By Ashley Mackin | SDUN Editor
After 18 months of community input and presentations, several committees and community planning groups have voted on the Plaza de Panama project. Considering those votes as recommendations only, the City Planning Commission and the City Council will next hear the project, with the City Council issuing the final decision.
The proposed Plaza de Panama project would remove parking spaces from the Plaza de Panama, the Plaza de California, the West El Prado, and the Esplanade sections of Balboa Park and install a Centennial Bridge as well as an underground parking structure. An access road would provide an alternative route for vehicles. In addition, the project would create over six acres of park space where there are currently roads and parking lots.
The project proposes construction to be completed by 2015, in conjunction with the 2015 Balboa Park Centennial celebration.
The project has drawn mixed opinions from local groups and committees, and mixed votes by several planning groups. The most vocal opponents are the Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO) and the National Park Service (NPS). The Plaza de Panama Committee and several community planning groups, such as the Uptown Planners, support the project.
Focusing on select aspects of the project, the Balboa Park Committee, County Board of Supervisors, the Board of Parks and Recreation, a Parks and Recreation sub-committee and the Historical Review Board, have all heard arguments and voted on whether to recommend the project to the City Council.
While not an advisory board to the City Council, the Uptown Planners voted to support the project. Gordon Kovtun, of the KCM Group, project manager for the Plaza de Panama project, said, “We’re extremely thrilled to have the support of Uptown Planners … they have done their homework and they’ve researched the project details extensively.”
Other Uptown community groups have weighed in on the project, with approval coming from the Uptown Planners and the Bankers Hill Community Development Corporation, and disapproval from the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee and the North Park Planning Committee.
“We’ve done community outreach at over 200 … meetings and we have a number of supporters including the majority [of the] institutions of Balboa Park,” Kovtun said of the public support.
The Balboa Park Committee, an advisory board to the City Council on issues pertaining to development in the park, voted to approve the project on May 3.
On May 8, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors also voted to recommend the project. Their decision reads, in part, “Parks are for people, not automobiles. The Plaza de Panama … project will reclaim from the car 6.3 acres of central Balboa Park parkland. It will convert a marvelous plaza in the park’s heart into a place where pedestrians can safely gather and take in the majesty of the surrounding architecture and museums while enjoying an atmosphere that helps define and identify our County.”
The Park and Recreation Board design review sub-committee voted in favor of the project on May 17, though the official Park and Recreation Board, focusing on parking and vehicle circulation, did not.
At the May 18 meeting of the San Diego Historical Resources Board, those in opposition to the project said they were concerned that the park’s historical designation would be revoked if the Centennial Bridge is installed with the project’s passage. They also cited a letter from the NPS that criticized the project. Addressed to City Council President Pro Tem Kevin Faulconer, the letter stated, “The NPS finds that the Project will have a permanent, major and adverse effect on the integrity of the Balboa Park National Historic Landmark (NHL).”
The letter also addressed the six objectives listed in the project, which included removing vehicles from the Plaza de Panama area; restoring pedestrian and park uses to the Plaza de Panama area; and completing all work prior to January 2015 for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition centennial celebration, among others.
“One important objective missing from the list is ensuring that the historic integrity of Balboa Park NHL is retained,” the letter stated. “The NPS believes that there are viable, less costly alternatives that would reduce or eliminate private vehicular traffic from the core without the significant impacts to the integrity of the [NHL District] that would result from this project.”
Citing the proposed Centennial Bridge as the primary reason for their voting results, the Historical Resources Board unanimously voted to not recommend the project. Several members of the board said the bridge would have “visual and physical impacts.”
“The [Historical Resources Board] vote was the second board to affirm what SOHO has been saying all along, that this is not the right project for Balboa Park,” said Bruce Coons of SOHO. “Why this is so important is that [the Park and Recreation Board and Historical Resources Board] are the first two votes… that are required to process the project permit. These two votes were historic and will be remembered as pivotal in the protection of Balboa Park from irreparable and permanent damage.”
Kovtun said he was not entirely surprised by the vote at the Historical Resources Board and looks forward to the two upcoming votes. “We got a favorable vote from the City Council with the Memorandum of Understanding and we have performed workshops with the Planning Commission so we are extremely hopeful about our outcomes with both of those entities.”
The project will be heard at the San Diego Planning Commission on June 7 at 9 a.m. The Commission serves as a recommendation board for the City Council. The meeting will be The Commission serves as a recommendation board to the City Council.
From there, the City Council will make its decision. The Council vote will consider the previous committee and planning group recommendations, and vote on July 9 at 2 p.m. For more information, visit balboapark.org/plaza-de-panama/project.