Supervisor Ron Roberts proposes Downtown-Balboa Park gondola
Chris Pocock | Uptown News
A prospective urban cable car may one day connect two of San Diego’s most important cultural hubs, Downtown and Balboa Park. The conceptualized aerial gondola route would likely begin at a Fifth Avenue station near Petco Park, stretching along Sixth Avenue and ending near the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park.
The aerial gondola has been a vision of County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who was inspired to pursue the plan after riding in a similar transit method while visiting Singapore.
The two-mile stretch between the two entities has long posed a challenge for city planners struggling to connect two of San Diego’s most tourist-drawing locations without interrupting street traffic or taking away valuable parking. Within the past few years, proposals for extending a trolley line have been lost in the pipeline or shot down due to political gridlock and unpopularity among Downtown residents and businesses.
At the Aug. 11 meeting of the Metro San Diego Community Development Corporation, Roberts noted that aerial gondolas have long been prevalent in cityscapes, even within San Diego.
“The technology is there, it’s proven.” Roberts said. “What’s new now is that you’re starting to see them in urban areas.”
The San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld feature two of San Diego’s well-known aerial gondola routes, though both cover distances far smaller than the proposed two-mile route between Downtown and Balboa Park. The proposed aerial gondola would most likely mirror designs such as Portland’s aerial tram and a conceptual tramway in Kirkland, Washington in engineering and scope.
ADVANTAGES TO AN AERIAL GONDOLA
The proposed aerial gondola would take up far less surface area than a conventional trolley route, providing little negative impact on mobility and traffic. Roberts said engineers are also exploring a possible cantilever design for the gondola, which could conceivably remove the need for support beams in the middle of the street.
Aerial gondolas would be a highly efficient method of transportation, arriving every 14 seconds at the station platform with each individual car capable of carrying between 10 to 15 people. The conceptual design would be highly adaptable, allowing operators of the line to add or remove cars in times of light or heavy use.
And then there’s the view. It’s rare for San Diegans to get past the concept of the aerial gondola without remarking on the incredibly picturesque views that would be offered by the Downtown San Diego skyline. If built, the aerial gondola would almost certainly be a boon for tourism for the region, serving not just as a means for transportation but perhaps itself becoming an iconic part of the San Diegan horizon.
Though the proposed route is only intended to ferry people between Balboa Park and Downtown, adjustments may be made in the future to extend the route in the future.
“I can envision this going to Hillcrest. I can envision this going to Fashion Valley easily,” Roberts said. “You can design this so you can extend it.”
GONDOLA TO NOWHERE? ISSUES, QUESTIONS & CONCERNS
According to Roberts, the aerial gondola has generated interest among local leaders such as Council President Todd Gloria and Mayor Kevin Faulconer and has drawn significant support from businesses looking for a tourism boost. Though the plan has accumulated considerable appeal, there are multiple issues the aerial gondola would have to contend with before breaking ground.
Residents living along Sixth Avenue have voiced concerns over privacy, noting that gondolas traveling several feet high in the air would have unhindered views inside residents’ homes. Other residents living alongside the proposed route are worried about decreasing property values caused by an intrusive mode of transportation blocking views of parks and other aesthetically pleasing sections of the route. Roberts said that opaquing the windows of the gondolas through specific sections of the route is a possible method of maintaining privacy for local residents.
Because of its close proximity to the San Diego International Airport, the proposed gondola would also have to abide by strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, creating a logistical challenge for the plan. Extending the route to the airport, a popular idea among trolley line enthusiasts, would be considerably more difficult to accomplish because of rigid guidelines governing air traffic. Roberts said cooperation with the FAA would be crucial for the gondola plan to succeed.
Running an aerial gondola route through Balboa Park also presents a logistical concern for city planners and engineers, tasking them with providing transportation to the park while preserving the space’s historical integrity.
Providing funding for the large cost of the project is a huge concern. Because the plan is in its earliest conceptual stages, cost estimation is difficult, though it is expected to run in the tens of millions. Whether the planned route will be strictly public or a public/private partnership also remains undecided, though Roberts said he has been approached by multiple private parties to see that the aerial gondola plan reaches completion.
The plan does, however, have a prospective finish date. “Early 2019,” Roberts said with a coy smile. Perhaps not so coincidentally, early 2019 is when Roberts would be termed out as county supervisor.