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Faulconer unveils Plaza de Panama makeover

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Two years after former Mayor Bob Filner unilaterally closed the old parking lot and rerouted the traffic in Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama, Mayor Kevin Faulconer on Wednesday unveiled the newest stage of the plaza's metamorphosis: a $117,000 renovation featuring umbrella-shaded tables and chairs, wooden park benches and an artificial lawn aimed at restoring the plaza's role as the park's central gathering place.

Among other things, the renovations to the 6.3-acre site include outdoor games and special display panels for surrounding museums to tout their exhibits.

"The Plaza de Panama is one of the greatest gathering spaces in San Diego, and these new amenities will create more opportunities for San Diegans and visitors alike to enjoy Balboa Park," Faulconer said. "This is where San Diego communities come together, making this project a great addition to the centennial celebration."

Southwest Airlines provided $85,000 for the project through its Heart of the Community grant program, aimed at creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and well-being.

The San Diego Foundation provided $32,000 for the project – a relatively small portion of the $1.75 million it has contributed to preserving, maintaining and beautifying the park.

Kathlyn Mead, president of the foundation, said she hoped the project "will activate the Plaza de Panama and provide opportunities for citizens to further explore the park’s assets.”

When the Panama-California Exposition opened in 1915, the Plaza de Panama was meant to be a key focal point for the central promenade.

One of the highlights of the exposition was when Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt stood on the steps of the Sacramento Valley Building, now known as the San Diego Museum of Art, to review the horse-borne troops of the First Cavalry.

But just three years later, the plaza was turned into a 70-car parking lot and a conduit for traffic passing through the park.

As the centennial of the exposition approached, various civic groups proposed ways of restoring the plaza to its original status, including a $45 million plan by Irwin Jacobs to reroute traffic to a new parking facility.

After Jacobs' plan failed in court in February 2013, then-mayor Filner closed the plaza to parking in June, using traffic cones and signs to keep cars away.

Filner had grander ideas for the plaza, including a colored resurfacing of the pavement and additional landscaping to make it the centerpiece for what he hoped would be an international celebration of the park's centennial. But just a month after he began his renovations, Filner became embroiled in the sexual harassment scandal that cost him his job.

Filner's name was not mentioned when the latest renovations were unveiled on Wednesday. Instead, park officials emphasized the value of restoring the plaza as a focal point for the park.

“We know the Plaza de Panama is one of Balboa Park’s best and underutilized assets,” said Carol Chang, board president of the Balboa Park Conservancy, which held a series of workshops to provide input on what amenities to include in the project.

“The collaborative process used to achieve this vision provides opportunities for our cultural institutions to showcase their collections and allows for periodic activities, enhancing the experience of millions of visitors to Balboa Park each year,” she said.

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