Thanks to a 6-1 vote of the San Diego City Council on Monday—with Sherri Lightner opposed—Balboa Park will get a major makeover before the park’s big centennial celebration in 2015. The plan features precisely one fantastic element: the elimination of parking and vehicle traffic from the Plaza de Panama, the central area in front of the San Diego Museum of Art, where cars currently circle a lost and lonely fountain, bookended by unsightly parking spaces, on their way to and from the Cabrillo Bridge and the park’s southern attractions.
No question about it, the new plaza will be glorious. Everyone will love it. Yay. The rest of the plan? Not so much.
The worst of it is a new elevated ramp and road that diverts cars heading east across the Cabrillo Bridge through a parking lot behind the Museum of Man and into a new parking garage in the middle of the park, behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The hideousness of the garage will be masked by a new rooftop park, the character and design of which we hope will match the existing, venerable surroundings.
The new bypass road funneling cars away from the plaza is intrusive and, we believe, unnecessary, a major disruption of part of a historic park. And the garage unfortunately sets in stone—literally—a car culture in the center of what should be a purely pedestrian environment (notwithstanding trams for people who are elderly or disabled).
In the end, we’ll celebrate the new Plaza de Panama, and we’ll sigh at the missed opportunity that the new ramp and parking structure will forever represent. But we’ll get over it.
Still, the project was based on a flawed premise and process. Rich guy Irwin Jacobs and Mayor Jerry Sanders cooked up a plan whereby Jacobs would hand over tens of millions of dollars and, in exchange, get to call all the shots. A better way would have been for Jacobs to pledge money for a project to eliminate cars from the plaza and let a public process determine how it should be done. That would have engendered the adoration that Sanders and others have asked the public to lavish upon Jacobs and his wife Joan for their philanthropy.
Jacobs’ critics booed him at the council hearing— that was an obnoxious and immature display. But pardon us if we don’t pledge fealty to the Jacobses just because they have the money to buy us a better plaza. There’s plenty of bad to go with the good, and Jacobs was never interested in a more holistic process, so criticism was warranted, and his supporters should stop whining about it. They should also try to minimize the outrage that they’ll surely express when opponents exercise their right to seek relief through the courts.
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