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Judge rules Plaza de Panama project improperly approved

Despite arguments from San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a Superior Court judge Monday affirmed an earlier ruling that the plan to renovate Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama was improperly approved and must be set aside.

The proposed $45.3 million project, which has been opposed by the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) from its inception, calls for the construction of a bypass bridge and a paid parking garage to eliminate vehicle traffic from the center of Balboa Park.

Judge Timothy Taylor initially rejected the city's argument that there is "no reasonable beneficial use" for the property if the renovations are not made -- a showing that is required by municipal code when anyone attempts to alter a historical structure or facility.

During oral arguments Friday, Goldsmith contended there are "unreasonable beneficial uses," which the city is free to reject in favor of one deemed more beneficial.

"Respectfully, this strikes the court as re-writing the Municipal Code," Taylor wrote in a 15-page final ruling. "The City Council did not enact language permitting alteration if it determined that the proposed alteration would result in a more reasonable beneficial use; rather, it required that there be no reasonable beneficial use absent the alteration."

Organizers hoped to complete the project in time for the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition, which marked the birth of what is now Balboa Park, in 2015. Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs proposed the plan and has promised significant financial backing.

SOHO claimed the project's alterations would cause irreparable harm to the historic park. The group's executive director, Bruce Coons, was delighted with the ruling.

"It would have been nothing short of a travesty to lose this treasure to a remodel better suited for an industrial park," Coons said in a statement. "This is a victory not only for the people of San Diego who have venerated Balboa Park as the 'People's Park' for generations, but also for the millions of visitors who come to San Diego just to see this international gem."

The city has not decided yet if it will appeal the ruling.

Goldsmith, however, was happy that Judge Taylor dismissed SOHO's claims that the project's Environmental Impact Report was done improperly in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

"We are carefully reviewing the judge’s interpretation of the city’s ordinance at issue and will be discussing options with our client," Goldsmith released in a statement. "At this point, we are not prepared to announce a course of action but we expect to do so in the near future."

While ultimately ruling against the city, Judge Taylor was critical of SOHO's effort to stop the project. He said he realizes his decision might cause the Plaza de Panama committee to abandon the renovation.

"The court agrees with the city and (project committee) that the positives from the project seem to far outweigh the negatives," Judge Taylor wrote. "A wonderful opportunity may be lost; SOHO’s opposition to the project seems short-sighted, as the project appears to offer many net benefits in terms of restoration of historic resources."

SOHO's Coons said the project would not have freed Balboa Park from car traffic, except for one small area, and its approval would set a bad precedent.

"It would have paved the way for what many San Diegans believe would have led to commercialization, privatization, and new construction throughout the park, severely curtailing public access and destroying forever the experience of this singular place," he said in his statement.

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