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Developer Wins Fight Over Belmont Park

April 19, 1988|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

The future of Belmont Park was virtually sealed Monday when the San Diego City Council agreed that a developer has the right to complete an $18-million shopping center on the former Mission Beach park and a citizen's group battling the plan announced that it will drop a lawsuit against the city because it faces overwhelming debts.

Barring last-minute intervention by an "angel" who could finance the Save Mission Beach Park Committee lawsuit, Monday's actions appeared to guarantee that Belmont Park Associates will finish its development of shops and restaurants, which will join the historic Mission Beach Plunge and the dormant Giant Dipper roller coaster.

"This is it. It's over," said Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who with council members Abbe Wolfsheimer and Bob Filner voted against a decision to give developer Belmont Park Associates a "vested right" to build on the parkland. "And I hope it never happens again."

Exclusive Negotiations

In a related action, the council voted, to review the environmental impact of reopening the Giant Dipper and to enter exclusive negotiations with a Santa Cruz concern to operate the roller coaster. The negotiations with San Diego Seaside Co. will be subject to council approval of the environmental review, which will examine how the reopened coaster would affect noise, traffic and parking in Mission Beach.

Monday's council vote on the Belmont Park project exempts the development from Proposition G, the ballot initiative approved in November that bans all building in Belmont Park except projects with a "vested right" to proceed.

The city and the California Coastal Commission originally approved the project in 1986. The plan was backed by former Councilman Mike Gotch, who saw it as the only way to rescue Mission Beach from "derelicts, drug pushers and the decay."

The developers insisted that their possession of building permits and investment of $5 million before last November's election constituted a vested right to build. In a pair of legal opinions issued to the council for Monday's meeting, City Atty. John Witt agreed with that view.

"Without any question whatsoever, Belmont Park is vested," said District 6 Councilman Bruce Henderson, who represents Mission Beach. "Unless we're willing to buy it out and spend 30, 40, 50 million dollars, we have to recognize reality."

Steve Davis, general partner of Belmont Park Associates, said the development will not inundate Mission Beach with people: "We don't have to draw people to Mission Beach. There's already a crowd there."

The development, which is 85% to 90% complete, should open this summer, Davis said. Stopping the project by denying the vested right Monday would have left the city liable for more than $30 million in damages for violating its "contractual duties" and $16,000 per day for delays, according to an April 11 letter from Belmont Park Associates attorney Steve Wall to the council.

Opposed for Decade

Wall also claimed that the denial would cost the city $298 million in lease revenues and taxes that it will gain over the 50-year life of its lease to Belmont Park Associates. But O'Connor, who has opposed the development for a decade, and opponents said that, for the first 19 years of the lease, the developer will be receiving rent credits and passing on only $70,000 to finance a traffic study.

Wolfsheimer urged opponents to file their lawsuit, telling a sparse audience at the council's mid-afternoon meeting that the fate of the park caused her to weep when she considered the issue late one night.

"I got up and I cried. I cried for myself and I cried for my children," Wolfsheimer said.

But Helen Duffy, secretary of the Save Mission Beach Park Committee, said after the meeting that the group will no longer press the suit it filed against the city in March of 1987 because it is out of money. Having spent $80,000 over the past five years to fight the project, the organization is $30,000 to $50,000 in debt, Duffy said.

Only "if there are any angels" to fund the suit, which contends that the city unlawfully wasted parkland, could the legal action go forward, Duffy said. The group also contends that, because its initiative qualified for the ballot in February of 1987, the city should not have issued building permits for the project the following month.

The Plunge, which will become part of a fitness center, will retain its historic staircase and fountain pedestal under an agreement negotiated between the developer, the county and the state, City Manager John Lockwood said. The county had been seeking removal of the staircase and fountain, which it considered safety hazards.

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