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Balboa Park's Plaza De Panama Project Once Again In Court

Pictured is the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park, Jan. 15, 2015.
Milan Kovacevic
Pictured is the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park, Jan. 15, 2015.
Balboa Park's Plaza De Panama Project Once Again In Court
Plaza de Panama Project In Court GUEST:Lisa Halverstadt, reporter, Voice of San Diego

our top story on Midday edition is about Balboa Park redesign project. You might have forgotten about the Plaza de Panama project. The move to redirect traffic and change the topography of Balboa Park has been stalled by lawsuits. But this week court hearings may mark the beginning of the end of that delay. Joining me is reporter Lisa Halberstam a Voice of San Diego. And Lisa welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. This project has been in the works for so long people might have forgotten what it entails. Can you give us a brief rundown of what the idea is and who the backers are. Yes so the essential plan is to try to clear the center of the park what's known as the central Mesa of cars and traffic there right now if you go to the park and you're in the Plaza de Panama or in a couple of the other famous plazas Reges you're coming in from the Cabrillo bridge you'll see a lot of people trying to cross the streets and you know cars having to stop. And so the plan with this project is to stop that and essentially build a bypass bridge that begins right before you get into those two plazas that we all drive through as we enter the park. That would then take you this bypass would take you to an 800 space garage that would replace what's now the asphalt lot that's behind the organ pavilion and that would instead become a grass topped garage with about 800 spaces. This project as you had said Maureen has been discussed for a really long time. It goes back to about 2010 with Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm co-founder Erwin Jacobs who had kind of hatched this idea together and gotten really excited about the idea of clearing the center of the plaza or the center of the park there with cars. But since then as you noted there have been a series of roadblocks despite the fact that more folks within the park have gotten behind the project in more recent years. There's been ongoing litigation about this. Tell us about the lawsuit that's in court now. So Corey Briggs who is representing San Diego for open government is arguing in court that the latest iteration in the latest iteration of this project it was revived in 2016 after another lawsuit had held it up that the city is hoping to seek bonds to pay for its share of this project. A group of philanthropists would chip in the other portion but the city was planning to use bonds to pay its portion and Briggs's alleging that the city should have thought voter approval before it approved that plan in 2016. And also he's raising some issues with the city's agreement with the Plaza de Panama committee which is the group of philanthropists led by Erwin J cups that is looking to chip in a portion of the cost for the project. Can you tell us what happens to the project if Attorney Corey Briggs prevails if Attorney Corey Briggs prevails the city will have to go likely back to the drawing board to take a look at its financing of the project. However if history is any lesson here I would expect that both sides would be prepared to appeal potentially if they dont get their way meaning that the story may not be over. And theres another lawsuit pending this one was filed by save our heritage organization in response to a legal ruling that favored the city. Why is save our heritage against this plan so save our heritage is arguing in this latest lawsuit. Remember they had actually filed the lawsuit back and after the approvals in 2012 which stalled this project for few quite a few years. They're now saying that when the city revived this project in 2016 they should have done more substantial environmental reviews since number of things had changed in the park since the project was last approved. But certainly the biggest issue that Soho has had is that they just are very concerned about impacts to the Cabrillo bridge and this historical landmark that is Babul Park and the iconic entrance would would you know would change substantially if this project were to go forward. One of the big arguments the city has against these lawsuits is how much they are driving the cost of the project up. Is that a real problem. Well certainly the cost of the project has actually increased just in that pause that we talked about you know between the 2012 approval and 2016 there was quite a spike in the project costs and in more recent filings associated with the Briggs case the city has been raising concerns that every month every week that this project is delayed adds potential costs and one of the members of the Plaza de Panama committee who is serving as a project manager actually suggested that the cost increases about nearly one hundred sixteen thousand dollars a month every week or every month rather that this project is delayed. And so that's just raising the specter of you know there's a concern that if the project costs continue to go up and there are more delays project may not be able to come to fruition. Both from the city budget perspective but also you have this group of philanthropists that needs to raise about 30 million dollars to make this project happen. And as the delays are in place it does make fundraising more difficult. And yet even with these two legal challenges pending you report that the backers of the plan they are Faulkner and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs are rather optimistic this will move forward soon. Why is that. They are adamant that the courts have ruled in their favor in the past and will again. They would also know that Corey Briggs who is challenging this case in court or this project in court this week had actually lost the past suit against the city over the financing method that the city is pursuing for this project. And they believe that perhaps if all goes well and this clears legal hurdles that perhaps the project could break ground as early as 2019. They believe that they are on solid legal footing with this project. I've been speaking with reporter Lisa Halvorson at a Voice of San Diego. And Lisa thank you.

There are currently two lawsuits in play against the Plaza de Panama make-over in Balboa Park. One of them has made it into court.

The suit, filed by attorney Cory Briggs for San Diegans for Open Government, said the City Council should have sought voter approval before deciding to issue bonds to pay for the city's share of the then $78 million plan.

The plaza redesign was first championed by philanthropist Irwin Jacobs and then-Mayor Jerry Sanders. The City Council approved the plan to use bonds to cover the city's cost in 2016.


Officials have become alarmed at the delays, saying that escalating costs could scuttle the project altogether.

And there is another lawsuit in the wings. Save Our Heritage Organisation filed an appeal when it lost a suit on the lack of environmental review of the project.

That suit may not reach an appeals court for many more months.