The arguments in the controversy couldn’t be more bracing. Conflicting visions and sensibilities concerning the future of Balboa Park and Plaza de Panama. On one side are very powerful forces marshaled by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs. On the other side a coalition of citizens, historic preservationists, community planning groups, and architect/design professionals.
Last summer the Mayor called upon Jacobs to spearhead a plan to revitalize Balboa Park in anticipation of the 100 year anniversary of the 1915 Panama California Exposition. Jacobs agreed, and then followed up by putting together a design team dedicated to achieving a goal Sanders and Jacobs established. To remove cars and traffic from Plaza de Panama. To most people, that sounds great. But red flags went up as soon as details began to emerge.
So what’s wrong with the plan?
The first thing people notice when viewing the plans is the unattractive and clashing appendage ramp proposed to reroute automobile traffic from El Prado to behind the California Quadrant, Alcazar Garden, and finally the Organ Pavilion. The project also proposes a semi under ground parking structure directly behind the Organ Pavilion.
Architects, desingers, planners, historians and preservationists have produced a long list of concerns about, and objections to, what they regard as a jarring change to the visual and design integrity of the Cabrillo Bridge.
The historic view vs. the proposed view. A key objection is the incompatibility of the modern appendage bypass ramp with the Spanish Revival theme of the park.
In San Diego there is no collection of buildings and architectural elements more historic or iconic than El Prado. In 1977 a group of San Diegans, spearheaded by Committee of One Hundred, got El Prado placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That was not done to simply have a plaque made or for publicity. It was done because of the overlay of protective rules and guidelines designed to protect our nation’s historic treasures. The Plaza de Panama proponents point to their work as being both “restoration” and “rehabilitation.” Opponents vigorously contend the project violates all Secretary of Interior guidelines for either restoration or rehabilitation. Readers can familiarize themselves with some of those rules and guidelines by visiting the National Register website.
An overview http://www.nps.gov/hps/tps/standguide/overview/using_standguide.htm
Guidelines for Rehabilitation. http://www.nps.gov/hps/tps/standguide/rehab/rehab_standards.htm
Guidelines for Restoration http://www.nps.gov/hps/tps/standguide/restore/restore_standards.htm
As mentioned, a focus of contention in the project is the visual and architectural impact the bypass bridge has on the Cabrillo Bridge. Proponents of the project claim that the bypass in no way touches the bridge itself. However as you have read, the historic designation encompasses all elements of the bridge–the approaches and guard stations. Proponents refer to the southeast section of the Cabrillo Bridge approach wall merely as a “rail.” However notice in the above right photo, architecturally it is part of the continuous line architect Bertram Goodhue and the bridge architects used underscore the ceremonial procession from one hilltop, across a canyon, to a hilltop fortress. Interrupting that perfectly executed linear geometry with a curvilinear element degrades the bridge’s bold and pure architectural statement.
What some refer to as a mere “rail,” the National Register identifies as an approach wall. The proposed project will demolish between 70 – 80 feet of this one hundred year old approach wall.
Other architects, planners, and design professionals have called into question the wisdom, if not the safety, of creating a hard right and left hand turn at the bypass junction. According to some, traffic calming measures such as a host of warning and stop signs, besides adding visual clutter, may possibly lead to a traffic bottleneck here with traffic back ups across the bridge.
The City of San Diego’s own Development Services report of April 14th states: “staff has a concern regarding pedestrian/bicycle/vehicle conflict at the intersection of the bypass road and El Prado. Vehicles turning onto and off of the bypass road will conflict with pedestrians and cyclists continuing east and west along El Prado.” The above diagram helps illustrate. Below is an abridged version of the report which corroborates what preservationists, historians and SOHO have been saying all along.
The Mayors office issued a memo titled “Facts vs. Myths” which completely contradicts what City Staff states in the above report. As one example, The Mayor’s document says the project will have no impact on the Alcazar Garden. Furthermore the Mayor’s document claims that the Alcazar Garden lot will be regraded to a lower level than it is currently, even though the blueprints clearly indicate the lot will actually be filled and raised higher!
San Diegans have a history of taking what Mayors and other elected officials say with a healthy dose of skepticism. Now is not the time to stop questioning the accuracy of authority, especially now with an issue as important as San Diego’s crown jewel.
To illustrate what has been described above, here are the highly complicated and compounded traffic patterns proposed for the Alcazar lot. Here you see not only a busy two lane road carrying 7,000 cars a day across the unprotected open edge of Alcazar Garden, but you see drop off for passengers, ADA, freight and valet. All in a relatively tiny space. In addition to the possible bottleneck the bypass bridge itself may create, this complicated traffic pattern creates yet other bottleneck situation. All at the expense of Alcazar Garden’s tranquility and beauty.
Many people who’ve only taken a glance at the project, or seeing it for the first time, are often dazzled by the slick computer generated renditions of proposal. The presenters rely heavily upon these breath-taking areal views to sanitize and sell the plan. But the truth is they don’t want a closer inspection at ground level to show what the project really looks like. Unlike the glossy powerpoint presentations which are readily available on line, getting a look at a set of blueprints has proven difficult. Fortunately some with access to them have shared for inspection. The details aren’t pretty.
Here we see the entire footprint and swath of the project which will require massive grading and cuts in the central mesa’s landforms. It is a complicated bridge, road and parking structure project that will radically alter and transform the historic landscape.
Bear in mind the impact on the park for all the number years it will take to rip everything up, and then to build.
Typical looking retaining walls.
The system of retaining walls needed to support the massive infrastructure project in Balboa Park will both cut and fill natural canyon slopes. The blueprints indicate some of these walls will be as high as 60 feet. This is a radical change to the natural landforms and appearance of the park. But wait, there’s more.
An issue that resonates negatively with a large number of residents and visitors is the specter of bringing paid parking to Balboa Park. Neighborhoods bordering Balboa Park don’t want paid parking in the park because people will begin to park a lot more on neighborhood surface streets rather than pay.
The San Diego Zoo doesn’t want paid parking because they firmly believe more people will use the Zoo lot for free parking. As the Zoo has so aptly pointed out, bringing paid parking to one area of the park will likely lead to a domino effect of paid parking, beginning with the Zoo itself.
Although underground parking is an approved concept for behind the Organ Pavillion in the Balboa Park Master Plan, the current proposal fails to meet the goals of the Balboa Park Master Plan. That is to remove not only automobile parking from Plaza de Panama, but also from the Palisades as well. The San Diego Zoo has clearly pointed out this structure provides a net gain of only 272 parking spaces–100 of which will be reserved for valet–at a cost of $39 million dollars. That is a massive expense that does nothing to solve the park’s overall parking and traffic issues.
The justification for the destructive infrastructure project is that it will transform Plaza de Panama into a world class pedestrian experience. The problem with their plan for the Plaza is the same as their plan for the infrastructure project. It lacks the sensitivity and respect for history required for a National Register Historic Landmark. All phases of the project disregard Secretary of Interior Standards for the treatment of historic property. It introduces a glut of modern building materials and amenities that bear no relationship to the parks historic period. In what is supposed to be a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Panama California exposition, there is nothing about the project that pays homage or respect to either 1915 or 1935. It is all about 2015, and design concepts borrowed from other parts of the world. It has little to do with our history or using the designs, drawings, plans, photos, and documents handed down from El Prado’s original architects.
If it had been up to community will and the best efforts of planners and city staff, Balboa Park’s Master Plan would have been completed by now. It wasn’t an issue of lack of will or enthusiasm. The project was completely funded. But those funds were robbed by former Mayors and City Manager to fund their pet civic projects instead of Balboa Park. The process in developing the Balboa Park Master Plan was a model example of how public process is supposed to work. The community had a full seat at the table in deciding which elements of the project should stay or go. In contrast is the Sanders/Jacobs public process which amounts to a series of charrettes where participants are handed a box of crayons and told “ask any question you like.” Also contrasting is the spirit of both projects. The Balboa Park Master Plan was achieved through a dedication to negotiate and a willingness to compromise. In comparison there has only been small changes through public input to the Sanders/Jacobs plan.
The bypass from Cabrillo Bridge concept is not new. During the development of the Balboa Park Master Plan, designs were created very similar to the Sanders/Jacobs plan. But through the careful vetting and review process utilized then, the bypass idea was tossed out. It was rejected not only by the planners involved, but also City staff and the community. Their judgement was sound then. It still is.
The way to the future. The Precise Lite Plan, based on the already approved Central Mesa Precise Plan (illustrated above), achieves many of the goals set forward by Sanders and Jacobs. First it eliminates all automobile parking from Plaza de Panama. And as you can see, it restores most of the Plaza to pedestrian use. Because the Lite plan is relatively inexpensive, it does not require bonds or parking fees for its sustainability
An outline shows the redirected traffic pattern through the lower corner of the Plaza. It is through such a strategy that we can begin to address the issue of reducing the flow of automobiles into the park. It is an issue being addressed in other major urban parks including Central Park and Golden Gate Park where roadways are opened for pedestrian use at given times during the week. (Click on those links for more details on how traffic closures have worked in those parks).
The push is on in NYC to eliminate automobile traffic from Central Park altogether. Concurrently in San Francisco residents want to increase pedestrian access for Golden Gate Park. A study shows increasing pedestrian access increases park use–contrary to the fears of many institutions and stakeholders.
Why let New York City and San Francisco take the lead in progressive urban park planning? The issues of where people can park automobiles can be solved by collaborating with the San Diego Zoo and the studies they’ve already paid for to address the park’s overall parking and traffic issues. Begin a managed traffic strategy that allows for designated times to open the Cabrillo Bridge to pedestrian use. The benefits to Balboa Park and the greater San Diego Community will flourish. Allowing more people to use the park, get people out of their cars, improve the air quality all at the same time is a winning formula. It is both reversible and expandable. It saves money. And it preserves the historic and architectural integrity of Balboa Park. A win all around!