review requirements mean that any project, once properly approved, may not be completed before the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition that was the event which sparked the initial development of Balboa Park.