Plaza de Panama Fate Still Uncertain One Month After Lawsuit

The future of Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama remains, in many ways, as uncertain as it did just after a San Diego Superior Court judge reached a “reluctant conclusion” last month that the city’s plan to make the space more pedestrian-friendly violated its own municipal code. 

With less than 22 months to go before all eyes turn to the historic space for Balboa Park's centennial bash, the city remains divided over how to address the park’s longstanding traffic conundrum. Some see hope for a quick solution that would clear some cars from the park’s cultural center, while others continue to lament the death of a more sweeping plan that would have transformed the space for generations.

“There are no other proposals that have been put forward that take both parking and traffic off of the plaza and include financial backing,” said Carol Chang, president of the Balboa Park Conservancy Board, which supported the project that recently met its end in court.

Since the 1,200-acre park first opened in 1915 for an international expo aimed at attracting business to the city from the newly opened Panama Canal, traffic has ballooned into an increasingly bad headache. As the city’s population grew and cars became more abundant, the park’s Spanish-style plazas that house some of the city’s most prominent museums have become crammed with drivers, vying for too few parking spaces. While a string of creative thinkers have drawn up plans to tackle the problem over the last five decades, no plan had come as close to reality as the one that recently fell apart.

The so-called Jacobs plan, named for Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, the project’s chief financial backer, was no doubt one of the most ambitious ever proposed. The $45 million plan called for the construction of a bridge that would direct drivers away from the Plaza de Panama and into an underground paid parking garage. The move would have given drivers access to hundreds more parking spaces, and by locating the spaces below ground, it would have returned more than six acres of land to pedestrians. 

Michael Hager, the president and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum, has worked in the park for more than 20 years. He called the proposal a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve Balboa Park without requiring taxpayer funding."

Opponents objected to idea of paid parking in a public space and argued that the park, which holds the distinguished title of National Historic Landmark, should not be tampered with so heavily.

Still, over the course of two years, Jacobs’ plan made it through an environmental review process, a public hearing and a city council vote (6-1). Workers were set to break ground on it last fall, when opponents filed a lawsuit. 

One month ago today, Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor effectively brought the fate of the park back to square one with an ominously worded ruling. 

“The loss of the generous funding offered by [Jacobs’ Plaza de Panama Committee] will be a sad day for San Diego, because no other funding source has been identified, and the City's own perilous (and partially self-inflicted) financial problems have been well documented and likely preclude public funding of any significant alternative project," Taylor wrote.

Since then, talk of reviving old plans and considering new proposals have buzzed about. But with all sides as polarized as they had been throughout the recent legal battle, it’s unclear whether any plan will receive enough support to move off paper.

“People’s passions run high,” said city council President Todd Gloria, who said he still believes the nixed plan was a “worthy project with more positives than negatives.”

Gloria said he is exploring legal options to reclaim the Plaza de Panama for pedestrians and is “100 percent committed” to achieving that goal by 2015. Asked if he would have done anything differently while the Jacobs’ plan was still on the table, he first replied, “not with the facts as they presented themselves.” But after mulling it some more, he said that he would have pushed to waive the municipal code, which tripped the city up in court.

The judge ruled that in order to make any changes to the park—a historic resource—the city had to prove that failing to move ahead with the project would result in "economic hardship." According to the city's municipal code, that means the city would have to prove that there was "no reasonable beneficial use" to the property in question, and that the city would therefore suffer if the project was not completed.

The judge ruled Jacobs’ project didn't meet that threshold, moving the process back to square one.

Jacobs also said he regretted that the matter of the municipal code was not "dealt with conclusively" at the time the project was approved.

Looking back, Bruce Coons, the executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, which filed and won its suit against the city, laments how the dispute was often portrayed as the story of a community organization pitted against a philanthropist. But he remains pleased with the legal outcome.

"The lawsuit played out exactly as we informed [the city council] and the Plaza de Panama team all along that it would," Coons wrote in an email. "We had hoped to prevent the needless spending of city funds, but they never considered our legal advice."

In the wake of the ruling, Mayor Bob Filner has indicated he has another plan up his sleeve. Though the details have not yet been unveiled, Filner hinted at his plans to change the behavior of drivers around the park at a meeting with local reporters on Feb. 27. Even if the Centennial wasn’t coming, the traffic patterns have to change he said. “It will be more sophisticated than cones,” Filner said. “Basically it’s a low-tech way you ban the parking in the Plaza de Panama.”

The Union Tribune reported last week that Filner’s proposal, financed with a portion of the city’s projected budget surplus, would rid cars from the plaza at a cost of $500,000.

Coons also hopes to keep a proposal his organization had completed in the mix, though he added that he is “not married to it, as there are lots of good ideas that we would likely support as well.”

SOHO’s so-called “precise plan” would paint over parking spots in the Plaza de Panama, close the Cabrillo Bridge (which leads into the plaza) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and encourage park-goers to use Presidents Way as the main entry street for the park. (See the full plan and other SOHO alternatives here.)

And then there are other plans popping up, like the Stepner-Blackson plan drawn up by Howard Blackson, Principal and Director of Planning at PlaceMakers, an urban design firm, and Michael Stepner, professor at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. 

“I’m really confident we’ll get some movement on this,” said Stepner, who has shown the plan to the mayor. 

Their plan, not too different from SOHO’s precise plan, calls for the removal of 56 parking spaces and ramped up tram and bus service that will shuttle people to and from other parking areas—something Blackson said he can do with $10,000 in a day.

Even without a permanent solution, the plaza will be temporarily shut down to traffic, as it often is for civic events, when the city celebrates Balboa Park’s 100th anniversary with a Centennial in 2015. Stepner thinks the temporary closures may show the public that lighter-touch solutions can do the trick. “We’ll move forward with something,” he said. “But I’m an optimist.” 

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