The San Diego City Planning Commission approved the Plaza de Panama project for Balboa Park with a unanimous vote on Thursday afternoon.
Planning leaders had been working on the proposal for two years.
Their message: traffic congestion in Balboa Park is increasing and will continually get worse - a fact that San Diego city leaders have discussed and attempted to solve for decades.
“Every plan for Balboa Park for the last 50 years has had a goal of returning the park to the people and nothing has been done. We now have a chance to accomplish this goal,” Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs told the panel.
Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee have committed to raise $25 million in private funding to help pay for the project designed to remove traffic from the heart of the park and restore the central area to pedestrian traffic.
Civil and traffic engineering consultant Rob Fitch went over data collected in January, March and August 2011 to illustrate the volume of cars and the points of the park where pedestrian and cars meet.
About 42 percent of the traffic comes in and out of the park through the Laurel Street Bridge he said.
He showed the committee a video clip as an example of the traffic congestion on an average weekend day. Cars could be seen waiting four or five deep to merge with traffic near the center fountain of the plaza.
On an average day about 1,000 cars come up from the south and circle in the Plaza de Panama only to return south and the Alcazar Parking Lot according to Fitch.
He added that there are more than 25 traffic signs in the current Plaza de Panama along with planters used as traffic dividers.
Public planner Mark Johnson of Civitas, Inc. showed a number of past proposals offered over the last 60 years trying to solve the issue of the growing number of vehicles entering the park from the west.
The Plaza de Panama design team has attended more than 200 outreach meetings, Johnson said. They have also hosted free and public “walk and talks” at Balboa Park to go over the proposal.
“It satisfies and balances the needs of the park today, it builds on the history and sets a tone for the future without precluding options,” he said.
Critics urged the panel to set higher standards for the park renovation before approving the proposal before them.
“The presentation focused on only the perceived benefits and ignored the downside,” said Elizabeth Morris with C3 Citizens Coordinate for Century 3.
She said her organization supports removing parking from the plaza but does not feel the bridge is necessary to do so.
Opponent Michael Kelly, of the Committee of One Hundred, said building a bypass bridge is the wrong solution. He urged the panel to close the Cabrillo Bridge to vehicle traffic and create a better shuttle system.
The San Diego Museum of Art is among the institutions most impacted by the project and so its Deputy Director of Operations, Reed Vickerman, addressed the committee in favor of the Plaza de Panama Project.
“Of the many alternatives, we believe the Jacobs plan is the one with the most support and practicality,” Vickerman said.
“Perfection is the enemy of progress,” he reminded committee members.
San Diego's City Council will debate the issue on July 9.