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The Status Of The Plaza De Panama Project

February 8, 2012 1:11 p.m.


Adrian Florido, KPBS Reporter

Mark Johnson, Founder, Civitas Inc. is the designer for the Plaza de Panama project

Bruce Coons, Director, Save Our Heritage Organisation

Related Story: Preservationists Fear Changes Would Jeopardize Balboa Park's Historic Status


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Read Transcript

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, February†8th. Our top story on Midday Edition, the proposal to build a bridge to reroute traffic in Balboa Park has hit more hurdles recently. The plan supported enthusiastically by San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, and Qualcomm founder, Irwin Jacobs, is opposed by park preservationists. And they have recently won a court battle over stages of the project. Adrian Florido is here to give us some background. Welcome.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: How would this renovation change the layout of the park as we know it now?

FLORIDO: Well, anyone who's been to Balboa Park knows the plaza de Panama. It's one of the park's main plazas surrounded by cultural institutions, museums, but right in the center, it's actually essentially a big parking lot. And this plan which Irwin Jacobs proposed in late 2010 would essentially remove all of the cars from the center of the plaza by building an underground parking structure nearby, put a roof-to have park on it. And because it's going to be getting rid of all the traffic in the plaza, you would have to find another way to get the cars into the park and into that parking structure. What Jacobs and the mayor propose was to build essentially a bypass bridge. One of the main ways to get into the park is to drive across that big beautiful bridge over Highway 163, go right through the Plaza de Panama on the way to parking spaces. It would build a secondary smaller bridge right at the end of that larger bridge, and reroute the cars into the parking structure that way.

CAVANAUGH: I do recall when this was originally introduced it was introduced in a flourish by the mayor and Mr. Jacobs in Balboa Park; is that right?

FLORIDO: Yeah, they have the event which they announced this was going to be a wonderful thing for the park because it was going to finally transform this traffic-choked plaza into a plaza for pedestrians.

CAVANAUGH: And the aim is to have it done by 2015.

FLORIDO: The centennial of what is essentially the world's fair back in 1915.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right did the plan get support from the City Council?

FLORIDO: It did sort of initially. What happened is that Irwin Jacobs said, look, I'm going to fund the initial stages of this project, pay for environmental studies that are required, the plan to be developed, but what I really need is to be able to go out and fund raise for the rest of it because we don't want this to affect the city's general fund. And he asked the City Council to pass what's called a memorandum of understanding, which is a tentative agreement that says, yes, we as a city support this plan but we need to get all these environmental studies and permits processed and that sort of thing first. But we're going to give you the statement of yes, we are supportive of this idea so that you can then go out and show people who might be donating to fund this thing that, yeah, this is, like, a real, serious project that might go forward.

CAVANAUGH: And it's this memorandum of understanding that was challenged in a recent lawsuit, and it was recently successfully challenged in court. I'm about to bring up two more guests. But from your reporting, what kind of setback is this potentially to the project product?

FLORIDO: That's exactly what was challenged, essentially the save our heritage organization said that while this agreement that the city signed with Irwin Jacobs says that it's not legally binding and says that all these studies have to be completed first, in effect what it did was create so much more momentum for the project that when it ultimately comes to the City Council in several month it is, the City Council couldn't do anything but approve it. What the judge essentially ruled last month was that, no, the city said that this wasn't legally binding and they could ultimately decide not to do it. But this amounts to a final approval. And the way that state law works in California is that you have to do all these environmental studies first before you can make a final approval of any project and that they violated the law by doing that.

CAVANAUGH: I'd like to introduce my next guest, Bruce Coons is here, founder of save our heritage organization. Welcome to the show.

COONS: Thank you, Maureen. I'm not exactly founder. Director.

CAVANAUGH: Director. Sorry about that. And Mark Johnson is founder of Civitas incorporated, the lead designer for the plaza de Panama project.

JOHNSON: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get both your reactions to the ruling by the judge in the case brought. Is this a setback, Bruce, in your eyes?

COONS: Well, we think it allows the council to make a reinformed decision. So we think it frees them up to take a look at the alternatives and. We didn't think that was possible with the MOU.

CAVANAUGH: And your take?

JOHNSON: We don't see it as a setback. We have just released the draft AIR, which is extensive, and allows all groups to opine on the facts of the project.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to get that in a minute. But there are -- there was something else that happened this weekend, the California historic preservation officer weighed in on the project. What did he say about it?

COONS: He said this project was so destructive that the national historic landmark status of Balboa Park could be removed if this project is implemented. He's also Obama's appointee to the advisory council on historic preservation, so he has a federal role as well.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us what that means to the park. What could it potentially lose?

>> The national historic landmark is the very highest designation we can put in anything on this country, it's reserved for things like Mt. Vernon and mount Monticello. Not only does this bring tourism, it brings first priority in any state, local, or national grants for the park, which would no longer be available, plus the loss of prestige. The park would not be designated at all because it's not locally designated. The city has resisted if locally designation.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, what's your take on the fact that the California historic preservation office is warning us this may jeopardize the status as a national historic site?

JOHNSON: Sure. We have that letter, and we are preparing a response to that letter as you would expect. We think that the letter is misinformed and has many exaggerations in it.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay. You want to elaborate on that?

JOHNSON: Well, there are many statements made that are not really aligned with the facts of the project. So I think that when Mr. Donaldson sits down with us and looks in detail at the project, he'll find that his opinion is different.

CAVANAUGH: And the city is challenging the judge's ruling on the lawsuit. The judge came out and basically said that that memorandum of understanding was not the way to go, was really illegal. What is the city's challenge to that ruling?

JOHNSON: Well I can't represent the city. I believe they filed a motion with the judge now that the EIR has been released. And I don't think there's been any action taken on that. But the findings of the MOU don't really deter the committee with proceeding.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the environmental impact report.

JOHNSON: It's a very, very extensive.

JOHNSON: Well, one of the most expense that's been done in recent memory. All in all, including the append seize, it's almost 4,000 pages of documents.

CAVANAUGH: You must have seen, Bruce, this environmental impact report and the 21 alternatives that it examines. What is your assessment of that?

COONS: Well, we're still digesting it. It is a sister large document as they said. But one of the bottom lines was that the Jacobs project would create unmitigated environmental damage. And so the law requires them to pick a different alternative than the Jacobs project. There's no way around that.

CAVANAUGH: Explain that.

COONS: Well, the law says that if there is another way to achieve the goals of the project, or some of the goals, you don't even answer to receive most of them, that lessens the environmental impacts, that you must pick an alternative that lessens the impacts to the park. And their document already says is that this one does create the kind of environmental impacts, at least in part, of what we've been saying.

CAVANAUGH: So Adrian, I'm wondering, because I'm trying to get my bearings here. There's been a lot of information spoken about what all of this means. Does the fact that the judge ruled that the memorandum of understanding with this particular project, the Irwin Jacobs centennial bridge project isn't necessarily binding, is actually sort of illegal, does that free up the City Council to look at alternatives now?

FLORIDO: Well, this case was very interesting. And it stems from a case in west Hollywood a couple of years ago, in which the city there wanted to build an affordable housing complex. And a bunch of community groups said no, we don't want this. And the city essentially signed what's called a memorandum of understanding, essentially, with the developer and said, this is not binding, this is not a binding document. So you can go out and do all this, but ultimately the City Council has to approve it before it's done. And the judge up there ruled essentially what the judge down here ruled. As an entity, you can say it's not going to be a final approval. But it is if all the surrounding circumstances indicate that you're going to approve this once it comes for a full vote. Whether or not that's actually going to be a hindrance to the project here really depends on what the save our heritage organization decides to do going forward because state law requires that these environmental studies be done before an approval is made.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And these studies were done.

FLORIDO: Before, right.

CAVANAUGH: They're supposed to be done after an approval of made.

FLORIDO: The environmental study is supposed to be done before an approval is made, and the judge said this initial agreement amounted to an approval. So the question now is whether this memorandum of understanding taints the EIR that has already completed. And whether that opens up the possibility to SOHO will challenge the EIR, but it in this agreement amounts to a final approval to the project before an EIR was completed, can they go forward and ask the whole EIR be thrown out?

CAVANAUGH: Do you see that the results of this environmental impact report because of the way it was made with the memorandum of understanding, Bruce, do you see that -- the results being tainted in some way and will you be challenging these results?

COONS: Well, it's two separate questions. We believe that the results are tainted. And we believe this process, in fact, this motion for reconsideration and the subsequent appeal reinforced the fact that the EIR is tainted. So they may allow a challenge earlier than expected. The but we won't make a decision on challenging the project until the council, and we can't, until the council makes their final decision ultimately because we expect the council to follow the law and do the right thing. And in the that point, there is no challenge. Unless there's something in this appeals process that happens.

CAVANAUGH: But right now, you've compiled all this information, mark, you have these environmental impact reports on these various alternatives to renovating Balboa Park. What are you doing with them? Are you presenting them to the public?

JOHNSON: Well, are the city is presenting them to the public. And of the total 14 projects evaluated in there, they fall into three categories. And each of the alternatives in those three categories has significant and unmitigated impacts. And in fact, it's not quite correct what Bruce said. Of the law does not say that a different project must be selected. What the law says is that the City Council in choosing to select any alternative must make what's called a statement of overriding considerations, which is how the balance the benefits and impacts of the project.

CAVANAUGH: What have you heard from the community and city leaders so far?


CAVANAUGH: No, no, I mean specifically about these environmental impact reports and the alternatives.

JOHNSON: Really, nothing. As Bruce said himself, everyone is trying to digest this large and complex document. And at this point I think most of the dialogue has just been explaining and understanding what is in the document?


COONS: Well mark said is not quite correct. The statement of overriding considerations can only be implemented in a couple very specific ways. And one is -- it was set up for things like there's a hospital that needs to expand and there's no place they can expand, so it's more public wife for the hospital over the resource. And that's not going to be the case. That's no need for project at all, except that we'd like to see the parking out of the plaza. We would too.

CAVANAUGH: I know. And I think that's the most ironic part of this, is that everybody who is involved in this seems to agree that the parking should be removed from the plaza de Panama. But it's just how to do it all of this controversy is about. I'm just thinking, people listening at home, we've given them an awful lot of information and a lot of letters and a lot of acronyms and things like that. Bruce, can you tells why you don't want to see this project in Balboa Park?

COONS: We believe this project is way too massive. We think it's a 1960s style to ail problem that's much easier to be solved. We believe this project is implemented, that the park we know will be unrecognizable. It is really a massive, earth-moving retaining wall, road, ditch, and paving and new landscaping project that is more akin to something you'd see in a north county business park than what we know of Balboa Park. There are a lot lighter, easier ways to accomplish this, and that we could get done by 2015. We don't believe there's any way this one can be done.

CAVANAUGH: What is the project trying to accomplish?

JOHNSON: The project has multiple goals but primarily it's to remove all of the cars from the core of the park, to restore the core of the park, the prado, the esplanade to the conditions they were in 1915 when it was a glorious place for people instead of cars.

CAVANAUGH: There are links to the draft of the environmental impact reports on our website so people can go take a look at them. And you are having the community come in and see this at March†8th. Where would they go to see that?

JOHNSON: The March†8th refers to the deadline for public comment.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

JOHNSON: So comments need to be submitted to the city in writing.

CAVANAUGH: So before March†8th?

JOHNSON: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: I want this thank you all very much.

COONS: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

FLORIDO: Thank you Maureen.