There's a new twist in the long-running civic drama surrounding Balboa Park -- a pricey legal settlement for the city of San Diego.
But no clear answers are being given to endless questions about traffic and parking problems there.
On the City Council’s Tuesday afternoon agenda is a resolution – recommended for approval by the city attorney’s office – to pay a $355,000 claim for opposing attorneys’ fees and court costs in a case that derailed a proposed $40 million makeover of Plaza de Panama -- known as the Jacobs Plan -- in the heart of the park.
That litigation, filed by a Northern California law firm on behalf of the historic preservation group Save Our Heritage Organisation, prevailed in both trial and state appellate court proceedings.
“City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, after we filed the lawsuit, said that it was ‘frivolous,’” recalled David Lundin, a local attorney who assisted in preparing the legal challenge. “Three hundred fifty-five thousand dollars later, we were right and he was wrong.”
Lundin said that kind of money would be a big help in making Balboa Park more accessible and approachable.
He points to new 12-minute, round-trip tram service centered in Plaza de Panama, where billionaire Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs was raising money to build a bypass bridge from the Cabrillo Bridge south and west to a $25 million, subterranean, paid-parking structure on the current surface- parking site lot behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
But the tram doesn't serve visitors at the Organ Pavilion parking lot or a smaller, 100-space lot south of Alcazar Garden that also offers 14 handicapped spaces somewhat closer to Plaza de Panama -- where, 11 months ago, then-mayor Bob Filner ordered the eviction of parking altogether.
While the cleared-out plaza is now pedestrian and cycle-friendly, it’s still too far away from parking for elderly and wheelchair-users who patronize the Balboa Park’s institutional stakeholders.
"We took away (handicapped parking) spots that were near the museums,” says Mike Kelly, president of the Balboa Park Committee of 100. “We sort of promised them we would have transportation through shuttle or something to get them around to the Museum of Man, to the Old Globe. That hasn't happened."
Parking also can be an approach-avoidance challenge even for the young and fully able-bodied.
"I don't know what they're going to do about parking because we had a challenge finding parking today -- and there's no one here. It's quite quiet today. ” said LasVegas resident Jamie Henderson, interviewed Tuesday on the plaza while visiting the park with a friend. “We did get a spot on the street, which is fantastic. But how are they going to handle 100,000 visitors?"
Good question for whoever stages whatever events finally become part of the park’s Centennial celebration, an undertaking that a nonprofit organizing committee has abandoned after spending nearly $3 million in public funds.
Said Lundin, a leading critic of that committee and the city’s efforts to re-establish Centennial planning under another nonprofit: "There are plenty of spaces in the park. The difficulty is convenient access and the tram system. That's a difficulty that's easy to fix, and very inexpensive … probably one or two more trams that'll cost $100,000 apiece. Two more drivers, you're good to go."
Meantime, at the west end of the park, repairs are still under way on Cabrillo Bridge, closed to vehicles for months now.
And it seems museums and other venues that dreaded the shutdown are coping rather nicely.
"What happened is, their paid admissions went up 25 percent,” said Lundin. “They've fallen in love with the fact it's pedestrian-only traffic at the west end of the park. People are circulating, having a good time. People now want to open a cafe and coffee shop in what used to be a street."
Kelly echoes growing sentiment to keep the bridge traffic-free permanently once upgrades are completed.
"It'd be a wonderful pedestrian space,” he said. “Be great for bicycles and it would bring -- allow us to bring -- the shuttle all around the plaza to drop people off at the Timken, at the Museum of Art, the Old Globe, the Museum of Man, go all the way across the bridge, drop people there, turn around and pick people up and do the same."
This, despite hopes that the Jacobs Plan could pave the way for a blockbuster celebration of the park's Centennial next year.
As for the much maligned Centennial organizing committee – Balboa Park Celebration, Inc. – its agreement with the city is the subject of a termination resolution on Tuesday’s Council agenda.
Lundin calls the action “premature,” citing a pending investigation of the group by the city auditor that may not conclude until late May or early June.