Driving into the heart of Balboa Park eventually may involve taking a detour and parking underground -- for a fee, to free up the scenic centerpiece for pedestrians.
That's a scenario the city of San Diego hopes will be validated in court Friday.
Environmentalists and historical preservationists are fighting it.
The battleground in this dispute is Plaza de Panama, where drivers vie for some 70 parking spaces while pedestrians, joggers and bicyclists, take chances making their way through traffic.
The city wants to install a bypass bridge and underground parking structure to do away with all that, and restore the area to the exhaust-free, walker-friendly atmosphere an earlier time.
That controversial bypass is called the "Centennial Bridge", a reference to the upcoming Centennial celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition that gave San Diego worldwide exposure 'back in the day'.
Billionaire Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs is raising over $40 million to build the bridge and link it to an 800-space, subterranean garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion – where there’ll be parking charges.
Opponents say those projects will violate city regulations and cause environmental damage.
Says Mayor Bob Filner, a longstanding opponent of the project who nonetheless promises to abide by the legal outcome: "I don't think this can be built in time for the Centennial celebration. So I think it becomes a moot point. Then the question becomes, how do you keep cars out of the center of Balboa Park and make it a more pedestrian experience? Well, I could do that with six traffic cones.”
As Filner elaborated in an interview Thursday: "You have parking on the perimeter of the park, and you take a tram system that brings people in, and the tram becomes the whole experience. This is what they'd have to do while they're building that thing anyway."
Locals and tourists surveyed on the plaza today were all over the map as to what should be done.
"Putting up some cones and using transit that's already in existence?” said Temecula resident Angie Murphy. "That sounds just like a deal. I don't want to pay any money."
North Park resident James Spellman, leaning on the handlebars of his mountain bike, offered this: "As long as it is a plan that doesn't deface the park, and turns it into what it was originally planned to be -- a beautiful place for people to come and enjoy the outdoors."
Wendy Douglas, visiting from Salt Lake City, Utah, took issue with the parking structure approach: "I still think it should be a place where you could come and not have to spend a dime to get here, to stay here, to walk around here."
Said Bonita resident Maria Muhammad: "I pay taxes. I mean, that's enough. I shouldn't have to pay for underground parking. This is fine. If it's not broke, why fix it?"
The judge case is leaning toward ruling in favor of the opposition, and will issue a final opinion after hearing oral arguments Friday.
Mayor Filner says he hopes the parties might settle in arbitration or mediation, to avoid a long appeal process.