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Plaza de Panama project dealt setback

Plans to remove vehicle traffic from Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama with the help of a bypass bridge could be in limbo after a tentative ruling by a San Diego Superior Court judge Friday.

Judge Timothy Taylor ruled San Diego City Council's approval of the project violated the city's municipal code as it relates to the alteration of a "historic resource," and he tentatively set aside the project's site development permit.

According to Taylor, the city of San Diego was required to show an "economic hardship" if the project was denied, meaning the area would not have a beneficial use without the project.

"There is no substantial evidence in the record as a whole supporting the determination that there is no reasonable beneficial use for the project area absent approval of the project," he wrote.

The city and the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), which is seeking to stop the project, will convene in court Friday at 1:30 p.m. to present oral arguments before Taylor issues his final ruling.

SOHO also accused the city of violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for issuing an improper Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and alleged the project's proposed paid parking garage violated an 1870 statute that requires the city park to be set aside for perpetual free public use.

Taylor dismissed both arguments.

The city and the Plaza de Panama Committee are trying to renovate Balboa Park in time for the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition in 2015. Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) founder Irwin Jacobs has pledged significant financial support for the $45.3 million project.

Taylor seemed to be discouraged to have to issue the ruling, but he also acknowledged he was "bound to follow" the law.

"The court agrees with the city and (the committee) that the positives from the project seem to far outweigh the negatives," he wrote. "The loss of the generous funding offered by (the committee) will be a sad day for San Diego, because no other funding source has been identified, and the city's own perilous (and partly self-inflicted) financial problems have been well documented and likely preclude public funding of any significant alternative project.

"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."

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