Mayor Jerry Sanders and billionaire philanthropist Irwin Jacobs mingled beside a podium at the edge of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama. Reporters stood nearby, sweating through their shirts, waiting for a press conference to start.
For months, Sanders and Jacobs have been the objects of public haranguing, on television and in print. By preservationists, by vocal park lovers, by people who just hate the plan they have for removing cars and parking from that plaza and turning it into a pedestrian square. Preservationists have even led walking tours, blueprints in hand.
So on Wednesday morning, the powerful duo was ready to fight back, publicly and in a big way.
They were unveiling their newest weapon. He was sitting in a huge chair a few feet away. All six feet and 11 inches of him.
Former NBA superstar Bill Walton.
“I love San Diego. I love Balboa Park. And this is a dream come true,” Walton said, when he finally approached the podium, towering over it.
Starting Sept. 17, Jacobs’ design team will host its own public walking tours in Balboa Park on the third Saturday of each month. The team invited Walton to kick them off, to use education and a little charm in the hope of endearing regular San Diegans to Jacobs’ plan, to win over hearts and minds, if you will.
Walton’s speech Wednesday was an inspired paean to the park. To his intimate lifelong relationship with it, from his childhood when his parents would walk him the few blocks from their home for evening dinners on the grass, to today, with his daily walks and bike rides. He lives just a block north.
How he would love to make the park better, he said. “I’m willing to do anything to make this dream come true,” which is why he has joined Jacobs’ public outreach team and offered to volunteer however he’s needed.
“This plan, like Irwin Jacobs and Mayor Sanders,” he concluded, “is better than perfect.”
Then he was ready to begin his tour.
He stepped into the plaza and paused in front of its fountain. Reporters gathered around.
“This area would be restored,” he began, signaling to the plaza behind him, where every parking spot was taken. But he was interrupted by Kristen Byrne, a member of Jacobs’ team.
“We should probably move out of the way,” she said. The crowd was blocking the traffic route into the plaza. A car was waiting patiently to get in.
Everyone shifted to the side, and Walton went on.
When all those cars are gone, Walton said, the plaza will feature fountains and water spouts.
“What could be better than young children running through the water spouts, chasing their dreams?” he asked.
He walked on, toward the Prado, which today routes traffic into the plaza. It, too, would be free of cars under Jacobs’ plan.
“As we stand here in the West Prado, visualizing-” he noticed a tour bus coming in his direction, a perfect opportunity to make his point, “-instead of gigantic buses going by.”
As it lumbered by, its engine roaring, he cupped his hand to his ear. “What? What’d you say?” he asked, grinning.
He walked on to the Plaza de California, the courtyard in front of the Museum of Man that funnels cars into the Prado on their way to the Plaza de Panama. It, too, would be transformed for pedestrians.
“We’re in front of the Museum of Man, which is the study of who we are,” he said. “But more important than who we are, is where we’re going.”
Just imagine, he implored, a pedestrian plaza where visitors could linger in front of the converted church building that today houses that museum, without fear of bodily harm, “and listen to the bells ringing the chimes of freedom.” He gestured to the bell tower.
“I might also add,” Jacobs interjected, standing nearby, “that the Museum of Man is a great museum.”
And it could really benefit from a more accessible courtyard out front, he said.
The crew moved on, to the last stop on the tour, at the edge of the Cabrillo Bridge where a new bypass bridge would make it all possible by rerouting traffic before cars ever enter the park.
But most of the reporters had left by that point. Members of Sanders’ and Jacobs’ team were the only ones left. It was scorching hot.
Walton asked for questions, but no one had any.
So everyone walked back toward the plaza. Mayor Sanders and his driver walked to their black SUV, got in and drove off. They had parked in the Plaza de Panama.
Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of voiceofsandiego.org.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528.
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