Council votes 6-1 in favor of plan; SOHO to legally challenge decision
By Margie M. Palmer | SDUN Reporter
The San Diego City Council voted 6-1 on July 9 to approve Dr. Irwin Jacobs’s proposed plan to remove vehicle traffic from the center of Balboa Park. Once construction for the Qualcomm co-founder’s Plaza de Panama plan is complete, cars will be removed from the Plaza de California, Esplanade, West El Prado and Plaza de Panama.
District One Councilmember Sherri Lightner cast the lone dissenting vote. District Four Councilmember Tony Young was absent and did not vote.
Under the Jacobs plan, a “Centennial Bridge” and road will be constructed off the south side of the Cabrillo Bridge, leading to a newly constructed, underground, paid parking structure directly behind the Spreckles Organ Pavilion. Project documents state the approximate 800-car lot will increase parking by 270 spaces and will be topped by a two-acre park. A $5 fee will be assessed for vehicles to utilize this structure. Free parking will still be available in the park’s other lots.
Approximately $25 million of the plan’s $40 million cost will be funded by private donations. Expenses beyond that will be paid through a City-issued bond. The bond will be repaid through projected revenue from the paid parking lot.
Some groups, including a number of Balboa Park’s museums, point to the benefits of reclaiming pedestrian-use only space within the Plaza.
San Diego Natural History Museum’s President and CEO Michael Hager has been quoted as saying the removal of cars from the Prado and Plaza are “extremely important” to the visitor experience in the park.
Additionally, Sea World San Diego President John T. Reilly has said he believes the change will eliminate dangerous conflicts between cars and pedestrians and will help improve the park’s ability to attract visitors.
The plan, however, is not popular across all groups.
Save Our Heritage Organisation President Bruce Coons was among those to voice opposition at the July 9 seven-hour council meeting.
“You have one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make in your life here today,” Coons said. “The public wants you to listen to the public for once. Eighty-five percent to 90 percent of San Diegans do not want this project to move forward. You should exercise leadership for once in your life and send [the proposed plan] back for a compromise.”
Former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre addressed Jacobs directly, accusing him of destroying both Balboa Park and San Diego democracy, as well as controlling city government through his wealth.
“You are not a philanthropist, you’re a plutocrat,” Aguirre said.
The City Council disagreed.
District Three Councilmember Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park, said he has dedicated a considerable amount of time and thought to the plan since it was first proposed in 2010. He said he believes the benefits of the project, including the removal of cars, the reclaiming of approximately six acres of parkland for pedestrians and reducing the number of pedestrian and vehicle conflicts outweigh the plan’s cost.
“I educated myself on the alternatives to the Jacobs plan and they all have an impact as significant if not more significant,” Gloria said. “One proposal involves closing the Cabrillo Bridge, but we know this will have significant traffic impacts to areas to the west side of the park, such as Banker’s Hill. This would bring opposition and controversy from a new group or stakeholders.”
Every alternative has been considered, he said, and each comes with its own costs. “While there certainly are costs for the Jacobs plan the costs associated with the alternatives far outweigh their benefits,” he said.
Gloria also said he believes that at completion, Balboa Park’s center will be magnificent.
“You can look at the East Prado, which was closed to traffic from Park Boulevard and pedestrianized in the early 1970s. People congregate by the fountain and stroll through the East Arcade,” he said. “We’ve tasted it, we’ve seen it and that is what we’re going to replicate, not just in the Plaza de Panama, but in the West El Prado, the Plaza de California and the Esplanade.”
Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) representatives said they will legally challenge the plan’s approval.
“SOHO supports the widely shared goal of removing parking from the Plaza de Panama in time for the centennial of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition,” a July 10 press release stated, “but the costly Jacobs plan is indefensible in terms of minor net parking gains, huge public costs for construction and maintenance, and the introduction of paid parking for park visitors. The City concedes that the new bypass bridge will significantly impact a historic landmark but contends that such impacts are justified by project benefits. SOHO and thousands of San Diegans disagree.”