On February 4, 2013, a San Diego Superior Court judge rejected the City’s plans to vacate traffic from Balboa Park, its historic central urban park, by building a “bypass bridge” and parking garage. The plans were preparation for the City’s centennial celebration of the 1915 Panama California Exposition, which first brought the Park worldwide recognition and resulted in most of its historic structures. The bypass bridge was the most controversial aspect of the plan as it would have branched off the iconic Cabrillo Bridge, the historic ceremonial entrance to the park. The plan was supported by the park museums, politicians, and some citizens. On the other side, most planning groups, preservationists, and nearby residents opposed it. The sides differed as to the visual and historic impact of the bypass bridge.
While vacating automobiles from the Park’s Plaza de Panama and other interior portions is a laudable goal, there are alternative improvements that would have a greater and more leveraged benefit to the long term health of the Park and the City. Such alternatives revolve around a common concept: Reconnecting the Park with its downtown. While project proponents touted the project as returning the Park to pedestrians, it was a suburban mall type of pedestrian enhancement: a pedestrian island giving first priority to visitors who arrive by automobile rather than those who arrive by transit, bike, or foot (or who would arrive by transit, bike, or foot if such modes of transportation were given priority and funding equal to the City’s plan). The improvements only served to further entrench the auto-orientation of the city.
Since the construction of I-5, the Park has remained dramatically severed from the City’s Center. This separation of an urban park from its urban core has resulted in mutually assured mediocrity. The park is impressive only in the sense that Sea World, the Zoo, and La Jolla are impressive to visitors: impressive individually but not part of a great City. While the Park and the City remain tantalizingly close, the distance created by the I-5 chasm is both psychological and real. The sight and noise of the freeway make the Park and Downtown seem many miles apart. The limited bridge crossings, the lack of pedestrian amenities, and the blight on the City side (also due to the effect of the freeway), make the relatively short walk unpleasant and daunting.
Reconnecting the Park to Downtown is a prerequisite to creating a successful urban environment. As Central Park and Manhattan would be exponentially and mutually weakened if they were across the Hudson from each other, so will San Diego and its Balboa Park remain unless the I-5 gash is healed. Reconnecting the Park and Downtown also mitigates more immediate issues, such as parking. Downtown has an overabundance of public parking, even more so during the inversely correlated peak parking demand times of Downtown and the Park. If you have visited the Park during its December Nights celebration, you may have already used Downtown parking and walked to the Park.
Accordingly, alternative visionary projects that would help to reconnect the Park to its Downtown should include these:
1) Build a Freeway cap over Interstate 5: There is no better way to heal the freeway gash than to cover it. I-5 is already below grade, making it especially suitable for a cap. For years, there has been talk about capping the freeway. While cost and complexity may be daunting, Los Angeles is doing it. We have previously done it at I-15 in the Mid-City communities. Ideally, the cap would be covered by an extension of the Park. But practical solutions might indicate additional parking, or a public-private partnership including some private structures. There may be need for legislative action, even a waiving of on-site parking or other requirements for private structures on the cap. What better impetus for such a major undertaking than the Centennial celebration? Moreover, anything is better than the existing noisy, polluting, and chasmic presence of the freeway. For further information about freeway caps in general and in San Diego, see Planetizen and a video about the freeway cap discussed here and another article video and article here.
2) Install a fixed rail transit connection between the Park and Downtown: Why fixed rail? Because fixed rail provides a permanent visible pedestrian-friendly connection that simply is not duplicated by either roads or buses. Think of San Francisco’s cable car. Moreover, if it was something iconic and authentic like the cable car, it would likely provide a ceremonial connection between the Park and Downtown that would be a draw to both locals and visitors. It should have a terminus in Downtown that is a plaza or gathering place to balance its dramatic other terminus, Balboa Park. One such iconic and authentic possibility involves restoring the original John D. Spreckels Class One Streetcar connection between Downtown and the park. These streetcars have a special connection to the Centennial celebration of the Panama California Exposition of 1915 because John D. Spreckels had them designed specifically for the occasion. The Class One Streetcars then served San Diego for another 40 years. Large, roomy, and half open air, they are peculiarly suited to the San Diego climate. Christian Chaffee is leading the effort to restore streetcar service to San Diego, having recovered three of the original Class One Streetcars, and forming a non-profit organization, San Diego Historic Streetcars, to promote their restoration.
3) Create a La Rambla from the Park to a Downtown plaza. La Rambla, of course, is the pedestrian-only tree-lined street in Barcelona filled with vendors and entertainment. Its true that the City already has taken efforts to create something akin to La Rambla on Park Blvd as a “Bay to Park Link.” Unfortunately, that route will be the functional outer edge of Downtown for years to come. Moreover, it is excessively long with no ceremonial terminus at either end. A route along Third or Fourth Avenues with the soon to be expanded and re-built Horton Plaza Park on one end and the Cabrillo Bridge (after a right turn on Laurel St.) on the other end would create a more functional connection between the Park and Downtown.
Each of these measures provides not only immediate benefits in its own right, which is equal to what was sought by the bypass bridge plan, but also provides long term synergistic benefits by improving transit, parking availability, access to the park, and the Uptown/Downtown urban environment. For the time being, major capital expenditures on the laudable goal of vacating cars from the Park’s Plaza de Panama should take a backseat to the more important goal of reconnecting the Park to its downtown and improving pedestrian and transit access from the Park exterior.
Each of these alternatives may be impossible to accomplish in time for the Centennial celebration even if there was funding. For a project that can readily be accomplished in time for Centennial and which would immediately improve the Park, see e.g., A Plan for Plaza de Panama. However, the Centennial preparation is also a great time to focus on a long term vision, which will leverage an overall benefit to the City that is greater than the sum of the individual benefits to the Park and to Downtown.