Plaza de Panama Project Forges Ahead

Plaza de Panama celebration at nightSan Diego  – Balboa Park is many things to many people:  gathering place, cultural vortex, architectural treasure. It is not, however, pedestrian friendly and most agree, it is not being used to its full potential.  Known as “the crown jewel of San Diego,” plans are moving forward to rid the central core of the park of vehicular traffic and to revitalize the public space in time for the park’s centennial celebration in 2015.

Recent project updates included the closing last week of the public commentary period of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR.)   The city-managed document encompassed an unprecedented 4,000 page missive outlining such plans as reclaiming the core of the public park to pedestrian use by way of a bypass bridge, a new parking structure and free tram service among others.

City officials have been reviewing scores of solutions and alternatives falling into three general categories including constructing the Centennial Bridge bypass off of the existing Cabrillo Bridge to the west, closing the bridge to cars altogether, and keeping some cars moving through a portion of the park.

Gordon Kovtun, program manager for the Plaza de Panama project concedes that no solution is without problem and “all will have significant immitigable impact.”  However, he pointed out that as the park exists today, the “problem statement” lies in the unbalanced ratio of cars to people on any given day.  Traffic studies have revealed that typically 14,000 pedestrians will encounter up to 7,000 cars on a high use day creating a multitude of “pedestrian to vehicle interactions.”

He noted that over 180 community outreach meetings have been held to date and revisions to the plan have been made based on public concerns over the project.  For example, the original landscape design has been criticized as being too contemporary.  Subsequent changes include more trees and incorporating more references to the original formal gardens.

As well, planners have worked closely with the Historic Resources Board staff in shaping the current design proposal particularly in relation to the rehabilitation portion of the Plaza de California and West El Prado areas fronting the Museum of Man and Old Globe Theater.

To date, the bulk of public discussion has revolved around the proposed Centennial Bridge.  This feature would connect the southwest corner of the park’s western entrance connecting it to a repurposed Alcazar parking lot.  This lot would then become a staging area including disabled parking as well as visitor drop offs and a valet service.

Expressing concerns of historical accuracy, opponents feel the bridge feature would forever scar the architectural integrity of the park.  Referring to the overall plan in general, Kovtun begged the question, “What’s more historic, 7,000 cars per day in the plaza, or the project?”   Park designers in 1915 surely did not have the automobile in mind at its inception, and certainly not 7,000 of them daily.

Today’s additional benefits to the proposed project include the addition of 270 parking spaces with the construction of a new underground parking garage within the footprint of the existing lot behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.  Kovtun highlighted that revenue from the $5 per 5 hour parking fees will repay the bond issue covering construction and maintenance of the structure as well as the free tram service proposed.  The sustainable structural design of the garage requires no mechanical ventilation system which appreciably lowers the cost of construction and upkeep.  Featuring a new visitor’s center above ground as well as public restrooms, it contributes to the overall 6.3 acres of reclaimed park land within the project.

According to the Plaza de Panama website, the project represents “the largest private investment inBalboaParksince the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.  Already the committee has paid in significant monies towards the estimated $40 to $45 million project.  Revenues from paid parking are budgeted to return $14 million with the balance and overruns being covered by the committee.

Moving now into the approval phase, the project goes before various governing bodies, most notable of which is the City Council.  While the others represent an advisory vote, the City’s upcoming decision in July will be a mandate.

Guided walking tours of the project are conducted monthly, and can be attributed to “a huge surge in support” as of late according to Kovtun.  The next one is scheduled for Saturday, April 21 from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. and meets in the Plaza de California, just in front of the Museum of Man.

Photo courtesy of the Plaza de Panama 2015 Centennial Committee

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Avatar of Elizabeth Gildred About Elizabeth Gildred

Native San Diegan Elizabeth Gildred is a freelance writer and photographer. She is a community leader devoted to the Sharp HealthCare Foundation and the San Diego Museum of Art among others. As a third generation local commercial real estate professional, she is committed to preserving heritage while advancing vitality in “America’s Finest City.”

Projects she is following include the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park which proposes “transforming the core of the park into a grand public space” by reclaiming it for its originally intended pedestrian use. She is also keenly interested in the City of San Diego partnering with the San Diego Chargers in exploring “publicly acceptable ways to build a new Super Bowl-quality stadium.”

She takes full advantage of the idyllic coastal climate via running and following the local surfing culture.