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Redesigning Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama

Proposal would eliminate parking in favor of a pedestrian-friendly mall

By Manny Cruz

When San Diego celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition in 2015 in Balboa Park, visitors to the city icon may very well see a major transformation of the park’s Plaza de Panama from a parking lot to a pedestrian-friendly mall filled with trees, benches and open space.
That is the hope of city officials and Qualcomm Inc. founder Irwin Jacobs, who are pushing a plan to remove the 70-odd parking spaces in Plaza de Panama and diverting traffic from the Cabrillo Bridge at the west entrance to the park to a new, two-story parking structure that would be built behind the Organ Pavilion. Traffic would be diverted via a bypass bridge from the end of the Cabrillo Bridge, leading vehicles to the underground parking structure and to other parking areas.
Reclaiming Plaza de Panama to the use it was originally intended — as a cultural hub — would be a legacy gift to future residents of the city, according to Jacobs, who heads an 11-member committee promoting the redesign.
Although the proposal has generated considerable support from park museums, the Zoological Society of San Diego and members of the public, it has attracted opposition from the preservation group Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO). “The current proposal is extremely destructive and would forever alter the iconic Cabrillo Bridge and the historic landscape and would hide the most important character-defining features of the front entrance to this National Register District,” said SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons in a letter to Jacobs. “The plan as currently conceived and recommended would destroy for all time the architectural historic and cultural heritage of Balboa park, along with its historic landscape,” added Coons. . . “I cannot emphasize enough how detrimental to San Diego this would be and how strongly we object to this.”
Referring to the proposed bypass bridge, Coons said his organization “cannot support the premise that a swath of concrete and massive fill bisecting the entire front façade (of the park) is necessary to remove 70 parking spaces from the Plaza de Panama.”
In a letter responding to Coons, Jacobs said the bypass will be screened by mature landscaping and held to a height that will allow the west wall at the south end of the Museum of Man to be visible when approaching over the bridge for the first time in 70 years.
Jacobs called Coons’ letter “less than constructive given its hyperbole and factual misstatements.” “Our objective,” said Jacob, is not, in your words, ‘to remove 70 parking places from the Plaza de Panama,’ but rather to remove all cars from the Plaza de Panama during park hours and, in doing so, to also remove the cars from the Plaza de California, West El Prado and Esplanade, restoring these areas to beautiful visitor spaces.”
According to the proposed plan, the underground parking structure behind the Organ Pavilion would have a rooftop garden about level with the Organ Pavilion. The parking structure would more than make up for the spaces removed from the Plaza de Panama, with current plans netting an additional 250 spaces for park users.
An early estimate of the cost of the proposed changes is $33,000. Jacobs said a newly formed nonprofit organization, the Plaza de Panama Committee, will oversee a fundraising effort for the project.
The planners hope to have the project completed by December 2014, in time for the start of the 2015 centennial celebration.
Mayor Jerry Sanders was one of the city officials announcing the plans for the Plaza de Panama. “The plaza,” he said, “was designed as a grand ceremonial space — a gathering place for park visitors and a hub of the cultural activities in the heart of Balboa park. “As you can see, previous generations traded in that vision, and all they got in return was a few dozen parking spaces and the steady drone of automobiles searching for an empty spot.”
Councilman Todd Gloria, whose 3rd District includes the park, said the schematic fulfills a long-held dream of park lovers. “The vision to wrestle this space away from automobiles and give it back to the people has been long held by park advocates,” said Gloria. “It has been a goal of every long-range plan envisioned for the park.”
The San Diego Zoological Society, operators of the San Diego Zoo, has embraced the idea of additional parking areas for the park, saying that attendance at the Zoo and other park institutions has been held flat for years because of limited parking capacity. It believes attendance at the institutions would increase significantly with additional parking spaces.
However, the Zoological Society has suggested that planners should follow 2004 amendments to the Balboa Park Master Plan that would have allowed for the construction of an underground parking structure parallel to Park Boulevard between the Natural History Museum and Park Place. The intent was for the Zoo’s entrance to move closer to Park Boulevard and join with a new promenade — the Park Boulevard Promenade — atop the parking structure, linking the new Zoo entrance to the end of the Prado in front of the Fleet Science Center. The Zoological Society said the parking structure would include a transit center for public transportation on the first level and a maximum of 4,800 spaces.
Because of city budget limitations, the master plan amendments were never carried out.
“We understand the proposed Organ Pavilion parking structure would result in a net increase of 272 parking spaces and approximately 6.2 acres of park land,” said Zoological Society President Frederick Frye and CEO/Executive Director Douglas Myers in a letter to Jacobs. “We also understand the estimated cost for this proposal is approximately $39 million, including the bypass bridge, the Plaza de Panama redesign and the Organ Pavilion parking structure. We question the wisdom of spending $39 million for a net gain of only 272 parking spaces in a location that does not solve the park’s overall parking problem.”
The Zoological Society is suggesting a smaller version of the Park Boulevard Promenade at 2,500 spaces. “After closing the existing parking lots in the area and constructing the smaller Promenade underground garage, there would be a net increase of 1,850 parking spaces and approximately 14 acres of park land,” according to Frye and Myers. “The promenade connecting the Zoo to the Prado would create the long-sought link between the Zoo and its sister institutions.”
According to Frye and Myers, this suggested alternative would have several benefits, including significantly increasing convenient parking for park institutions, increasing the amount of open park land by 14 acres.
The Zoological Society estimated the cost of the Plaza de Panama redesign, the bypass bridge and the Organ Pavilion parking structure at about $46 million. The cost of the Plaza de Panama redesign, the bypass bridge and the smaller Park Boulevard Promenade would be about $106 million, the Zoological Society said. “Although the cost of our suggestion is twice the amount of the current proposal, we believe the significant long-term benefits to the park as a whole justify the expense and we are prepared to commit to working with Dr. Jacobs and his team to combine our resources and fund-raising capabilities to garner the required funding,” said Frye and Myers.
The Plaza de Panama Committee, which is to oversee fundraising for the park project, is comprised of individuals involved in philanthropy, the arts and in park institutions. Members include David Cohn of The Prado restaurant; Donald Cohn of the Old Globe Theatre; Pete Ellsworth of the Legler-Benbough Foundation; Tom Gildred of the San Diego Museum of Art; Al Kidd of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership; Jesse Knight of San Diego Gas & Electric; Dene Oliver of OliverMcMillan; Betty Peabody of the Friends of Balboa Park; Darlene Shiley of the Shiley Foundation; and Iris Straus, Mayor Sanders’ liaison for arts and culture

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We Want Your Opinions on San Diego’s Big Issues In the coming months, Probosky Research (one of California’s leading opinion research firms) will continue its partnership with SD METRO to survey San Diego residents about topics of interest to our readers. We’d like to throw open the door for suggestions for topics. What do you want to know? What do you think you know, but aren’t sure? What are you certain you know, but want to prove it beyond doubt? Ideally, we’d like to see questions that have to do with public policy.

Some areas may include Mayor Filner’s first 100 days job performance, should the city be responsible for economic growth and the creation of new jobs, how important are infrastructure improvements to our daily lives (streets and bridges, etc.), how important is water independence, how satisfied are residents with public transit or how do city residents value Balboa Park and other open spaces? Do you believe the City Council should revive the Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park?

You can email Probolsky Research directly with your ideas: info@probolskyresearch.com