Transforming Balboa Park

Posted: December 2nd, 2016 | Featured, Features | 3 Comments

Reawakening the pros and cons of the Plaza de Panama project

By Dave Schwab

While the recent resurrection of the Balboa Park Plaza de Panama project has revived hopes of creating a more pedestrian-friendly public park space, it has also reawakening much of the same opposition that derailed the proposal initially.

On Nov. 14, the City Council approved the $79 million, long-stalled Balboa Park Plaza de Panama project, which would remove traffic from the historic heart of Balboa Park, while creating 6.3 acres of parkland, gardens and pedestrian-friendly plazas.

Proponents hope Plaza de Panama construction can begin next spring and be done in time to celebrate Balboa Park’s 150th anniversary in 2018. The original goal had been to complete it by 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition.

“In terms of project scope, it has not changed,” said Katherine Johnston, the city’s director of infrastructure and budget policy. “The design is almost the same, with some minor updates to ensure compliance with all existing regulations.”

The original entrance to Balboa Park via Cabrillo Bridge (below) may soon be closed off and traffic rerouted onto a sweeping new cement exit to the right (artist’s rendering above), which would eventually lead drivers to a paid parking garage behind Spreckels Organ Pavilion. (Images courtesy SOHO)

The original entrance to Balboa Park via Cabrillo Bridge (below) may soon be closed off and traffic rerouted onto a sweeping new cement exit to the right (artist’s rendering above), which would eventually lead drivers to a paid parking garage behind Spreckels Organ Pavilion. (Images courtesy SOHO)

Bruce Coons, head of the preservationist organization, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), which sued to block the project back in 2012, agreed the project hasn’t changed much, despite the increase in costs.

“It is the same as the previous project except for some storm water controls,” Coons said. “I also think they added mechanical ventilation to the garage.”

Originally championed by a committee led by Qualcomm founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, the Plaza de Panama project was proposed to solve Balboa Park’s chronic traffic and parking woes.


The project’s centerpiece was a bypass off the Cabrillo Bridge with motorists turning right onto the Centennial Bridge leading to a road through the Alcazar Garden parking lot culminating below new walkways to an 800-space, paid-parking, park-topped garage south of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

historicimagesmThose changes would make it possible to end traffic and parking in the Plaza de Panama in front of the San Diego Museum of Art, the Plaza de California in front of the San Diego Museum of Man, the west Prado, and the Esplanade that leads to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

“We successfully fought and won [against the development] in 2013 and then the Plaza de Panama Committee — not the city — filed an appeal,” said Alana Coons, also of SOHO. “SOHO cross-appealed, but sadly, [the committee] prevailed in appeals court. Then in Jan. 8, 2016, Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor decided against awarding $96,000 in legal fees to the Plaza de Panama Committee.”

She said that Dr. Jacobs is currently appealing that ruling.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer hailed the renewed Plaza de Panama project as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform San Diego’s crown jewel for the next century.”

“This public-private partnership will reclaim the heart of Balboa Park for pedestrians and return the Plaza de Panama to its original grandeur,” Faulconer said. “With the support from the City Council and great civic leaders like Dr. Irwin Jacobs, the grand restoration of Balboa Park can finally begin.”

But not everyone, including SOHO, are happy that the Plaza de Panama project is back.

“If ever the commercial development of the park goes forward complete with freeway off-ramp; a giant ditch with 42-inch-tall safety railings and massive, concrete retaining walls; dangerously narrow, sunken S-curve roadway; and paid-parking structure — the cherished entry [across the Cabrillo Bridge] will not only be forever lost, it will become a garish, concrete-and-asphalt nightmare that permanently scars Alcazar Garden, Palm Canyon, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and the historic core,” Bruce Coons said.

Coons estimated more than $300 million is needed just for crucial park repairs.

“Yet, instead of addressing the park’s urgent needs, a plan to spend more on building unnecessary and destructive new roads and buildings that require additional maintenance and expense is the city’s focus,” he said. “This is irresponsible fiscal policy and does not make any sense.”

Plaza de Panama Project plans also include:

  • A completely car-free Plaza de Panama with major aesthetic improvements, including reflecting pools and more pedestrian amenities.
  • A three-level underground parking garage behind the Speckels Organ Pavilion with a 2.2-acre rooftop park and 797 paid-parking spaces. Thousands of parking spaces in the park — the vast majority — will remain free.
  • Improved parking with an increase of more than 30 percent in the number of parking spaces of accessible parking spaces in the core of the park, including in the parking structure and a reconfigured Alcazar parking lot.

“This is a major park renovation that will permanently create 6 acres of parkland,” Johnston said. “It’s really a grand restoration of the park.”

Bruce Coons challenged the city’s projections for what Plaza de Panama’s redo will accomplish.

“When they brag the project brings 6.2 acres of new parkland, they conveniently forget to deduct for their roadways and the huge Plaza de Panama, which was already returned to pedestrian use two years ago,” he said. “Or recognize the zoo’s new parking facility reduces the need for new parking structures, or that ADA access will be severely impacted. Nor is the new lawn they depict above their partially subterranean garage truly two new acres of parkland, as it will be significantly reduced with four new buildings and service shafts.

“Unquestionably, this ill-conceived paving and paid-parking project will destroy the historic character, scale, and natural landscapes of one of the most majestic urban parks in America,” Coons concluded. “Thirty other environmental community groups and organizations including six neighborhood planning groups also have opposed this boondoggle.”

Johnston said the redevelopment project’s estimated total cost is now $79 million, revised upward from the 2012 cost estimate of $45 million, reflecting updated state development regulations, the applicability of prevailing wage and a less-competitive bidding market.

“The city’s portion of the project will be capped at $45 million,” Johnston said, adding the remainder will be paid from “lease revenues through parking revenue in Balboa” and other monies, including private donations.

SOHO has drafted a legal response to the city regarding Plaza de Panama and recently launched a legal defense fund campaign to fight the revived project. To read their legal response, visit To review SOHO’s legal campaign funding page, visit

For more information about how Balboa Park currently looks and how this project hopes to change it, visit

— Dave Schwab can be reached at


  1. Joe Holder says:

    The Plaza De Panama plan has grown from a small fetus of an idea to a Monster Guerrilla, feeding itself at the cost of taxpayers for too long. It’s time to put it to rest and balance our city budget. Reduce the size of the planning commission through attrition.
    There are innumerable people who are not aware of it or it’s cost to the city. Most of which would oppose it on cost alone, and others who object to the taking away of parking in the last makeover of the Plaza that now is just wasted space.
    The shuttle works and there is plenty of parking south and across Park Blvd. People don’t want or need Paid Parking by Ace. Put this Guerilla behind us and move on.

  2. Thomas Hemlock says:

    The plan to create an alternate road through Balboa Park and create a car free Paseo and Plaza is long overdo. When the Cabrillo Bridge was built, the population of San Diego was around 40,000 people and the automobile was a new invention owned by few of them. People walked to the park or took a trolley. Today thousands of cars pass through the park. Mr. Coons keeps saying the view as you cross the bridge will be ruined. I beg to differ. When the buildings were constructed in1915, the park was mainly covered with native scrub vegetation, very much like the Mesa above Florida Canyon, devoid of trees. Now eucalyptus trees fill the canyon that the Cabrillo Bridge traverses. If Mr Coons would put his concern and effort into seeing that some dense, medium height trees should be planted to obscure the lower portion of the new bridge addition, the problem of “ruining a historic view” would be eliminated. Balboa Park has constantly changed over the years. New buildings have been added through the years, some blending in with the original ones, others not so well. Also, we should try to make the park better able to handle the thousands of people have a more pleasant experience there. Eliminating cars on the Paseo and Plazas in front of the Museum of Man and the Art Museum is a good start.

  3. Jean Wilson says:

    Mr Hemlock does not respond to Mr Holder’s point that there is ample underutilized parking across Park Blvd with shuttle service that can be expanded. And, if needed, a high rise structure could be built there at a far lesser cost without two or four years of disruption.

    And, if cars are to be eliminated from the Paseo and Plaza, it is a simple endeavor to block the entry to the park from Laurel Street. Why spend 30M or 80M on a bypass road? And, most importantly, why destroy the integrity of a historical bridge?

    Meanwhile, use those funds (if they are available) for a better purpose, i.e., maintaining our city’s heritage buildings!

    A 2nd Generation San Diego Native

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