Long-Stalled Plaza de Panama Project Heads Back to Court - Voice of San Diego

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Long-Stalled Plaza de Panama Project Heads Back to Court

One of two lawsuits that has for nearly two years kept the controversial Balboa Park overhaul from proceeding is set to go to trial next week.

The Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park / Photo courtesy of Balboa Park Central

A controversial plan to clear Balboa Park’s central mesa of cars is likely to remain in limbo for months but one of the two lawsuits that’s kept shovels out of the ground could be resolved within days.

The Plaza de Panama project, which also aims to replace the asphalt lot behind the Organ Pavilion with a grass-covered paid parking garage, has been stalled for nearly two years while the city and philanthropists helping fund the project await word from the court on whether they can proceed.

Now, in a trial set to begin Monday, San Diegans for Open Government is poised to argue in Superior Court that the city should have sought voter approval before the City Council backed a plan in 2016 to rely on bonds to cover its share of the $78 million project.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Cory Briggs, has kept the city from seeking bonds it counted on for up to $50 million to finance the project. Briggs has also raised questions about the city’s agreement with the Plaza de Panama Committee, which pledged to raise money to bankroll the rest of the overhaul.

City officials have argued in court filings that delays associated with Briggs’ case have led to escalated costs that could endanger the project altogether.

A second pending suit, filed by Save Our Heritage Organisation, contends the city should have conducted more environmental reviews when it revived the project two years ago. SOHO is appealing a Superior Court decision that largely favored the city.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the Plaza de Panama Committee, led by philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, say they remain committed to the project and are confident they’ll prevail in both cases. (Disclosure: Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.)

“The mayor continues to work closely with proponents and remains committed to getting this once-in-a-generation project across the finish line,” Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson said this week.

San Diego Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick, who is a member of the Plaza de Panama Committee, struck a similar tone.

“I think the past history has shown that the project is certainly very worthy and has prevailed previous to this,” Kidrick said. “We think the process is just finishing up.”

Kidrick, who leads a coalition of Balboa Park groups rallying behind the overhaul, estimated construction could kick off as soon as early next year.

But court filings underscore the impact of the delays.

In a July 10 declaration meant to discourage Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack from postponing next week’s trial, Plaza de Panama project manager Gordon Kovtun estimated that every month the project is delayed increases its cost by $115,500 – a figure he acknowledged didn’t include additional spikes that could come from higher interest rates or new steel and aluminum tariffs.

“Such monthly costs could threaten the viability of the project if they continue for long,” Kovtun, a contractor hired by the committee, wrote.

In an interview, Kovtun said the committee has also made adjustments to the project to try to limit the cost increases.

City officials have also raised alarms.

Public works program manager Kris Shackelford and Lakshmi Kommi, who leads the city’s debt management department, wrote in separate declarations last fall that continued legal uncertainty could complicate the committee’s fundraising efforts and imperil the project.

“If the bond issuance is delayed more than a few months, the effect may be to force the city to abandon the project due to the increased cost caused by the delay,” Shackelford wrote.

Deputy City Attorney Meghan Wharton and attorney Scott Williams, who is representing the committee, emphasized the need for a rapid hearing recently as Briggs sought a later Superior Court trial date.

Briggs’ case had previously been on hold for months after he challenged a ruling in the case and called for the state Court of Appeal to weigh in.

The city prevailed in appeals court, putting the case back in Superior Court.

The city expects another win in next week’s trial. Four years ago, Briggs lost a past court battle with the city challenging a similar bond financing plan for infrastructure repairs.

Briggs, who declined to comment this week, has said he is confident in his case against the Plaza de Panama project. It is unclear whether he would appeal if Pollack rules in the city’s favor, a prospect that could further postpone the project.

Bruce Coons of SOHO said this week his group is also upbeat about its prospects in the Court of Appeal and plans to continue to fight the project any way it can.

A past SOHO case, filed after the Plaza de Panama project was approved in 2012, had previously held up the project before Faulconer announced he was resurrecting it two years ago.

“We’ll do everything we can to make sure the project doesn’t happen,” Coons said.

The city and the Plaza de Panama Committee are similarly bullish.

“We think the city’s approval of the project and all aspects of the project are legal and will survive all challenges,” Williams told VOSD.

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