After two years of wrangling and controversy, the Plaza de Panama project is set to move forward, following the San Diego City Council’s approval in July of the plan designed to remove vehicles from the center of Balboa Park.
On July 9, the city council heard more than seven hours of public comment on the park makeover proposed by Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) co-founder Irwin Jacobs and backed by Mayor Jerry Sanders. The council voted 6-1 to approve the $45.3 million project.
Jacobs, who presented the plan in August 2010, has pledged to raise $31 million in private funding, while a city bond for $14 million would pay for a parking garage.
Plans call for eliminating traffic from the Plaza de Panama — the area directly in front of the San Diego Museum of Art, and stretching to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Traffic would be rerouted off the Cabrillo Bridge at the park’s Laurel Street entrance, over a new bypass bridge called the Centennial Bridge, continuing to the Alcazar Garden parking lot and on to a 797-space underground parking garage on the south side of the Organ Pavilion.
The 67 parking spaces in the Plaza de Panama would be removed, and the area would be reclaimed as a pedestrian expanse. Plans include shade trees, seating and two shallow reflecting pools that could be drained to accommodate large events.
The Alcazar parking lot would be redesigned to provide more handicapped parking, passenger drop-off and valet parking.
A new 265,242-square-foot, tri-level underground parking structure would charge users $5 for five hours of parking. A shuttle would transport people between the garage and the Plaza de Panama. A new 2.2-acre park, which would include a visitor center and restrooms, would cover the new parking structure. Remaining parking spaces would still be free.
Now that the project has passed the final hurdle of city council approval, the project team will begin to move into the construction phase. If all goes as planned, construction will begin in early October, with completion by October of 2014, in time for the park’s centennial in 2015.
According to KCM Group, the construction management and consulting firm that serves as program manager for the project, two-way vehicle access through the park will be maintained throughout construction. Access to all institutions will be unobstructed, while the park’s historic structures and landscape features will be preserved.
The two-month first phase of construction involves utility relocation. The second phase, scheduled for completion in January 2014, entails the construction of the Organ Pavilion parking structure, rooftop park and Centennial Bridge. During this phase, new tram service will begin between the Inspiration Point parking lot (on the east side of Park Boulevard along Presidents Way) and the Plaza de Panama, with a drop-off at the Palisades parking lot (in front of the San Diego Air and Space Museum).
During the third phase of construction, between February and May 2014, the Alcazar parking lot will be redesigned. Phase four, June through October 2014, will see the renovation of the Plaza de Panama, Plaza de California (in front of the Museum of Man), Esplanade and Pan American Promenade (currently the Pan American Road).
The city has long had its sights on removing cars from the park’s core; the idea was approved in the park’s master plan in 1960 and again in the new plan in 1989. But the Jacobs plan to radically redesign the appearance of what’s considered San Diego’s crown jewel has not been without detractors.
Much of the opposition has centered on the paid parking garage and the bypass bridge.
Aside from the Panama-California Exposition in 1915-’16 and the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935-’36, Balboa Park has never charged for parking.
City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the plan, said she could not support paid parking at Balboa Park. She said free parking allows everyone to enjoy the park, regardless of income.
There is also some disagreement as to whether the revenue generated from the garage will cover the bond payments.
According to a study by real estate advisory firm Keyser Marston, the parking structure will generate an estimated $1.3 million annually, which would more than cover the $1.1 million in debt service the city will be responsible for. The firm considered income from visitor parking, special events, valet parking and fees generated from monthly parking, as well as operating expenses and a new, free tram service that would operate throughout the park.
The city’s Independent Budget Analyst found Keyser Marston’s figures to be reasonable, however, the IBA’s report outlined several issues that could impact the proposed assumptions and projected net parking revenues, including the number of available parking spaces used in the calculation, how often special event parking rates will be used, security for the parking structure and the expense of maintaining the rooftop park.
According to the IBA, the parking structure could have a net operating deficit of $967,786 if the revised assumptions are taken into consideration. Any shortfall in revenues from parking fees would have to be covered out of the city’s general fund.
The Save Our Heritage Organisation is leading the opposition. The day after the city council hearing, the preservationist group announced it would file a legal challenge to the proposal.
In a statement announcing the legal challenge, SOHO said, “The lawsuit will be based on the city’s violations of the San Diego Municipal Code, the 1870 Trust Dedication of the park as ‘free’ in perpetuity, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in approving the plan.”
SOHO filed suit Aug. 13. However, construction won’t necessarily stop during litigation, according to Kristen Byrne, vice president of MJE Marketing, which is consulting with the Plaza de Panama Committee.
SOHO has also said the plan jeopardizes Balboa Park’s status as a National Historic Landmark District. The group and other opponents say the proposal would irreparably damage the iconic 1914 Cabrillo Bridge and mar the historic character of the group of buildings just east of the bridge, including the Museum of Man.
Project backers say that more than 80 percent of the parking will remain free. They also point to the 6.3 acres of new parks, plazas and promenades that will be created from what are now roads and parking lots.