New Battle in Balboa Park Project: Historic Designation

In a clash of memos, planners and opponents tackle protecting the park's historic significance


Update: The National Parks Service sent a letter May 7 to city leaders threatening that approved changes to Balboa Park could result in the loss of is National Historic Landmark status. Read updated story here

The $40 million plan to take traffic out of the heart of Balboa Park has a new battlefront: the park's historic designation.

Planners suggest the proposed Plaza de Panama project would improve pedestrian and disabled access to San Diego's most popular public space as well as remove cars from the heart of the park and increase the number of parking spaces.

However, the local preservation group, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), filed suit against the proposal arguing it will destroy the park's entrance and its iconic Cabrillo Bridge.

See Plaza de Panama Plan Images

Earlier this week SOHO released a letter from the Obama administration's head of historic preservation claiming the proposed plan “renders the site unable to convey its original design intent.”

In the letter to the National Parks Service, State Historic Preservation Officer Milford Wayne Donaldson lists what he feels are inappropriate alterations.

The Plaza de Panama Committee fired back Wednesday, claiming Donaldson's email contained many exaggerations and misinformation and questioned if the SHPO had in fact read the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the project.

Among them, Donaldson questions the placement of new buildings and retaining walls, the need to re-grade some land, the demolition of 82 feet of the Cabrillo Bridge and the construction of an underground parking garage which "abuts directly against the historic Speckles [sic] Organ Pavilion."

“Balboa Park may no longer be eligible for listing as a National Historic Landmark District,” Donaldson wrote. “All privileges conveyed by the NHLD including protection, priorities for funding etc. may not be available.”

Preservation Consultant David Marshall tackles the concerns one at a time.

"Only a section of the Cabrillo Bridge railing is proposed to be removed, not an actual section of the bridge" Marshall wrote in a memo released Wednesday.

The proposed underground parking will be 85 feet away from the Organ Pavilion, Marshall points out, and the re-grading land will be needed to comply with American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

Planners are working with a former park arborist to keep historially significant trees and any buildings planned were "designed using references to historic expo structures," Marshall wrote referrring to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Marshall said the Office of Historic Preservation has not contacted the design team as of Feb. 8 to discuss their concerns.

In the DEIR, the city offered 13 alternative traffic plans. Read the report here

The plan faces a four-step approval process ending with the City Council in July.

Public review continues through March 9.

The project will rely exclusively on private donations and bonds. So far, the price tag is roughly $40 million.

Proponents hope to complete the renovation in time for the park's 2015 centennial celebration.

Read related stories:
Lawsuit Slows Balboa Park Renovations
Balboa Park Bridge Proposal Unveiled
SD Fact Check: Balboa Park(ing)

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