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Judge Tentatively Rules Against Plaza De Panama Project

Rendering of the proposed Plaza de Panama Project
Joe Cordelle, Animate Digital Studios
Rendering of the proposed Plaza de Panama Project

San Diego’s plan to renovate Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park may hang on the legal interpretation of a single phrase, “reasonable beneficial use.”

Under San Diego’s municipal code, the city cannot touch an historic structure unless it’s ruled to have no reasonable beneficial use. The City Council made that determination regarding Plaza de Panama when it voted to approve a renovation in the area that closes the plaza to vehicles.

Judge Tentatively Rules Against Plaza De Panama Project
A tentative court ruling could foreshadow trouble for the Plaza de Panama project in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

But since the plan involved removing a section of the historic Cabrillo Bridge, the Save Our Heritage Organisation sued, saying the plaza does serve a reasonable use as a parking lot. In a tentative ruling issued last week, Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor agreed with SOHO and blocked the project. Taylor said while the parking lot may not be desirable, it is a reasonable use.

"The court can take judicial notice that parking lots around the city are revenue-generating enterprises," he wrote in his ruling, "and the fact that the project contemplates the construction of two multi-level parking lots proves the point."

The Plaza de Panama plan calls for building a parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Taylor will hear oral arguments in the case this Friday. He sided against SOHO on several other charges that San Diego violated environmental laws related to the project.

The city wants to break ground on the renovation in time for the park’s 2015 centennial celebration. The City Attorney's office stressed that the ruling is tentative and can still be changed.

San Diego CityBeat first wrote about the ruling this morning.


In a statement, City Council President Todd Gloria called the ruling a blow.

"This is a sad day for those of us who understand the need to reclaim precious parkland from cars and give it back to the people for their enjoyment," he said. "While this is no doubt a setback, I am confident dedicated San Diegans will continue to selflessly champion needed improvements in Balboa Park just as they have for nearly 100 years."

SOHO head Bruce Coons had the opposite view. He said he was "thrilled'' with the "strong'' ruling released by Taylor. Coons contends the city abused its discretion on the matter.

"This ruling will allow SOHO and other stakeholders to achieve the longheld goal of eliminating parking in Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama in a non-destructive and unintrusive way, while protecting the Balboa Park National Historic Landmark District that we all cherish,'' Coons said.

In his ruling, Taylor wrote that he was "reluctant'' to find against the city because he was aware that it might cost project supporters generous private donations. The "positives from the project seem to far outweigh the negatives,'' the judge said.

The judge also conceded that the final decision on the issue would be made at the appellate level.