After numerous meetings and an epic amount of public rankling about a bridge bypass and parking garage, the San Diego City Council is about to decide whether or not to finalize plans for Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama project.
The city council approved the project in 2012 and, in September, the expenditure of $1 million toward finalizing the design and cost estimates. It’s likely to sail through November 14’s city-council vote, though there was every indication at September’s city-council meeting that there will be a robust discussion about financing and how the project lines up with the city’s Climate Action Plan.
Amid discussions of bond issues, parking revenues, and cooperative agreements, the crux of the city council’s decision on November 14 will be to either hinder or embolden the city’s ability to put out a construction contract.
Charlie Daniels, a senior city park planner, said at the September council meeting that the main goal of the project is to replace cars in the heart of the park with pedestrian-friendly pathways and gathering spaces. In this vein, asphalt roadways in the Plaza de California, El Prado, Plaza de Panama, the Esplanade, and Pan American Promenade will all be replaced with subtly colored concrete to complement the surrounding architecture. Each area will also get a landscaping facelift to include shade trees. Both the Plaza de California (near the Museum of Man) and the Plaza de Panama (near the Museum of Art) will include plenty of seating and tables. The latter will also add two shallow reflecting pools on either side of the north fountain. A tram route will run from the Plaza de Panama to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
The most expensive part of the project will be the three-story underground parking garage to be located behind the organ pavilion. The surface parking lot that is sited there now will be turned into a 2.2-acre park with an open lawn and garden. The roof-top park will have a trellised picnic pavilion, a central elevator courtyard, and a public restroom. A tram will also go through this area.
The underground parking garage will have approximately 797 parking spaces — a net gain of about 260 spaces. It will cost park visitors between $2 to $12 to park in the structure, depending on the day and number of hours. There will still be plenty of free parking, which could be both a blessing for drivers and a curse for parking revenue if enough people don’t pony up.
A key and controversial element of the project is the bypass bridge. Once complete, as one travels west on Cabrillo Bridge toward the Museum of Man, instead of driving through the main arched entry way (Plaza de California), drivers will turn right onto a curved bypass bridge with lanes going in both directions. This will lead drivers to the Alcazar parking lot to the right, reconfigured to provide more handicapped spaces and drop-off/valet parking. The bypass bridge will then turn into a bypass road that curves around the organ pavilion before heading into the new underground parking garage.
The major opposition to the bypass bridge has to do with aesthetics and historical concerns. Bruce Coons from Save Our Heritage Organisation pointed to Balboa Park’s National Historic Landmark status and how the Cabrillo Bridge is up front and center in that designation. Coons said that the designation could be in jeopardy if the bypass element of the project goes through.
David Marshall, the project's historic architect, countered by saying that Balboa Park losing its historic standing was just a scare tactic with no real merit. He said there are only two elements in the project that don’t fully comply with historic secretary of the interior standards. The first is a physical impact to 70 feet of the east abutment railing of the Cabrillo Bridge and the second is the change to spatial relationships, also tied to the proposed bypass bridge. Marshall defended his position by pointing to the National Mall in Washington DC, saying that if the addition of the Vietnam veterans memorial wall in 1982 and the more recent building of the African American museum in the National Mall didn’t degrade their national landmark status, neither should the bypass bridge for Balboa Park.
The San Diego Zoo’s Park Promenade project is often touted as a better alternative to the Plaza de Panama project by those in opposition. It was first suggested to mayor Jerry Sanders and Irwin Jacobs in a letter from the Zoo in 2010. The project, approved by the city council in 2004, proposes 2500 spaces of underground parking near the Natural History Museum and Park Boulevard.
Katherine Johnston, Mayor Faulconer’s director of infrastructure, agreed that the Park Promenade project is valuable and one that should be initiated at some point. But she doesn’t believe the city can exclusively finance the project with city funds (the cost estimate from 2011 was for $215 million).
While the Plaza de Panama project is a more modest $79 million, it cost even less in 2012 — $33 million less. The huge hike is due to not accounting for prevailing wage requirements in 2012 (10–15%), inflation (10–15%), and updated building codes, including storm-water requirements that increased costs by $3 million.
The biggest project increases were for the parking garage (from $17 million to $33.3 million) and the plaza upgrades ($2.9 to $8.5 million). The project is expected to take 26 months, with completion planned for winter 2019.