The Plaza de Panama saga was a debacle for San Diego and its City Council, which doesn’t seem to be of any concern to the mayoral candidates.
By SDFP Staff
Part 2: Plaza de Panama
Here’s our preface, along with the question as asked:
2. Plaza de Panama Balboa Park
A Superior Court judge ruled that the Jacobs Plan, which promoted a parking and traffic makeover in Balboa Park, was in violation of the City’s municipal code.
Are you in favor or opposed to revising the municipal code to accommodate the Jacobs Plan and why?
In the spring of 2012, the San Diego City Council voted to accept Dr. Irwin Jacobs’ generous $25 million offer to completely overhaul Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama—the main thoroughfare and access point to the park’s main museums. The project would have taken the better part of two years to complete—hopefully in time for the 2015 Balboa Park Centennial Celebration—and would include the demolition of a portion of the historic Cabrillo Bridge in order to build what would be called the “Centennial Bridge,” circumventing the Plaza de Panama and feeding into a brand spanking new three story paid parking structure.
The total cost of the project: An estimated $45 million, $20 million of which the city would have to fund.
The plan was fraught with problems, not the least of which was the fact that if cost overruns were to exceed three percent of the projected $45 million, the Plaza de Panama Committee (the group overseeing the project) and Dr. Jacobs, by contract, had the right to pull out of the project altogether, sticking the City of San Diego with the entire tab. From the city’s Independent Budget Analyst:
It is understood that any cost overruns for the Project beyond the anticipated $45.3 million would be fully addressed by the Committee. However, per the proposed Improvement Agreement, the Committee may terminate the Improvement Agreement at its sole discretion for any reason if the anticipated costs of the Project exceed the budget for the Project provided by the Committee to the City by more than three percent (3%).
The San Diego Free Press’ Andy Cohen covered the passage of the apparently illegal plan through the City Council, and the plan’s demise in the courtroom in February, 2013. As a result of the court ruling against the Jacobs plan, Dr. Jacobs withdrew his offer and declared the Plaza de Panama project dead.
Since then, former Mayor Bob Filner implemented his own plan, largely following the 20 year old Balboa Park Precise Plan, cleared the plaza of parking and opened it up to pedestrians, had it resurfaced and reconfigured to allow only one way traffic through the plaza. Additionally, the park is in the process of adding tables and chairs as well as a fountain and planters, transforming the Plaza de Panama into a public gathering place unrivaled in San Diego. The collective response to the changes has been overwhelmingly positive. The price tag for such a transformation: Just north of $300,000, a very small fraction of what the Jacobs plan would have cost.
After Filner’s resignation, and given the near unanimous support on the City Council for the Jacobs plan (with Sherri Lightner the only dissenting vote), there were rumblings of a revival of the Jacobs plan. Of particular concern was candidate Nathan Fletcher, who has received major backing from none other than Irwin Jacobs.
Candidate Mike Aguirre provided the most detailed response, noting the ludicrous conclusion by the City Council that the park in its then current configuration no longer provided any “beneficial use.”
“The court ruling that determined that the City violated its own laws was a finding by the court that the City had, in order to pursue the “Jacobs Plan,” made an unsupportable decision that the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park with or without parking rendered it witout a beneficial use. It is ludicrous to argue that either Plaza de Panama or Balboa Park is not a “beneficial use” of dedicated parkland,” wrote Aguirre. Obviously Judge Timothy Taylor agreed when he ruled in February, 2013, that the plan violated the city’s own municipal code. Aguirre went on to note that the Jacobs plan would only affect 67 of the park’s existing 8,400 parking spaces, only 24 of which were available to the general public.
Aguirre also noted the tentative plans by the San Diego Zoo to build a four level, 4,800 space parking garage of its own, which would be open to all Balboa Park visitors, and the additional expansion plans for the Zoo and Park, which would render the Jacobs plan completely moot.
It should also be pointed out that Mr. Aguirre was the only one of the three major mayoral candidates who opposed the Jacobs plan from the beginning.
Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Fletcher largely circumvented the question. Alvarez explained that he supported the Jacobs plan, and voted in favor of it on the City Council despite “major reservations about the optimistic revenue projections for the proposed parking garage.” He says that under his administration the plan will not be resurrected. That’s a good thing, but still, his response raises some concerns.
Mr. Fletcher, too, says he supported the plan, and said he’s “not aware of any efforts to revive the Jacobs Plan, but I do continue to support the concept of completely removing cars from the center of the park and reviving the magnificent public plazas that were foolishly turned into roads.”
Once again, we’ll let candidate Hud Collins’ response speak for itself: “In favor of revising old MC. But, not to accommodate Jacobs Plan. That would be de facto and inappropriate. Parking structure & financial plan a real problem.”
None of the candidates made mention of the improvements made to the park in the wake of Judge Taylor’s ruling. None of them expressed any opinion on the direction the park has taken since, which is puzzling given the overwhelmingly and enthusiastically positive response by the public to the changes.
More concerning to us at the SDFP is why candidates Fletcher and Alvarez were so accepting of the project in the first place, particularly given that the process was so flawed to begin with. Mr. Alvarez mentioned the “many public hearings,” but as former City Councilmember Donna Frye noted at the time in an interview with the SDFP, those hearings failed to result in any significant changes to the plan at all. This lends credence to the notion that the hearings were not meant to gather input from the various stakeholders in the project, but rather were simply informational in nature. This is the plan. Take it or leave it. We are not accepting suggestions.
This raises red flags because apparently Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Fletcher did not fully consider the entire implications of the Jacobs plan, had no concerns about the flawed process with which it was implemented, and did not thoroughly consider the consequences or any other alternatives. That the plan so obviously violated the city’s own laws was of no concern, which should raise questions in the minds of San Diego voters. The fact is that there were other, far less costly alternatives available that accomplished essentially the same goal, and we have seen one of those alternatives become reality.
The fact that Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Fletcher were so eager so simply grab Dr. Jacobs’ $25 million with few or no questions asked, putting the City on the hook for an additional $20 million and perhaps much, much more is very troubling. And that there was no pushback on the bloated revenue projections for the parking structure that came as part of the Jacobs plan on the part of either candidate tells us that either they did not understand the entirety of the project, did not give adequate consideration to all of the facts, or simply didn’t care. They saw millions of dollars and jumped for it.
We can only speculate at this point what Mr. Faulconer’s position would be, and that would not be at all fair, although it would surely be more disconcerting than Mr. Alvarez’ or Mr. Fletcher’s.