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City Says Plaza de Panama Overhaul Is Moving Forward, But Opponents Are Digging in

The plan to transform Balboa Park’s core was supposed to begin this fall, but is now set for March 2018. The city insists it will happen, yet opponents are just as confident in their efforts to thwart the plan.

A planned overhaul of Balboa Park’s central mesa that was set to kick off this fall will now begin in March, according to city officials.

And those officials insist the Plaza de Panama project will proceed despite two lawsuits threatening to keep shovels out of the ground.

City staffers are working with outside consultants on construction documents even as lawyers prepare to defend the city and the project itself in court.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and proponents of the Plaza de Panama say the controversial and long-delayed project that aims to clear cars from the park’s center can survive the latest round of legal challenges. They also say they’re confident the Plaza de Panama Committee, led by philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, can raise the millions of dollars necessary to help make the roughly $80 million project happen once the lawsuits are off the table.

Yet Bruce Coons of preservationist group Save Our Heritage Organisation and Cory Briggs of San Diegans for Open Government are also confident – they believe the cases they filed after the City Council approved a financing plan for the project last year will thwart the project.

Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack is for now set to preside over separate trials beginning next month and late September, respectively.

“I think in both cases the city and the (Plaza de Panama) Committee’s position is very strong,” said G. Scott Williams, an outside attorney assisting the city with the two new lawsuits. “What I’ve been thinking about what’s going to happen when and after we prevail.”

Williams said the city could start Plaza de Panama construction even if appeals drag out.

SOHO’s lawsuit argues that the city should have conducted more environmental reviews to better account for changes at Balboa Park since the City Council initially approved the Plaza de Panama project in 2012. A past SOHO case put the Plaza de Panama project on hold for years.

Briggs alleges the city should have gotten voter approval before the City Council signed off on a plan to seek up to $50 million in bonds to cover its share of the Plaza de Panama project, and raises questions about the city’s agreement with the Plaza de Panama Committee. That committee has promised to raise nearly $30 million for the project. Its fundraising process has been stalled amid the lawsuits.

Briggs has promised to appeal the case if he loses – and he’s already fighting one of the decisions the judge has made in the case.

The city filed a cross complaint against Briggs’ group, San Diegans for Open Government. It claimed Briggs’ allegations are false and asked the judge to declare that the city’s bond approvals were in keeping with city rules. That would have quashed Briggs’ case.

Briggs responded by filing a motion to squelch the city’s cross-complaint.

Last month, Pollack rejected Brigg’s motion to kill the cross-complaint. Now Briggs is pledging to challenge that decision, even before the trial on the initial suit begins.

Briggs told VOSD he expects it’ll lead to the Superior Court to postpone the trial now scheduled to begin Sept. 29.

Briggs estimated it could take at least a year for the appellate court to handle the case.

“It’ll take six months just to get the case briefed,” Briggs said.

Williams doesn’t think Briggs’ argument warrants an appeal. He envisions both cases will instead be decided by the end of October, leaving the city to weigh its next steps.

Spokesmen for Faulconer, the city department tasked with overseeing the Plaza de Panama planning process and the outside team behind the Plaza de Panama project say they’re continuing work on the assumption the project will kick off next year.

“We’re working closely with proponents because this project is too important to stop now,” Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson said.

Gordon Kovtun of KCM Group, a construction management firm, said his company’s coordinating with the city on drawings and permits. Kovtun said he expects construction bids to go out later this year. Contracts were initially supposed to be awarded by the end of next month.

Kovtun and Peter Ellsworth, both members of the Plaza de Panama Committee, said the legal cases haven’t slowed the behind-the-scenes work to facilitate the project though they have kept the city from laying the groundwork to take in bond money it had planned to start pulling in this fall.

Ellsworth and other Plaza de Panama supporters say they’re also confident the City Council’s approval of a new naming rights policy will aid their fundraising efforts once the legal cases are resolved. The new policy will allow the city to recognize park donors by renaming buildings or putting plaques on benches, among other options.

Ellsworth leads the Legler Benbough Foundation, which has pledged $5 million once the project gets court approval. The foundation has partnered with Jacobs to bankroll the more recent design work. He said the foundation’s commitments underline the resolve that the Plaza de Panama project will survive the legal challenges.

“We’re moving ahead with it,” Ellsworth said. “I wouldn’t be spending money on the design and the rest of it unless I was confident we were going forward.”

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