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The City Is Moving Forward on the Plaza de Panama Project Amid Court Battles

The city is waiting for two challenges to the controversial project to resolve in court but released a request for bids from construction companies and has consulted attorneys on when it can seek bonds for the project.

The Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park / Photo by Sam Hodgson

The city is setting the stage to proceed with the Plaza de Panama overhaul in Balboa Park as it waits for two court battles to be resolved.

About two weeks ago, the city released a request for bids from construction companies to work on the controversial project, which aims to clear cars from the park’s central mesa.

And it’s consulted outside attorneys on when it can move forward with seeking bonds to cover its share of the $78 million project.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, city officials and Plaza de Panama supporters envision the project breaking ground next year and being completed by summer 2021.

“Everything is continuing to progress,” said Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick, a member of the philanthropist group that’s pledged to help pay for the project.

Yet Kidrick and others are also awaiting final rulings in two court cases that will likely help determine when – and whether – the project can move forward.

The city’s cheered initial victories in both cases but the project still must clear more legal and logistical hurdles.

The City Council two years ago approved a plan to finance the project that relied on the city’s ability to seek up to $50 million in bonds and on philanthropists to raise at least $29 million. The city is counting on proceeds from paid garage that would replace the asphalt lot behind the Organ Pavilion to pay back the bonds.

But lawsuits by San Diegans for Open Government and Save Our Heritage Organisation have held up the project.

As the court fights have slogged on, the city and the Plaza de Panama Committee have decried the delays and the escalated project costs that have come with them. Bids from construction contractors, now due in December, will reveal just how much the project’s price tag has changed and whether the project remains feasible.

The San Diegans for Open Government lawsuit, filed by attorney Cory Briggs, has kept the city from seeking bonds to proceed.

Now the city and Briggs’ group are awaiting a final ruling from Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack that will determine the city’s next steps.

The city has reason for optimism. Pollack sided with the city in a tentative ruling in August and four years ago, Briggs lost another court battle with the city challenging a similar bond financing plan for infrastructure repairs.

In a Sept. 10 memo obtained by Voice of San Diego, city public works director James Nagelvoort wrote that “favorable outcomes on the lawsuits” meant the project could proceed.

But Nagelvoort said the city’s Newport Beach-based bond counsel must sign off before the city seeks bonds and could ask the city to press pause if Briggs appeals, potentially derailing the city’s project timeline.

“Depending on the timing of bond financing needs, an appeal of the decision on the merits by SDOG may delay the bond issuance beyond the date bond proceeds are needed,” Nagelvoort wrote in the memo.

It’s not clear when the city will need an influx of cash to support the project and thus, how exactly an appeal could change the city’s plans.

Briggs this week declined to say whether he might pursue an appeal.

Christina Di Leva Chadwick, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said the city’s bond counsel has yet to decide whether to give the city the green light to seek bonds once the city receives a final ruling in the Briggs case or until after any appeals are resolved.

But once the city gets the go-ahead, the City Council will need to sign off, another step that could complicate the process. After all, City Council newcomers may not share previous Council members’ perspectives on the project.

The city’s also waiting on another appeal that’s set to ramp up next week.

Three appellate court judges are set to hear arguments next Tuesday in SOHO’s case, which contends that the city should have conducted more environmental reviews when it revived the project two years ago. SOHO is appealing a 2017 Superior Court decision that largely favored the city.

The city decided its previous win gave the city the go-ahead to continue with the project despite the ongoing appeal.

Both Bruce Coons, SOHO’s executive director, and city officials expect the appeal to be resolved in coming weeks.

But Coons has hinted that the fight’s unlikely to end there. He’s said his preservationist group plans to continue to fight the project any way it can. He also believes SOHO will win the appeal.

“We believe this process probably has another couple years to go through,” Coons said.

Kidrick and other Plaza de Panama supporters think otherwise.

Kidrick said the Plaza de Panama Committee, the group of philanthropists backing the project, is quietly working to raise money so the project can move forward.

He said Qualcomm cofounder and Plaza de Panama Committee chair Irwin Jacobs, a driving force behind the project, also recently met with Faulconer to discuss approaching potential donors together.

Jacobs did not respond to an email from VOSD this week.

“Mayor Faulconer is committed to working together with Dr. Jacobs and the committee to support the project and intends on spending personal time soliciting support and outreaching to potential donors,” Chadwick said.

Kayla Jimenez contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.

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