Two or three times a week, I run from my home in Hillcrest into and around Balboa Park. Usually, my course includes two round trips across the Cabrillo Bridge, which stretches over Highway 163 and heads east into the park from Laurel Street and Sixth Avenue. For most of the past five months, the bridge was been closed to car traffic so Caltrans could do major maintenance, and pedestrians, runners and bicyclists (many of whom didn’t walk their bikes as instructed!) were funneled across the span in narrow portions of one sidewalk while the street and the other sidewalk were fenced off. In peak times, I felt like a football running back, quickly cutting left and right as I dodged foot traffic heading in both directions.
For a single run last week, after the fencing came down and before the bridge was reopened to cars on Monday morning, I was able to run down the middle of the bridge, and it was like suddenly being able to breathe deeply again. The open space was glorious.
Now it’s back to normal. There’s more space on the sidewalk than when the fencing was up. I can use the street to pass large groups and oblivious pedestrians who are clogging the lane. And I don’t have to worry as much about being mowed down by cyclists.
But I look dreamily at the street and imagine what could be if the bridge were closed off to cars permanently. I recall visiting The High Line in New York City, an elevated linear park that began life as a train track. It’s just incredible, with lots of native-plant gardens, innovative public art and places to sit. That’s what I see when I look at the Cabrillo Bridge. Yeah, sure, something like that would be so popular that I might have to wait until later at night to run across it, but I’m willing to sacrifice.
Not wanting to sacrifice are the cultural institutions on the west side of Balboa Park—The Old Globe Theatre, the Museum of Man, the Mingei International Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Museum of Art. And I completely understand that. It’s hard enough making a go of it as a nonprofit these days, and when a significant portion of your clientele is older folks with mobility difficulties and some jackass with space in a local newsweekly proposes limiting access to your front doors, well, that can be annoying.
But there must be a way. I’d think that my beautiful new car-free Cabrillo Bridge Park—coupled with refurbished and car-free Plazas de California and Panama—would bring all sorts of new visitors to the west-end institutions. Still, that doesn’t solve the mobility-challenged-folks problem.
Urban planner Howard Blackson, my go-to guy on matters of public space, sent me a proposal that was hatched as a response to Irwin Jacobs’ ill-conceived plan to get cars out of the Plazas de California and Panama with a new bypass ramp heading south off of the east end of the bridge. The proposal Blackson sent had the bridge still open to vehicles, but a new bypass road connected the north side of the bridge to Old Globe Way, which snakes around the back of The Old Globe and the San Diego Museum of Art. I’d get rid of the new connection, because it’s not necessary with a pedestrian bridge, but I don’t immediately see why we can’t make the road behind the Globe and SDMA the primary way to get certain folks to the west-end institutions. We’d just need a place for cars to turn around after dropping off passengers. There are probably 6,892 reasons why it won’t work; just throwing it out there.
I knew there was no chance of the bridge being closed to cars after the Caltrans work; the west-end institutions and City Hall are allied against it. During the debate over the Jacobs plan, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders’ spokespeople said closing the bridge would create parking havoc west of the bridge and traffic nightmares on Park Boulevard on the east side of the park.
The bridge closure provided a great opportunity to test those theories and to study the full impact of the shutdown on the park, its institutions and the surrounding areas, and I’m eager to see what the city learned.