San Diego Billionaire’s Plan for Balboa Park Back in Court

by on August 8, 2018 · 11 comments

in San Diego

San Diego billionaire and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacob’s $80 million plan for Balboa Park – the so-call Plaza de Panama make-over – is back in court after being stalled for months. Actually it went back to court, Monday, July 30, or at least part of it did, as one of the two current lawsuits against the Jacob-backed plan went before a judge.

The one back in court involved a suit filed by attorney Cory Briggs on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government. It challenges the city of San Diego’s use of bonds to financially support the city’s share of the then $78 million make-over, and contends the City Council should have sought voter approval before deciding to issue bonds to pay for the city’s share.

Another rendering of the proposed bypass bridge.

Further, Briggs raised issues regarding the city’s agreement with the Plaza de Panama Committee, as it had promised to raise money millions for the make-over. His contention:  the committee illegally received naming rights for several park facilities as part of its arrangement with the city.

Briggs’ case was back in Superior Court as it had been on hold for months pending an appeal he had filed against an earlier ruling in the case; he lost the appeal, the city prevailed and the two sides were back in court.

By Tuesday, the 31st, both sides had rested their case and closing arguments are set to be given before Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack on August 13.

The second case was filed by Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) and now it awaits a state Court of Appeal hearing. SOHO appealed the earlier Superior Court ruling that favored the city, having alleged the city should have conducted more environmental reviews after Mayor Kevin Faulconer revived the project in 2016. The SOHO suit may not reach an Appeals Court for many more months.

The back and forth for the Plaza de Panama over the years reflects its highly controversial nature. The City, former mayor Jerry Sanders, current mayor Faulconer, Irwin Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee have supported it, whereas preservationists, historians, SOHO and environmentalists have opposed it, as has the San Diego Historic Resources Board, the Park and Recreation Board.

So, what are the general parts of the Billionaire’s plan?

  • to divert traffic from the Cabrillo Bridge on a bypass bridge;
  • displace cars from two plazas in the center of the park.
  • an 800-space underground garage, topped by landscaping.
  • replace the asphalt lot behind the Organ Pavilion with a grass-covered paid parking garage

So, what’s wrong with Jacob plan?

Opponents have come up with these key design flaws in the plan:

  • The bypass bridge off the historic Cabrillo Bridge and parking structure amount to “overkill,” wrote former city architect Michael Stepner in an e-mail urging the commission to reject the Jacobs plan.
  • The three-level garage would require the most expensive approach to construction, costing a whopping $40,000 to $90,000 per space, while gaining only 261 new parking spaces with 100 of those reserved for valet parking.
  • Paying for the garage would necessitate introducing paid parking to the park after more than a century of free parking.
  • The bypass bridge and forced right hand turn required to reach the garage would put pedestrians and drivers in perpetual conflict, wrote landscape architect Michael Singleton, who, as a member of the Balboa Park Committee, voted against the Jacobs plan and expressed serious concerns that the vote was being taken at all since over 100 written questions from the committee member to the DEIR had gone unanswered by the Plaza de Panama team.
  • As with its historic structures, the park’s topography, landscapes and views would be forever changed and would be irreversible.

The Jacob’s plan was pushed on the City by the Plaza de Panama Committee, whom Jacob guided; the cause was taken up by then-Mayor Jerry Sanders, with the City Council in 2016 approving the plan to use bonds to cover the city’s share.

Then the whole thing stalled for two years pending Appeals Court rulings. And in the meantime, city attorneys back in court are saying delays and their escalating costs could cause the entire project to collapse altogether.

Plus, earlier in July, Plaza de Panama project manager Gordon Kovtun estimated that every month the project is delayed increases its cost by $115,500.

More background, according to SOHO:

The Plaza de Panama plan has also alarmed national and state preservation officials. Both the National Parks Service and the State Historic Preservation Officer, M. Wayne Donaldson, have written to the city with grave concerns. They maintain that the renowned park’s unique buildings, gardens and landscapes would be so altered by this proposal that their National Historic Landmark District status would be in jeopardy.

The plan grew out of decades-old dissatisfaction with parking in the Plaza de Panama, at the center of the park. No one disagrees with this goal, but over 30 organizations, and the vast majority of San Diegans strongly argue that other alternatives should be considered.

Alternatives include the comprehensive Lewis plan which Save Our Heritage Organisation, San Diego County’s largest preservation group, strongly supports. This plan is superior because it does no harm to the park’s historic features, restores the Alcazar Garden and west entrance to the park, creates more parking spaces and fewer traffic conflicts than the Sanders plan and would cost $5 million to $10 million less, according to William S. Lewis, the architect and developer who created the alternative plan pro bono out of love for Balboa Park and great respect for the Expo’s original architect Bertram Goodhue.

Both sides remain upbeat. Mayor Faulconer, the Plaza de Panama Committee, Jacobs, have dug in, and are assured of winning. The city expects to prevail.

Briggs is confident in his case. It’s not known whether he would file an appeal if he loses the suit. SOHO’s Bruce Coons believes his group’s appeal will be favorable and said, “We’ll do everything we can to make sure the project doesn’t happen.”




Voice of San Diego

San Diego Union-Tribune


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Roy McMakin August 9, 2018 at 8:21 am

I’m bewildered by the “Jacob’s Plan”. Among the many philanthropic things Irwin Jacobs has generously funded over the years is the visual arts. For instance, their support of the Stuart Collection at UCSD has allowed it to become one the the best and most important public sculpture collections in the world. And I know they personally appreciate and collect art in a meaningful way. Therefore I just don’t get why Jacobs is so hellbent on making this plan happen. Among the many negative ways to look at this project is that it is bad architecture and therefore bad art. While Balboa Park could benefit from subtle and creative rethinking in certain ways, this is neither of those. Its more like a giant colostomy bag attached to the elegant organism that is the main axis of the park. I still don’t understand why Jacobs didn’t (and still doesn’t) fund an international competition to get ideas on how to address the circulation (of pedestrians and vehicles) in the park. I’m sure there are some subtle and brilliant ideas to be found that address the ever evolving nature of transportation and increased usage of the park, but at the same time preserving its historical integrity, its architectural and sculptural integrity, and not angering many people. We need a plan to bring the park far in the 21st century, the current plan seem to be from the mid 20th century when we felt freeways and overpasses were the solution. Regarding the lawsuits, I see them as just one manifestation of the widespread public anger over the Jacobs Plan. Hopefully they can derail this project, but I wish Jacobs himself would come to his senses and work with the community to come up with a better Jacobs Plan.


Dane August 10, 2018 at 7:16 am

Philanthropists always want their names on some brand new thing, but it’s hard to get them to pay for maintenance of what is there already. That is what is needed in this park. When everybody figures out that this project is ugly and doesn’t work, which philanthropist is going to pay to have it yanked out again? Better get that figured out in advance.


ZZ August 12, 2018 at 2:03 pm

Readers should look at the plan for themselves:

Note that the parking-lots strewn all over the center of the park will be replaced by pedestrian areas, grassy fields, fountains, etc.

Parking at the park will be 80% free, 20% paid in the new garages replacing the horrible acres of parking lots everywhere. And if you think that 20% is a problem, I’d invite you to do some research, starting here:

Jacobs is one of San Diego’s heroes, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to medical and educational causes, and started a company that employs thousands of San Diegans.


Roy McMakin August 12, 2018 at 9:17 pm

ZZ, As you requested in your comment on this article, I viewed the site your comment has a link to, and had my opinions about the Jacobs Plan further confirmed. The website is not a “plan” as you call it, but instead a vague and glossy marketing vehicle for the Jacobs Plan, carefully selecting photos of the park to make a negative point, and showing rosy renderings of the Jacobs Plan that leave out most if not all of the components many people object to. But the most revealing aspect of the site is the creepy push poll it contains. In many ways that exemplifies the offensiveness of all aspects of both the plan and those hellbent to make it happen. Clearly the push poll is designed not to get useful information from participants, but instead to influence those taking the poll. Really. Since its inception it seems those associated with the Jacobs Plan haven’t been interested listening to the critics of the plan and finding ways to make the plan better by incorporating their ideas.

I am also troubled by your suggestion that because Jacobs is generous and powerful others should not oppose his plan. Isn’t it possible to both respect and express gratitude for Jacobs and his other civic efforts, and not agree with his vision for Balboa Park?

Many wise people deeply love, respect and understand Balboa Park, and many people deeply oppose the Jacobs Plan. Sadly it seems those associated with the Jacobs Plan don’t understand and respect this, and feel they need to use their influence and power to make it happen. This is not right.


ZZ August 14, 2018 at 12:15 pm

By all means oppose it, but not clear why other than a desire for free parking. What specifically is ugly?

Environmental lawsuits unfortunately are often filed either to get bought off by the developers or are from NIMBYs.

I have seen in other cities’ parking garages that are underground and have grass on top, they look great and blend in well. Here is one containing a grocery store in an urban Amsterdam park.

I think the center of Balboa doesn’t need a subtle change, it is full of cars barely moving spewing out exhaust and then acres of ugly parking lots.


Roy McMakin August 27, 2018 at 10:35 pm

ZZ, You don’t seem to understand or recognize the enormous assault the bypass bridge/road will be both the historical value and the core aesthetics/poetry of the Cabrillo Bridge, as well at the siting of the historic structures in the landscape. And the landscape itself. This has been articulated frequently and is also stated in this article. Its BAD DESIGN. And its DESTRUCTIVE of a historic landmark. And it EXPENSIVE. And its DIVISIVE. Setting aside its design problems, its wrong to allow the wealthy to use their money and political power to outweigh the voices the community. You suggest those opposed to the Jacobs Plan are either greedy or NIMBYS as a derogative description, which makes no sense to me. In a sense Balboa Park is the City’s backyard, so yes we are saying no to this bad idea in our backyard.


Mary Neal February 13, 2019 at 8:09 am

I don’t think I could state the objections to the Jacob’s Plan anymore exacting than this description above by Roy McMaken. I could not think of the words to explain my dislike for the Jacob Plan. Thank you Roy for finding the words for me, “Among the many negative ways to look at this project is that it is bad architecture and therefore bad art. While Balboa Park could benefit from subtle and creative rethinking in certain ways, this is neither of those. Its more like a giant colostomy bag attached to the elegant organism that is the main axis of the park.”


ZZ August 14, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Here’s a better view:

It looks even better in person, and kids love running up and down the gentle slope in what is a very flat city. On a sunny day it might be the post popular patch of grass in all of Holland.


Mary Neal February 13, 2019 at 8:25 am

That underground parking structure looks abhorrent! I cannot imagine anything so totally incongruous as something similar to that in or within miles of Balboa Park. It looks like the UFO landing pad a lady built in Jamul years ago.

Balboa Park is in need of restoration, not a modernist concept of an underground parking structure. Hang in there Bruce and Alana and all those dedicated to preservation at SOHO. You will win.


Carol Widdop-Sonka August 14, 2018 at 7:40 pm

Over the years, more than 78 for me, I’ve been so proud of our public Balboa Park. It has been used and cherished by the public. I was taken there before I learned to walk, and we have family photos of me taking my first steps within the park. There have been places to park our car, loaded up with neighborhood kids, to walk, play, and picnic in the park, visit museums together, relax near the Lily Pond, and enjoy the tropical plants in the huge wooden botanical garden. It has been a “public” park. My brother and I took classes there during the summer, then my children and step children took classes at the Natural History Museum and did research within the Zoo, some of my grandchildren have done the same. My husband relearned to walk in the covered walkways of the Prado after a major stroke when he was told he would never again be out of a wheelchair or a hospital bed. He strolled again within the park and visited the museums again. The park was easily accessed, parking was free, and this oasis was free for the public to enjoy, meander, learn, and play in a richly landscaped paradise, which surrounded the park’s ornate buildings. The proposed Jacob’s plan loses sight of the public aspect of this park, built with a cohesive plan in mind within landscaped green areas, which has been a refreshing gift for all the people who live here and those who come to visit and enjoy San Diego. It really strikes me as wrong that the proposed changes include a paid parking garage and valet parking. Do the rich always get to win? Do they always get the breaks? It is chump change to them to pay for parking places or valet parking. For others, it can be a reason not to come to Balboa Park any longer, to lose part of their heritage as San Diego dwellers.


Peter from South O August 28, 2018 at 4:24 am

For the price of butchering acres of the park the City could expand the tram system and coordinate with FRED and SANDAG to get people to the park’s periphery. Get private vehicles completely out of the park. We do not allow cigarette smoking in Balboa Park, yet thousands of internal-combustion engines spew exhaust fumes as they snake through the core of the park.
Plan for the future. It is shaping up to be a lot less automobile-centric.


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