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Save Our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

May 28, 2015

CITY OF SAN DIEGO et al., Defendants and Respondents THE PLAZA DE PANAMA COMMITTEE, Real Party in Interest and Appellant.

APPEALS from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Diego County No. 37-2012-00102270-CU-TT-CTL, Timothy B. Taylor, Judge.

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Brandt-Hawley Law Group and Susan Brandt-Hawley for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek and G. Scott Williams for Real Party in Interest and Appellant.

Jan I. Goldsmith, City Attorney, Daniel F. Bamberg, Assistant City Attorney, and Jana Mickova Will, Deputy City Attorney, for Defendants and Respondents.



Balboa Park, a large urban park created on pueblo lands almost 150 years ago (Stats. 1870, ch. 42, § 1, p. 49), includes within its confines and as its central core the buildings and plazas designed and constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the adjoining buildings and improvements subsequently constructed for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition (the Complex). When visitors approach from the west to enter the Complex, they traverse a canyon via the Cabrillo Bridge (the Bridge), a significant part of the original 1915 design and construction. The Bridge and the Complex were declared a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark District nearly 40 years ago. Proposed alterations to the Bridge, an integral element of a re vitalization project (the Project) spearheaded by The Plaza de Panama Committee (Committee) but

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opposed by the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), have become the focal point of the present appeal.

The Project seeks to eliminate vehicles from the plazas within the Complex, and to return the plazas to purely pedestrian zones, simultaneously preserving (for the convenience of those vehicles coming to Balboa Park from the west) the ability of those vehicles to access the southeastern area of the park across the Bridge. The solution proffered by the Project to this dilemma is to construct the proposed "Centennial Bridge, " which would be joined to the Bridge toward the eastern edge of the Bridge to create a detour around the southwestern corner of the Complex. The Centennial Bridge, together with the reconfigured roadways as proposed by the Project, would provide vehicle ingress and egress to a new pay-parking structure (as well as to the existing parking lots and roadways serving the southeastern portions of the park), and allowing the plazas within the Complex (currently burdened with roads providing access to the southeastern portions of the Park) to be sealed off from vehicles and become the desired pedestrian-only zones.

The City of San Diego (City), after a thorough review of the Project, approved it. SOHO filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging, among other things, that City erroneously approved the required site development permit because there was no substantial evidence to support the finding the Project would not adversely affect the applicable land use plan (as required by San Diego Mun. Code, § 126.0504, subd. (a)), [1] or to support the supplemental finding (as required by § 126.0504, subd. (i)) that there would be no reasonable beneficial use of the property were the Project denied. The trial court agreed there was no substantial evidence to support the supplemental finding there would be no reasonable beneficial use of the property were the Project denied, and therefore granted SOHO's petition. Committee appeals that ruling.[2]



A. The Project Area and Goals: Pedestrianizing the Complex

In 1915, the park hosted the Panama-California Exposition. For that event, City built a series of exhibit halls in the Spanish colonial revival style along

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El Prado and, as access to El Prado from the west, also built the Bridge. Twenty years later, the park hosted the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, for which additional buildings, paths and gardens were constructed. In 1977, the Bridge and the Complex were declared a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark District.

In anticipation of the centennial celebration of the Panama California Exposition, City asked a local philanthropist, Dr. Irwin Jacobs, to undertake the effort to shepherd through the design and review process a project to revitalize the Complex by, among other things, restoring the Complex to a vehicle-free zone as it existed during the 1915 Panama California Exposition and, later, during the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. Dr. Jacobs founded the Committee, which began an arduous process that ultimately resulted in the proposed Project approved by City.[3] The Project proposed to close El Prado-along with the Plaza de Panama, the Mall and the Pan American Promenade-to vehicular traffic and restrict those spaces to pedestrian uses; and to resurface and landscape those areas with pedestrian-friendly materials in a manner reminiscent of the space as it existed at the time of the 1915 and 1935 expositions.[4] The Project proposed increasing the supply of parking close to the Complex (adding 260 spaces) by building an underground pay-parking structure on top of which would be sited a 2.2 acre rooftop park, including re-creating the California Gardens, which had previously been on the site. To preserve the goal of traffic access to the Complex from the west (across the Bridge), the Project proposed to construct a bypass

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bridge (the Centennial Bridge) starting at the eastern abutment of the Bridge (just before the archway entrance to the Plaza de California), which would curve south around the Museum of Man and then connect into a reconfigured Alcazar parking lot. From there, the Project proposed that traffic would continue through, via a new bypass road denominated the Centennial Road, by exiting the reconfigured Alcazar parking lot and following the northern and eastern rims of Palm Canyon to Pan American Road East, where it would go underground behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to provide access to a new underground pay-parking structure to be built on the site of the Organ Pavilion parking lot. Centennial Road would also continue beyond the parking structure to connect to Presidents Way.

B. The Flashpoint: The Centennial Bridge

Public opposition to the Project expressed concerns over the negative impacts of the Centennial Bridge to the Bridge.[5] The EIR concluded the Centennial Bridge would have a significant impact on historical resources and, due to that impact, would have significant visual and land use consequences. Despite the impact the Centennial Bridge would have on the Bridge, [6] the EIR's historical resources technical report concluded the Project as a whole would have "mainly beneficial" impacts on historical resources. City's historical resources expert agreed that, although there were impacts to the Bridge, the historical benefits resulting from the Project (by restoring several historic elements within the Complex and removing nonhistoric elements) outweighed any negative impacts on the historical district from the Project.[7]

After the proposed final EIR was prepared, the Project was formally reviewed by numerous City boards, including the Balboa Park Committee, the Parks and Recreation design review committee, the historical resources board, and the planning commission. The matter was then submitted to the city council, which-after holding a marathon hearing at which countless

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speakers expressed their views-voted to approve the Project. City certified the EIR, and approved the site development permit for the Project.

C. The Lawsuit and Ruling

SOHO filed the instant action alleging three broad claims. It asserted City violated the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.) (CEQA) in count one (the CEQA challenge), by approving an EIR that was deficient or inadequate in numerous ways, including its statement of the Project's objectives, its assessment of Project alternatives and impacts, and in its responses to public comments. In count three (the free and public park challenge), it asserted the Project as approved violated the California Statutes of 1870, which requires Balboa Park be held "for the use and purposes of a free and public park, " because the Project's component of a paid parking garage violated that stricture. Finally, in count two (the Municipal Code challenge), SOHO asserted City's Municipal Code mandated that two key findings be made before the Project could be approved and, although City made the requisite findings, those findings did not have substantial evidentiary support.

The court rejected SOHO's CEQA challenge and also rejected SOHO's "free and public park" challenge. However, the court agreed with SOHO's Municipal Code challenge, concluding City's approval of the Project violated section 126.0504, subdivision (i)(3), which requires (for projects with impacts on historical resources) that City find there be "no reasonable beneficial use" of the property without the Project. The trial court found there was no substantial evidence the Complex would have "no reasonable beneficial use" without the Project.[8] The court granted SOHO's petition and directed City to rescind the site development permit issued for the Project.



A. Standards of Review

The parties agree that, when evaluating an action to set aside an agency's decision approving a project, a court is limited to determining whether or not the agency prejudicially abused its discretion.

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(San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656, 673 [125 Cal.Rptr.2d 745] (San Franciscans).) Abuse of discretion is established if the agency has not proceeded in a manner required by law or if the determination or decision is not supported by substantial evidence. (In re Bay–Delta etc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 1143, 1161 [77 Cal.Rptr.3d 578, 184 P.3d 709].) Because SOHO's contention rests on the allegation the critical findings were not supported by substantial evidence, we note our review of that issue requires we "must resolve reasonable doubts in favor of the administrative finding and decision." (Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles (1974) 11 Cal.3d 506, 514 [113 Cal.Rptr.3d 836, 522 P.2d 12].) As relevant here, the term " 'substantial evidence' means 'enough relevant information and reasonable inferences from this information that a fair argument can be made to support a conclusion, even though other conclusions might also be reached.' [Quoting CEQA regulations; citation.] [S]ubstantial evidence may include facts, reasonable assumptions predicated upon facts, and expert opinion supported by facts, but not argument, speculation, unsubstantiated opinion, or clearly erroneous evidence." (San Franciscans, supra, 102 Cal.App.4th at p. 675.) A reviewing court may not substitute its views for those of the agency whose determination is being reviewed or reweigh conflicting evidence presented to that body (id. at p. 674), because it is not the court's task " 'to determine who has the better argument.' " (Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth, Inc. v. City of Rancho Cordova (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412, 435 [53 Cal.Rptr.3d 821, 150 P.3d 709] (Viney ...

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