SAN DIEGO - In a victory for preservationists, a judge Monday affirmed his earlier tentative ruling that the San Diego City Council violated the city's municipal code when it approved a bitterly contested plan to remove cars from the center of Balboa Park.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor decided there was no evidence to support a finding by the council that the project area would have no reasonable beneficial use if the plan wasn't approved. The finding was necessary because of the park's historic status.
He had found in favor of Plaza de Panama plan supporters on two other issues raised in the Save Our Heritage Organisation's suit, but his decision on the third point effectively derails the project for the moment.
In an updated ruling following oral arguments on Friday, the judge said he couldn't find in favor of the plan even after he adopted the city's interpretation of the municipal code. He said the fact that the park is heavily used shows there is a beneficial use even without the plan.
SOHO primarily objects to a proposed bridge on the west side of the park that would carry traffic around the Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California, and toward a mostly underground parking structure that would be built behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The organization contends the bridge would be unsightly and place the park's historic status in jeopardy.
SOHO otherwise agrees with the basic concept of removing vehicles from the park's core.
Bruce Coons, the executive director of the organization, said he is "extremely gratified" by the ruling.
"Balboa Park is a rare and extraordinary site, filled with history, culture and beauty," Coons said. "It would have been nothing short of a travesty to lose this treasure to a remodel better suited for an industrial park.
He said the Plaza de Panama plan would have cleared vehicles from one small area of the park while subjecting the rest of the area to "a sea" of traffic.
"The plan would have caused significant, irreparable and irreversible harm to Balboa Park's historic structures, its environment, its canyons and roadways," Coons said. "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."
The judge's ruling sets aside the City Council's approval of the project, but he conceded the issue would probably be appealed. He also said he was reluctant to make the ruling, since it could cost millions of dollars of funding put forth by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith put a positive spin on the development, saying the ruling upheld the city's process under the California Environmental Quality Act and the vetting of the project's environmental impact report.
"We are carefully reviewing the judge's interpretation of the city's ordinance at issue and will be discussing options with our client," Goldsmith said, referring to the mayor and City Council. "At this point, we are not prepared to announce a course of action, but we expect to do so in the near future."
Mayor Bob Filner said last week he would try to get the two sides together for mediation talks after the ruling was issued. He said he believed he could accomplish the basic goal with six traffic cones.
Several park visitors expressed varying viewpoints to 10News.
"I think it would kind of destroy the historic value of this place and I think there'll be too much foot traffic," said Tossama Chiwarak.
"It might destroy how beautiful this place is. I feel like there's going to be too much construction. We should leave it the way it is."
Andy Ruhl likes the idea of more limited vehicle access.
"I think the traffic here is a bit confusing and it might be a good idea to eliminate some of the traffic anyway," he said. "It's a negative but it might be worth doing. It's very tough to start building in historic areas but you need progress as well. Progress to me seems like better pedestrian traffic."
Rosemary Kostos, however, likes the current configuration.
"We enjoy how it is now," she said. "It's easy for me with my wheelchair and accessibility. I like it the way it is."
Kostos' husband, George, agreed.
"The setup you have here works for us," he said. "We can take the wheelchair out of the car and have easy access to all the sights and museums."
Marine Sgt. Kevin Inca, who is based at Camp Pendleton, declared, "I like it as is. It's beautiful. Just look at it. Why change it?"
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.