A last-ditch effort to halt commercial development of the Mission Beach Plunge suffered a major setback Wednesday when a Superior Court judge refused to stop San Diego from granting demolition and building permits for the project.
Michael T. Gibbs, attorney for the Mission Beach Town Council, filed a last-minute legal challenge, asking Judge Richard D. Huffman to grant a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from issuing the permits. Gibbs called the development a "waste of valuable city property."
During a noon-hour hearing, Huffman rejected the request, saying he would not "substitute my judgment for that of the city government."
The judge also noted that opponents to the project had had ample time to file a legal challenge since the City Council approved the commercial development June 23. Huffman questioned why Gibbs was rushing to court at the last minute.
"Why here today? Why not in the fall or last month?" asked Huffman, before setting a March 17 hearing date on a preliminary injunction to halt the development.
The legal challenge came one day after the City Council voted 7-2 in closed session to issue the permits as soon as possible.
The vote went against the wishes of Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who urged that the permits be held in abeyance at least until a Monday council hearing about a November ballot measure aimed at foiling the development, which would tear down portions of the historic Plunge building and an adjacent roller rink and replace it with 70,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. The huge swimming pool housed in the Plunge building would be kept.
The initiative, which qualified for the ballot with more than 56,000 valid signatures, calls for the Plunge and adjacent land to be set aside by the city for park purposes. But it provides a loophole for any project that is under construction at the time of the November vote.
Opponents of the development say they fear that loophole will allow Plunge developers to obtain their permits and start construction as early as next month. So they went to court Wednesday hoping for a reprieve.
City attorneys argued that the Plunge development would actually improve the park area by driving out undesirable characters and by providing the city with $700,000 in revenue a year. In addition, it is no different than commercial development on public land like Sea World and Old Town, they said.
Steven S. Wall, an attorney for the three developers behind the project, argued that holding up the permits now would be unfair.
"You've got a developer who has spent almost $1 million to do a redevelopment project," Wall said after the hearing.
Helen Duffy, who opposes the development, conceded after the hearing: "We may have made some procedural errors by not coming to the courts earlier, but it is the people of the City of San Diego who are the ultimate losers."
Duffy admitted that, once the permits are issued, the "chances are slim" for stopping the development.
On Wednesday, Lockwood signed the long-term lease with the developers but said at 4 p.m. that they had yet to receive their permits.
He said, however, that it would only take them a "matter of hours" to pick the permits up from the city Building Department.