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Judge Affirms Ruling Against Plaza De Panama Plan For Balboa Park

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February 5, 2013 2:04 p.m.


Dr. Irwin Jacobs, Founder of Qualcomm and Director and Chairman of the Plaza de Panama Committee

Bruce Coons, Founder, Save Our Heritage Organisation

Related Story: Jacobs On Plaza De Panama Plan: 'It's Over'


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.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The best laid plans to change the status quo in San Diego often go awry. And a ruling from a Supreme Court judge remained true to that tradition yesterday. After two years of planning public hearings and environmental reports, a plan to get cars out of Balboa Park's main plaza was overturned by one small sentence in San Diego's municipal code. The fate of the Plaza de Panama project which was to transform the park in time for its 2015 centennial is now in limbo. The man behind the Plaza de Panama and main funder of the plan is Qualcomm founder, doctor Irwin Jacobs. Welcome to the program, sir.

JACOBS: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You're the chairman of the Plaza de Panama committee, you've been instrumental in moving this plan through the entire process of approval and through the politics at City Hall. What is your reaction to the ruling?

JACOBS: Well, first of all, I was a bit dismayed by in fact the last hurdle was one that we weren't really aware of, at least I wasn't aware of, that there was the ordinance that required a reasonable beneficial use. And then given that case, that the City Council couldn't make a determination of what is a reasonable, beneficial use. The ruling of the judge, he felt that being able to park there, have a thoroughfare through the two plazas was a reasonable beneficial use. And so one can't argue with that at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Now, judge Taylor's ruling hinged on that line that you mentioned. He said the city was wrong when it claimed there was no reasonable beneficial use for the plaza as a parking lot. Now, who, doctor Jacobs, do you think is responsible for letting that slip?

JACOBS: Well, I don't know who is responsible. I think calling a parking lot a reasonable beneficial use for the core of the park was not something that I suspect any of us expected.

CAVANAUGH: Could it have been handled differently, do you think? I mean, should the City Council have looked more closely at that ordinance? Should the city attorney have looked more closely on at it?

JACOBS: Well, I believe that there was examination of the ordinance, that the feeling was that it would not be a problem. It did turn into a major problem. It might have been possible at the time that the City Council voted on moving ahead with the project that they could have given an exception for this particular project to that ordinance. They did make a finding at that time, but perhaps have an additional weaker way of coping with it. But I think that the feeling was that -- and the city can speak for Tuesday, that the feeling was that there might be some legal questions if they tried to do that. And so they decided to proceed in a straightforward fashion.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Jacobs, in a statement yesterday, Bruce Coons who is my guest after you of the save our heritage organization said "this victory should be seen as a lesson never to allow plutocratic interests to override the wishes of the public." How do you respond to that?

JACOBS: I think it says everything that it needs. It's a very strange statement. Why SOHO decided to make this effort to stop a project that clearly would be beneficial to the city, would in fact help restore historic aspects of the park, why they made that effort is strange. And of course you might remember that they did come up with their own suggestion that apparently was approved by their Board of Directors or executive committee that they would prefer a left turn off of the bridge rather than a right turn. I often kid that perhaps that was our mistake. We should have proposed a left turn, then they could have proposed a right turn, and we could have compromised.

CAVANAUGH: How committed are you to completing some sort of renovation project? Let me just put it this way. They're speaking now possibly of a mediation, some sort of negotiation about the Plaza de Panama and reaching some sort of an agreement between the City Council and critics like SOHO. Are you seeing that happen?

JACOBS: Well, I'm not sure what will happen. We're not taking part at this point in any further activity. I've told the committee that the project is over, that we made a great effort. We came up with wonderful plans, we came up with an EIR, an environmental impact review that passed all court muster, so there were no environmental issues other than this one aspect with the city, with the ordinance. So we tried very hard. The city staff also worked with us very, very well as far as making sure we met all the requirements and that we ended up with a very positive project were it to have gone ahead. At this point it's over.

CAVANAUGH: If there is this negotiation or mediation between the City of San Diego and save our heritage organization, an agreement, let's say, is reached, would you consider supporting that project financially?

JACOBS: I've always said that we would support a project that met the requirements of keeping cars out of the plaza de California and the Plaza de Panama and also serve the needs of the institutions in the park. Closing the bridge really doesn't quite do that. I'm not quite sure. Nobody's ever come up, although they keep saying that there are 100 other possibilities or 10 or 20 or whatever the number might be at any given time that there are other possibilities for accomplishing these goals. I'm not aware of any. And so at this point I'm just a bystander.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate your speaking with us today.

JACOBS: Certainly. And I'm very sorry that we won't get to -- at least I won't probably in my lifetime get to watch children playing in the Plaza de Panama area and perhaps enjoying a coffee in the plaza de California.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, sir, I've been speaking with Qualcomm founder, doctor Irwin Jacobs. And in the interests of full disclosure, Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to KPBS. Now, KPBS asked San Diego City Council president Todd Gloria, City Council member Kevin Faulconer, and city attorney Jan Goldsmith to be part of the discussion, but all those people declined. But joining me now is Bruce Coons, executive brother of SOHO.

COONS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: What is your reaction to the victory against the Plaza de Panama?

COONS: Well, we're quite pleased. We think it preserves the Plaza de Panama for the centennial. We thought this project would damage the park for the centennial and we department think that was the right thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us if you would what the save our heritage organization, why you were opposed to this plan.

COONS: Because it was going to put a freeway-like off-ramp off the Cabrillo bridge, arguably the most iconic structure in San Diego what. Do you have? The hotel dell, the Cabrillo bridge, maybe the mission? Maybe Salk? One of the things that means San Diego to people around the world, certainly. And this was a great gift that was given us in 1915, this shining city on the hill. It was to represent a fortified Spanish city, and introducing this roadway and parking lot and ditches into the alcaczar garden would have destroyed all that. All the preservation organizations in the country, the national trust, the national park service, SOHO, more than 32 organizations in this town, including the league of women voters all opposed this. Including park users. The Spreckles Oregon society, and the house of Pacific relations, and us, and quite a few of the other institutions.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Jacobs was just saying you would have supported a bridge that went to the right instead of the left.

COONS: That's not correct. We never have supported a bridge to the left.

CAVANAUGH: The judge ruled in your favor in SOHO's favor. But if you read his ruling, he did so reluctantly. He wrote that the positives outweigh the negatives in the whole Plaza de Panama plan. Do you go with that?

COONS: Absolutely not. And most San Diegans don't agree with it. If you look at all the feedback in all the meetings, it's been 8-1, or 9-1, a negative on the project. There are a lot of other ways to accomplish this. It will get accomplished. We will get the parking out of the Plaza de Panama. We're looking forward to the leadership from mayor Filner on this, and he's talked about a number of different ways to do if. If nothing else happened, we're going to close the bridge in a few months for retrofitting, so we'll be able to try that, and for the centennial, the parking is going to go away. I don't expect it to ever come back.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some people are saying, including mayor Filner, the city and SOHO going into mediation over the Plaza de Panama project, and perhaps salvaging some of this plan. Does that sound like something you'd be interested in?

COONS: We're always willing to talk, and we always have been. And he talked about one option, though wrongly characterized, of what we offered, but we offered quite a few. We still support those. There's at least half a dozen really good options and probably another half a dozen options that are acceptable. This is not a hard thing to do. It's really not.

CAVANAUGH: Now, there were negotiations I believe on this plan last summer before the City Council approved the Plaza de Panama plan. How did they go?

COONS: Well, we're not supposed to talk about -- all we can say is we agreed to say there wasn't that much progress.

CAVANAUGH: You said it was either my way or the highway, right?

COONS: That's how I characterized the whole process.

CAVANAUGH: So in other words you're feeling that the city was not in a mindset to negotiate. Do you think that mindset might be different now?

COONS: I sure hope so. It's been a long time coming, you know, overwhelming public opposition to this project. And the public desires have been shut out. This is the People's park. And the people should have a right to say what happens here. You can say we should negotiate, but there's a lot of stakeholders in it, and the public at large. Shouldn't the wishes of the public be considered?

CAVANAUGH: Some people would say that you're representatives of the public. The City Council voted to go forward with this plan.

COONS: They're trying to represent the people not special interests. It's about time that we supported the mayor and Donna in clearing out these commissions and getting people on it that will represent the public interests. It's about time we have a San Diego for San Diegans finally. One that actually is for the people of San Diego, and not the special interests.

CAVANAUGH: Give me an example of how you feel that this plan that was overturned by the Court was railroaded and did not listen to the voice of the people.

CAVANAUGH: They say they made some 66 change, but there were no substantive changes since the plan was presented. 2.5 years ago, we got a call from parks and said oh, we sorry we didn't get the stakeholders involved in this plan. The plan substantively has not changed from the time we presented it. We looked at it and said great, we all want cars out of the plaza, we finally got a plan to go forward, but I'm not sure how this is going to working let's talk about it. And the though elements, the bypass bridge, the bypass road, the ditches, the tunnels, the retaining walls and all of that have not substantially changed. It's a massive massive project to yield what? 260 new spaces, and 160 of those were dedicated to valet and long-term parking for $45 million? That was the biggest boondoggle I've ever heard of.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of people, their main concern is how the people is going to look for this big centennial celebration in 2015. What do you see the park doing between now and then to spruce things up and make things easier?

COONS: Well, I always thought that the park should create a new world's fair. One on the east mesa. I was in the first two committees, centering around new technology, and the Pacific rim again, and the core be restored. There's $240 million worth of backlog of deferred maintenance there, plus nine historic buildings that should be reconstructed. And I thought that that should be done for the centennial, and have the greatest collection of exhibits there in the museums there, two a year, and maybe extend this for two years like they did for the first two expositions. They said oh, we don't have any money! I said what do you think was going on in 1935, those were depressions? That's the point.

CAVANAUGH: Right. But you don't see any lasting changes being made to the park in preparation for the centennial?

COONS: I don't see any now. But we've got a lot of confidence in Ben Clay and Nicky Clay.

CAVANAUGH: Who are they?

COONS: The chairs of the centennial commission. They've got a lot of great ideas, maybe not as grandiose as I would like to see. But if you did it right, you could provide an endowment to provide maintenance to the park for a long time. It should be a profitable event, and that's what it should be aimed at.

CAVANAUGH: Let me close with you, there were so many city leaders, and there were quite a number of just regular San Diegans and even the judge who ruled in your favor, they seemed to believe that in essence, the Plaza de Panama project would have been a very good thing for San Diego. Are you comfortable with your organization's position as having ended that plan?

COONS: If that's in fact what has happened, we are very comfortable with T. I think it's the best thing for the park. Unfortunately, the a lottive would have been a disaster. As we've said many times, we're going to get killed for this in the future. We would hate it to the day we die, and future generations would have asked why we did this thing to Balboa Park.