Judge delays final ruling on Balboa Park project

Plan would remove cars from center of park

SAN DIEGO - The major question of whether a bitterly contested plan to remove cars from the center of Balboa Park should go forward hinged Friday on differing interpretations of three words in San Diego's municipal code.

Lawyers argued for about 90 minutes before San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor in a hearing on a lawsuit that the Save Our Heritage Organisation filed to block the plan. The preservationist group favors the overall concept but object to a proposed bridge that would divert traffic from the Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California.

Taylor last week issued a tentative ruling that favored the plaintiffs in their bid to stop implementation of the plan. The judge said the city of San Diego violated its municipal code when the City Council found - without supporting evidence -- that there would be no reasonable beneficial use for the park area if the project failed to go forward.

He declined to issue a final ruling after hearing oral arguments that centered on the words "reasonable beneficial use."

"In light of the acute public interest in this case, it is something I should ponder in the coming hours and days," the judge said at the end of the hearing.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said SOHO tried to apply a rigid test to define "beneficial use" while ignoring "reasonable." SOHO's interpretation would mean only a "wasteland" would have no beneficial use, he said.

G. Scott Williams, an attorney for the Plaza de Panama Committee -- the group funded by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs that developed the plan -- made a converse argument, that the current mix of cars and pedestrians in the plaza was unreasonable.

"The only reasonable use of the property is as a pedestrian zone," Williams told the judge.

The lawyer also disagreed that the City Council made its finding without evidence, which he said was "ample" and included photographs and video of pedestrians walking through parking lots and street congestion.

Susan Brandt-Hawley, representing SOHO, said her opponents focused on use of the plazas, where there was little contention, instead of on the bridge. She reiterated that the bridge would be unsightly and cost the park its historic status.

She said if the judge affirmed his tentative ruling, which would derail the current plan, SOHO still hoped to negotiate with the other parties to reach a compromise plan.

Mayor Bob Filner said earlier this week that he would try to restart mediation sessions after the judge issues his final ruling. An opponent of the current plan, he said he could keep traffic off the plazas with six traffic cones.

The plan's supporters had hoped to complete the project within two years, in time for a planned yearlong celebration of Balboa Park's 100th anniversary.

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