The Irwin Jacobs plan to transform San Diego’s Balboa Park may be illegal according to the City Municipal Code. In her statements to the City Council at the July 9th City Council meeting, Susan Brandt-Hawley, an attorney who worked with the Save Our Heritage Organisation in challenging the project, warned the members that in supporting the plan they would be in violation of the law.
In question are two particular sub-sections of the Municipal Code. §126.504 of the code states that:
A Site Development Permit may be approved or conditionally approved only if the decision maker makes all of the findings in Section 126.0504(a) and the supplemental findings in Section 126.0504(b) through (o) that are applicable to the proposed development as specified in this section.
§126.504(a)(1) states that “the proposed development will not adversely affect the applicable land use plan.” The Plaza de Panama plan to tear down part of the Cabrillo Bridge to build the Centennial Bridge would appear to be in minor conflict with the Balboa Park Precise Plan, which calls for reduced traffic through the Central Mesa by allowing only one way traffic through the Plaza de Panama during Balboa Park tram operating hours, and creating a more walkable environment.
The Precise Plan also calls for the construction of a large parking structure to the south of the Organ Pavilion, similar in nature to the Jacobs plan. However, there is no mention of any intent to charge for parking, as in the Jacobs plan.
But if Municipal Code §126.504(a) raises only small concerns, §126.504(i)(3) should raise major alarm bells. “To approve the bypass (Centennial) bridge,” Brandt-Hawley wrote in an email, “the City has to find that a denial of that bridge would result in the loss of all reasonable “beneficial use” of the Park. That is what the municipal code says. The code is written to deter adverse impacts to important historic properties, so it only allows such impacts if otherwise the property would have no reasonable use.”
§126.504(i)(3) states in plain language that alterations or “substantial new construction” to a designated historical landmark or structure located in a designated historical district within the City of San Diego must show that “the denial of the proposed development would result in economic hardship to the owner. For purposes of this finding ‘economic hardship’ means there is no reasonable beneficial use of a property and it is not feasible to derive a reasonable economic return from the property.”
Balboa Park’s Central Mesa, including the Cabrillo Bridge and the museums, was designated by the National Park Service as a national historical district in 1977. And since, in its current unaltered state Balboa Park remains quite useful and popular to the general public, it is not possible to find that there is “no reasonable beneficial use of the property.” Further, since Balboa Park is a public park that was never intended to generate a “reasonable economic return,” the park’s owner—the City of San Diego—cannot possibly be financially harmed.
“One of the things that interested me is where the findings for the project can be made. That’s the most important thing for any land use decision by the City Council” former City Councilwoman Donna Frye told me in a lengthy interview.
“You generally will have some comment about whether they can make these findings. No findings were discussed as far as the decision makers go. There is nothing on record from the decision makers as to how they reached their findings,” said Frye of the current council’s vote to approve the project.
The project could also put the park’s standing as a National Historical District in jeopardy. According to the environmental impact report, “Construction of the Centennial Bridge component of the project would be inconsistent with SOI (Secretary of the Interior) Rehabilitation Standards 2 and 9, thereby contributing to a substantial adverse impact to the Balboa Park National Historic Landmark District because it would alter the spatial relationships and iconic views within a portion of the Park, especially the relationship of Cabrillo Bridge and the California Quadrangle.”
The entryway changes to the park off of the Cabrillo Bridge are “rather jarring to the experience of Balboa Park,” said Frye.
Part two of the SOI Rehabilitation Standards reads:
The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces, and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.
Part nine demands as follows:
New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.
The destruction of a portion of the Cabrillo Bridge in order to facilitate the construction of the Centennial Bridge violates both standards.
Complicating the project even further, the Independent Budget Analyst found that while the Plaza de Panama Committee has publicly committed to covering any cost overruns to the $45.3 million project, there is a significant caveat:
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 IBA also raised significant concerns regarding the revenue projections for the paid parking structure that is supposed to pay for the debt service on the city’s contribution to the project, determining that instead of a $200,000 annual surplus, the structure could end up leaving a $968,000 hole in the city’s general fund. Combine that with any significant cost overruns and the City of San Diego could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, which is more likely than the Committee would let on.
For example, the pedestrian bridge that was recently completed that links the San Diego Convention Center and the Hilton Hotel and Petco Park across Harbor Drive and the railroad/trolley tracks was completed for more than double its original estimated cost. The bridge was supposed to be built for $12.8 million, according to reports, but the final price tag tallied nearly $27 million.
The City Council also did not learn the lesson taught by the North Park parking structure adjacent to the North Park Theater. According to the minutes of a North Park Planning Committee meeting, the original revenue projections for that structure prior to its construction predicted revenues of $660,000 by 2010 with operating expenses of $218,000. “The actual revenue as reported by the Redevelopment agency is approximately $150,000 with expenses of approximately $195,000, and has been about the same or less for the five years the garage has been open.”
Revenue projections and construction costs can be grossly optimistic, and usually are, especially when project supporters have an agenda. Once construction on the Centennial Bridge begins, it cannot be undone. And should any cost projections exceed that three percent after construction starts—as would seem likely–the Plaza de Panama Committee could simply walk away, leaving the city having to find a way to foot the bill in its entirety, which would include the overestimation of revenues generated by the Organ Pavilion parking structure.
“We did not hear any response regarding what changes to the project were made since the beginning of the process,” Frye told me. “The public process involves some give and take. If there were no significant changes to the project during its development, it indicates that this was pretty much a done deal,” she said. “The public hearing process, in that case, was more of a show than anything else.”
The Save Our Heritage Organisation has announced that it will launch a legal challenge to the City Council’s decision.