Pedestrian-friendly Plaza de Panama centerpiece of centennial celebration
By Ron James
In today’s special interest society, is it possible for citizens to come together to do something as monumental as the creation of Balboa Park and the 1915 Panama Exposition?
Seems unlikely, but a past generation’s vision and grit appear to be inspiring a new generation of San Diegans to think big. Politicians and civic-minded citizens are talking about producing world-class multi-year events celebrating the 1915 Panama Exposition. A centerpiece would be to banish parking from Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama and make it a major gathering place for the celebration and other events.
In his State of the City address, Mayor Jerry Sanders said this year is the 100th anniversary of the naming of the city’s jewel, Balboa Park. In his speech he recalled how a city with a population that today wouldn’t sell out a Padre game transformed an expanse of raw land into a world-class treasure that generations have enjoyed.
“The vision and determination of these remarkable San Diegans suggests a city of feverish activity,” Sanders said. “Today our population is 30 times larger and our wealth is exponentially greater. Our sense of obligation to our children, and to their quality of life, should be as real for us as our forebears.”
Sanders said work would begin immediately to remodel Plaza de Panama from a parking lot to a pedestrian-friendly ceremonial plaza in time for the Panama Exposition’s centennial celebration in 2015 – at a cost estimated to be between $6 million and $8 million.
The original Plaza de Panama was built for civic meetings and celebrations. Rather than a beautiful pedestrian-friendly plaza envisioned by its original architects, however, today it’s a mishmash of crosswalks, busy roads and a nearly 80-car parking lot.
In 1961 the City Council approved the idea of returning the plaza to the car-free days of yesteryear. San Diego land-planning expert Vicki Estrada, owner of Estrada Land Planning, has been working on the concept on and off for more than 30 years. The current proposed plan still calls for a road through the plaza, but with minimal intrusion into the plaza.
“I started working on the Balboa Park Master Plan in 1979,” Estrada recalled. “It was approved by the Council in 1989. Part of that master plan was to close the plaza to automobile traffic. I was then hired in 1992 to do a plan for the central plaza, which also included closing it off to cars.”
The idea fizzled when several key park museums and vendors in the park cried foul, saying they would lose customers and go out of business if the parking was taken away. But according to Estrada most of the parking in the plaza at that time was being used by employees and volunteers anyway and then mostly for handicapped parking.
Estrada recently presented the history of the plaza initiative along with renderings to the Balboa Park Alliance, which is a network of park preservation groups.
“With the mayor, Councilman Gloria and the Balboa Park Alliance pushing the idea and raising the money needed, I think we can get this done by the centennial in 2015,” she said.
Estrada and others would like to close the Laurel Street Bridge, which brings traffic into the plaza, but she isn’t holding her breath.
“We proposed it, but lost the argument,” she said. “The museums again were fearful of losing attendance. Actually that was proved to be a fallacy. The bridge was closed for over a year and the museum attendance actually went up.
“We actually had the plaza project approved and funded in 1989,” she continued. “But politicians funneled the money into Mission Bay. And over the years politicians have come and gone without getting it done. I think it will benefit everyone. I’ve spent almost half my life working on this park. Maybe we’ll get it done. The time is come.”
Architect David Marshall, president of Heritage Architecture & Planning and architect for the reconstruction of the House of Hospitality, strongly agrees with Estrada.
“I think the plaza needs to happen and happen sooner than 2015,” he said. “The plan is for it to be the way it was, a true public plaza in the heart of San Diego. Almost everyone this time is on board, including the museums. There are issues with disabled access and a lot of committees will review the process, but there’s no reason that we couldn’t have an interim solution so that it can be done without a great deal of capital investment.”
District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria has teamed up with the mayor to make the Balboa Park centennial one of his political and civic missions.
“This is a legacy project for improving the park for the 100th anniversary,” Gloria said. “The park was a gift to us from a past generation and we want our generation to give future San Diegans an even better park experience.”
Gloria believes the plaza project can be completed by the centennial in part because it has already been approved as part of the 1989 Master Plan. Organizers won’t need to jump through as many bureaucratic and political hoops, he said.
“The Mayor and I meet regularly to talk about the centennial, but it will take full community support to make it happen,” Gloria said.
“And this time we have universal support, which doesn’t happen very often in San Diego,” he continued. “We can work out issues like disability access and parking and come up with a park transit system that really works. The Plaza de Panama project is the absolute centerpiece of our plans for historical preservation and improvement of the park. And we also want to green the park, bringing it into environmental balance. All of these elements will come with proper park governance, including non-profit groups and long-term fund-raising strategies.
“We want to make the centennial a multiyear celebration, one that will get international attention. We soon plan to hire a full-time professional person to coordinate the planning, fundraising and volunteers.
“We expect that there will be events every day during the centennial,” Gloria said. “It will be great for San Diegans and a great tourism draw. And in the end we will be leaving the infrastructure improvements for future generations and we will have something to look back at and be proud of.”