Most of us visit and drive through Balboa Park so often that we take our enchanting, world-renowned icon for granted. Yet the past two years have brought controversy to the usually tranquil “dream city,” as its creator Bertram G. Goodhue described it nearly 100 years ago. Despite ongoing public outcry and several city boards’ votes against it, one clumsy, flawed $45 million vision for removing parking from the Plaza de Panama has been unfairly promoted by a powerful benefactor and a lame duck mayor.
After nearly eight hours of public comment, the City of San Diego Planning Commission went through the motions of evaluating the plan that engineer-philanthropist Irwin Jacobs has pledged to pay for, and some alternatives, such as the vastly superior, less expensive Lewis plan, which Save Our Heritage Organisation strongly supports. In the end, the commissioners voted to follow the Jacobs money and endorse his plan. Eric Naslund, commission chairman, acknowledged the existence of other proposals, but dismissed them because no one has offered to pay for them!
Jacobs has not just offered to donate or raise money to implement his own proposal, he’s threatened to take his marbles home if we don’t play his game. This means thousands of park lovers who have attended meaningless workshops, protested in earnest and signed petitions against the Jacobs plan find ourselves in the untenable position of potentially watching our unique park be irreparably damaged by one willful man, the highest and only bidder.
This is no way to treat the nearly century-old park buildings, gardens and amenities that several generations of San Diegans have treasured, fought to save, or rebuilt with care. Especially since William S. Lewis, a master architect, has thoughtfully devised a better, more comprehensive plan — at his own expense, out of sheer love for the park. The Lewis plan removes parking from the Plaza de Panama, which is the goal everyone shares, and substantially increases centrally located underground parking (beneath the Plaza de Panama) in far greater numbers and at less cost than the Jacobs plan.
The Lewis plan adopts an informed, holistic look at the park, taking into account the park’s topography; planned changes, such as expanded zoo parking; and overlooked possibilities, such as connecting roads away from the Central Mesa that are now underused or blocked.
Lewis likens this cultural center, where some institutions are ailing, to a commercial center that must stay appealing, active and accessible to thrive. Convenience, he notes, is what shoppers, like museum and theater patrons, look for when parking and walking to and from their cars. We all know parking is a nightmare in the park on weekends and during special events. The Jacobs plan produces a gain of only 261 new parking spaces, 100 for valet and the others for which we’ll be charged a fee — something unthinkable in the park until now.
The Lewis plan honors the historic western entrance to the park, across the majestic Cabrillo Bridge.
Inexplicably, the Jacobs plan would crash through the National Historic Landmark District bridge and merge dangerously with a concrete, freeway-like ramp, ultimately crossing two lanes of traffic to get to the new, inadequate garage. The iconic bridge wouldn’t be the only casualty. Alcazar Garden and Palm Canyon, which the Lewis plan would restore, would be robbed of tranquility and order to move more cars to a partly buried garage that, as presented, would be hazardous to our health. And what if Jacobs were to fall short of the funding he’s promised?
The Lewis plan would remove vehicular traffic from the heart of the park without sacrificing historic integrity, convenience or safety. The Jacobs plan would clog the heart and rob the park of its historic character.
The City Council should protect Balboa Park and reject the Jacobs plan as designed on July 9.
– Paul Johnson AIA Preservation architect, Johnson & Johnson Architecture