By Mark Gabrish Conlan
February 19, 2013 (Revised February 20) -- Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs’ plan for an extensive remodel of the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park sailed easily through the San Diego City Council last summer — Councilmember Sherri Lightner’s was the only vote against it — but it hit a snag in San Diego Superior Court February 5.
That’s when Judge Timothy Taylor, ruling in the suit the Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO) filed against the city to stop the Jacobs plan, found that the city had basically ignored its own rules by insisting that the current configuration of the park, with much of its area used for large, free parking lots, was not a “reasonable beneficial use of the property” under city law.
The Jacobs plan originated as an attempt to reduce or eliminate auto traffic within Balboa Park. According to Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO, it began when former Mayor Jerry Sanders and current City Council President Todd Gloria, whose district includes the park, “invited Jacobs to come to the park without telling him what it was about. They showed him the Plaza de Panama, and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to get cars out of here?’ They were planning on asking him to do a small project, which we call the ‘precise plan lite,’ which was to take the traffic out and route it around the southwest corner, have a drop-off there and do improvements. And he said, ‘Yes, I’m interested in doing that. A small project, right? It’s probably going to be under $1 million.’”
Then, according to Coons, Gloria left the meeting, Mayor Sanders gave Jacobs a private visit to the top of the Balboa Park bell tower, and when Jacobs returned after the meeting the project’s cost had ballooned to over $15 million and it had become far more elaborate. It involved building a huge parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion, and remodeling and extending the Cabrillo Bridge to provide a so-called “bypass” that would, according to SOHO, have resembled a freeway off-ramp. SOHO’s materials contained a long list of Balboa Park attractions that would have been jeopardized by the plan, including the Organ Pavilion and the Alcazar Garden. The plan also threatened to destroy the Centro Cultural de la Raza and the World Beat Center, two cultural centers for people of color and their allies housed in old water storage tanks on the east side of the park.
What made Jacobs’ plan particularly galling for SOHO members and historical preservationists generally is that he was presenting it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. He was insisting that in exchange for his contribution, it be built exactly the way he wanted it. Throughout the process, Jacobs behaved less like the civic-minded philanthropist San Diego’s mainstream politicians and corporate media described than like Howard Roark, the architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, who blew up a low-income housing project he had designed when the government agency constructing it made changes in its outside appearance.
Coons, whose group sought to negotiate with Jacobs throughout the environmental review process (which Jacobs funded) and the permit approvals necessary to build on protected public land, called Jacobs’ intransigence “one person imposing his idea of what is best for the park and ignoring everyone else.” Coons pointed out that before Jacobs entered the picture, the city had “spent nine and one-half years coming up with the Balboa Park Master Plan and Central Mesa Plan, and that involved compromises. Then this guy comes in with a project he refuses to modify. It’s checkbook planning at its worst.” He recalled a meeting of the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee at which the Councilmembers suggested changes, “Jacobs took it off the table — and they begged him to bring it back.”
Jacobs reacted to his defeat in Judge Taylor’s courtroom with the same dignity and grace he had shown throughout the process. He basically declared the project dead, acting like the spoiled little rich kid who tells his playmates, “If you don’t play by my rules, I’ll just take my football and go home.” That hasn’t stopped Councilmember Gloria from trying to plug electrodes into the corpse of the Plaza de Panama Project and revive it, even without Jacobs’ money.
In a whiny memo to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith dated February 8, Gloria wrote, “I understand that your office has analyzed Judge Taylor’s ruling and the Municipal Code and can now recommend a path by which the City Council could, if it chose, overcome the legal roadblock that Judge Taylor identified so that the Plaza de Panama Project could proceed forward.” Gloria’s memo also argued that the Council’s approval of the Jacobs plan nullified all previous proposals, including the ones in the Master Plan and Central Mesa Plan Coons mentioned, and an attempt to revive anything different from Jacobs’ proposal “would need to go through a public process … including an environmental review of its own … [and] could potentially face its own legal and political roadblocks.”
The disaster of Irwin Jacobs’ “checkbook planning” proposal, the near-religious worship he got from the City Councilmembers in considering his offer, and its reception in Judge Taylor’s courtroom shows just how the lines between private profit, philanthropy and the public sector have become blurred. Despite the economic collapse of 2008, America’s love affair with The Market continues. Mitt Romney presented himself as a businessman whose proven skills making himself rich in the private sector would be just what the U.S. economy needed — and he got 47 percent of the vote in last November’s election. The debate at the City Council over the Jacobs plan was such a disgusting display of fealty it’s a wonder the Councilmembers didn’t offer to kiss his feet. The overriding theme was that if this super-rich person was willing to put up his own money to build something on city parkland, it would be churlish and wrong to say him nay.
Not that the Jacobs plan was such a great deal financially, either. By the time the Council voted on it, the cost of the entire project, which started as a simple $1 million bypass and became a $15 million parking garage, had ballooned upwards again, to $45 million. And while Jacobs still publicly represented himself as willing to pay for all of it, he had capped his contribution at $30 million. The Jacobs plan would have required the city to borrow the remaining $15 million (or more, if the project cost more than its estimate — as these things usually do) and then pay it back with revenue from the paid parking spaces in the big garage.
Since the garage would have added only 260 new parking spaces for the public — of which 100 would have been dedicated valet parking only — opponents argued that the only way the city could possibly have made enough money to repay the loan was to take all Balboa Park’s parking spaces and make them paid lots. Coons said that there’s a question as to whether San Diego can legally charge people to park in Balboa Park, though the law he cited to say they can’t was passed in 1870, before cars existed. He also argued that the very idea of charging to park in or around Balboa Park violates the whole principle of a “free and open public park” and essentially makes access to the park contingent on having the money to rent parking.
Part of the rush to judgment on this project was the hope of Jacobs and his political allies, including Council President Gloria, that it would be finished before Balboa Park’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2015. Indeed, the city was so determined to push the project through that they had served notice to San Diego’s Earth Day organizers that their big event, a regular park attraction in April since 1990, would either not be allowed at all or would be shunted off to Marston Point on the west side of the park, because it would get in the way of building the Jacobs plan. Earth Day’s principal organizer, Carolyn Chase, got the bad news via a memo from Jay M. Goldstone, the city’s chief operating officer, to deputy chief of staff Allen Jones, dated December 21, 2012. The memo said that so-called “large/over-capacity permits such as special events which were requested for within the core of the park” — which, according to Chase, meant just two events, Earth Day and the popular December Nights holiday celebration — wouldn’t be granted at all during construction.
Goldstone’s memo unwittingly confirmed the sheer scope of Jacobs’ project: “[T]he excavation and shoring process in the Organ Pavilion parking lot … will involve the removal and hauling of approximately 120,000 cubic yards of soil … While it was originally anticipated that the project would have work shifts occurring during both daytime and nighttime hours from Monday through Friday, the revised construction schedule … may cause work to be performed on Saturday as well to achieve the completion date. This schedule would create mutual interference between the large event and the construction project. … Museum operators and other businesses in Balboa Park are already concerned about the financial impact the construction will have on their businesses. … To tie up limited parking with a large special event would be ill-advised.”
The controversy over the Jacobs plan for Balboa Park is yet another illustration of the attitude of the modern-day super-rich. It’s their way or the highway. As Richard J. Eskow put it in his article on the “Radical Rich” at the ourfuture.org blog (http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2012093818/radical-rich-romney-re-occupy), “At no time in modern history has the top 1 percent — or the top 0.1 percent, or the top 0.01 percent — owned more of our wealth or paid less in taxes. But it isn’t enough. The Wall Street executives who broke laws weren’t indicted, and those who ruined their own businesses were saved … It isn’t enough. … They want more — more tax breaks, more protection from the law. And they want adoration. From the looks of it, nothing short of a Roman Imperial cult — complete with their apotheosis as state deities upon their death — would satisfy them.”
Irwin Jacobs may be a decent man with a long record of philanthropy, but his plan for Balboa Park, offered on a “my way or the highway” basis and with enough chutzpah it’s a minor surprise that he didn’t also demand that the park be renamed “Jacobs Park,” is an example of the cult the super-rich have built around themselves and the extent of the worship they want from the rest of us. He got the brown-nosing he wanted from the San Diego City Council, but as soon as one judge ruled against him on one point of a long and complicated lawsuit, he took his football and went home to stew in the resentment Eskow’s article attributes to what he calls the “radical rich.” And his pet gnome, Councilmember Gloria, is trying to win his good graces back by dismissing the city’s courtroom loss as a “technicality” and asking his Council colleagues for a “legislative solution” to “fix the problem with the Municipal Code” and its pesky little provision that Balboa Park is not for sale to the highest — or the lowest — bidder.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article underestimated the number of parking spaces the Jacobs project would have added to those currently available in the park and incorrectly said the parking garage would have had only 73 spaces available for the public. The author and East County Magazine regret the error.