Plaza de Panama Remake Back in Civic Limelight

Six years after it was first unveiled, a plan to restore the heart of Balboa Park is getting a new lease on life.

The Plaza de Panama project took a long detour through the courts.

Where the story had left off -- before a “born-again” chapter began to unfold on Thursday -- was in September, 2015, when an appellate ruling in favor of the project was left standing by the California Supreme Court.

There was no immediate impetus to reboot it, but now it's become a civic priority again.

The idea was to take traffic out of the center of the park on a bypass bridge leading to an 800-space, paid-parking structure, topped by parkland.

While environmentalists and historic preservationists fought it through city hall and filed legal challenges, dozens of public parking spaces that drivers jockeyed for were removed -- which opened up more of the plaza to pedestrians and cyclists.

The pay-as-you go parkade is a concept that tourists, for the most part, generally accepted when surveyed by NBC 7 over the years.

But locals put up a ruckus, and the idea worried many of the park's museums and tenant organizations that attendance and participation would drop off.

“This is a controversial project; it’s always been a controversial project,” says Lisa Halverstadt, who write extensively on Balboa Park issues for Voice of San Diego. “It’s going to have to go back to the City Council for the financing aspect.”

The plan carried an original pricetag of $45 million -- to be met by donations from Qualcomm billionaire Irwin Jacobs and other philanthropists.

He, they and city leaders are now on board with getting things back together again, along with an alliance of park “stakeholders”.

It's not clear to what extent years of inflation might have increased costs.

“So really, folks are going back to the drawing board on the financing side looking to see what it's going to cost, and they're going to have to raise some money,” Halverstadt said in an interview Thursday.

“The city is going to be putting some dollars in, of course … they're still going to have the paid parking to help bankroll this project."

Although critics claim a bond issue to underwrite the parking structure would require a public vote, attorneys for the project’s backers argue otherwise – noting that no city general funds would be involved.

Contact Us