Funding plan approved for Plaza de Panama project

Posted: November 18th, 2016 | Balboa Park, Communities, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

The San Diego City Council voted 8-1 on Nov. 14 in favor of a $79 million funding plan for a Plaza de Panama project that will create more than 6 acres of vehicle-free parkland, gardens and plazas by banning cars from the heart of Balboa Park.

The long-dormant project has been rife with controversy over plans to build a bypass road and bridge off the east end of the historic Cabrillo Bridge and construct a three-story parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion that will expand paid parking to the “people’s park,” as Balboa Park is known. Currently, valet parking is the only paid-parking option in Balboa Park.

The council, after listening to hours of public comments, overwhelmingly voted in favor of the funding mechanism, which includes the issuance of bonds, a one-time contribution from the city’s Capital Outlay Fund and a dependence on parking revenue. Council President Sherri Lightner cast the only “no” vote.


An artist’s rendering of the bypass bridge and road at Balboa Park (Courtesy of Plaza de Panama Committee)

“We can now seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform San Diego’s crown jewel for the next century,” Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer said in a statement issued immediately after the Nov. 14 vote. “This public-private partnership will reclaim the heart of Balboa Park for pedestrians and return the Plaza de Panama to its original grandeur. With the support from the City Council and great civic leaders like Dr. Irwin Jacobs, the grand restoration of Balboa Park can finally begin.”

The city capped its financial commitment at $49 million, and the remaining $30 million must be raised via private philanthropy, led by the Plaza de Panama Committee chaired by Dr. Jacobs, the Qualcomm co-founder. Any cost overruns would be covered by the Plaza de Panama Committee, according to the agreement.

Construction is expected to begin in fall 2017 and will occur in four phases lasting 26 months, according to the city.

Under the leadership of Mayor Jerry Sanders, the City Council originally approved the project in 2012. But a legal challenge that originally stopped the project was eventually overturned by an appellate court, a decision that was later affirmed by the California Supreme Court.

The long delay proved expensive, since the project was estimated to cost $45 million in 2012. The original cost estimate was revised this year to reflect updated state development regulations, the applicability of prevailing wage and a less competitive bidding market, according to the mayor’s office.

During Monday’s public comments, project supporters pointed out that all of the museums and tenants in Balboa Park were in favor of the plan.

“I’m proud to join Balboa Park institutions and community stakeholders in moving this project forward,” said Councilmember Todd Gloria, whose District 3 includes Balboa Park. Gloria is expected to resign his council seat by month’s end in order to be sworn into his freshman term in the California Assembly, and his successor, Chris Ward, will take over on Dec. 12 when the newly elected councilmembers are seated.

“The agreement approved by the council [Monday] represents a collaborative and extensive vetting process that includes sensible fiscal protections for the city while accomplishing our ultimate goal of returning the park’s Central Mesa to primarily pedestrian and park uses,” Gloria said.

Critics of the plan included a number of historic preservation groups, led by Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO). Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO, vowed to sue the city to try to stop the project.

The main criticism, during public comments, was directed at the bypass road and bridge, as detractors worried that construction would destroy the historic designation for the Cabrillo Bridge and damage the environment.

Gloria, point by point, disputed the claims of the opposition and pointed to the greater good of the project. Councilmember Marti Emerald noted that 12 million people “love the park” each year, and that the project would only improve their pedestrian experience in Balboa Park. Councilmember Scott Sherman called it “a very good project” and said it “would bring us into compliance” with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“Balboa Park is a beloved part of San Diego filled with the rich history of our region, yet it is still changing and evolving,” Gloria said in a statement released after the vote. “This is why more than 12 million people visit the park every year and it is through new evolutions, like that in the Plaza de Panama project that we will continue to improve the visitor experience to entice residents and visitors alike to visit Balboa Park for years to come.”

According to the mayor’s office, the Plaza de Panama project includes:

  • Removing cars from the heart of the park. Five areas currently lost to parking and traffic — Plaza de Panama, Plaza de California, West El Prado, Esplanade and the parking lot behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion — will all be restored to their historic use as pedestrian park spaces.
  • A total of 6.3 acres of thoroughfares and parking lots will be transformed into pedestrian plazas, promenades and a rooftop park that better realize the remarkable Balboa Park experience.
  • A completely car-free Plaza de Panama with major aesthetic improvements, including reflecting pools and more pedestrian amenities.
  • A three-level underground parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion with a 2.2-acre rooftop park and 797 paid parking spaces. Thousands of parking spaces in the park — the vast majority — will remain free.
  • Improved parking with an increase of more than 30 percent in the number of accessible parking spaces in the core of the park, including in the parking structure and a reconfigured Alcazar parking lot.

According to Gloria’s office, the project will also re-create the California Garden behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and improve access to the Central Mesa through the provision of additional parking while preserving convenient drop-off, disabled access, valet parking and a new tram service with potential for future expansion.

—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

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