As someone who has worked in Balboa Park for the past 21 years and cares deeply about its future, I wanted to respond to your recent article about the latest plan for Balboa Park that is being promoted by SOHO (“In Final Weeks, Opponents Float New Balboa Park Plan”). I have participated in numerous planning processes to address parking, circulation and improvements to Balboa Park. Nearly all of the plans for Balboa Park developed over the past 20 years are sitting on a shelf awaiting implementation because of a few vocal opponents and lack of funding.
We are now presented with another plan for the park — the Plaza de Panama project put forth by Mayor Jerry Sanders, Dr. Irwin Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee. This project has been under review for the better part of two years, and I have actively participated in this process, as well. After careful study, The San Diego Natural History Museum, as well as the majority of institutions in Balboa Park and the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, whole-heartedly support the Plaza de Panama project and its plan to reclaim Balboa Park for pedestrians. It is an exceptional project that strikes a proper balance by removing traffic from the heart of Balboa Park without harming public access or the Park’s cultural institutions. And with the generous financial help of the Plaza de Panama Committee, it is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve Balboa Park without requiring taxpayer funding.
Yet this exciting opportunity has been marred by the opposition of a small group of people who would derail any public improvement that doesn’t meet its narrow definition of purity.
And that’s our concern — if obstructionists can stop this project, it will be decades before another public-spirited group will invest time and money trying to make real and meaningful Balboa Park improvements.
The Plaza de Panama project has involved two years of detailed planning, hundreds of public meetings, and an environmental impact report which studied 21 alternatives. The latest plan being pushed by SOHO — the Bill Lewis plan — is now being touted by opponents of the Plaza de Panama project as the answer to Balboa Park’s problems. It was put forward as a possibility only within the last few months and has not been subject to any serious review. It has no funding, would carve up sensitive and very visible hillsides, would require 30- to 60-foot-high very visible retaining walls, put a road between the columns of the historic Cabrillo Bridge, put a road directly behind the Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theater outdoor stage and would likely have far more environmental impact than the current Plaza de Panama plan. It is ironic that historic preservationists have supported a plan that has at least the same, if not more, historic impact on the park than the Plaza de Panama project which they have fought so hard to derail. The Bill Lewis plan is simply a tactic to delay, and ultimately defeat, the carefully crafted Plaza de Panama plan.
Together, the institutions that support this plan represent 3,000 employees, 7,000 volunteers, 500 trustees and serve 6.5 million visitors and members annually. The Plaza de Panama Project will greatly improve parking and circulation and restore more than six acres of roadways and parking lots to pedestrian use giving priority to the visitor experience. I think I speak for all of them when I say that we hope the City Council rejects the attempts of the opposition to delay the process with the Lewis Plan and moves forward with the Plaza de Panama project.
Michael Hager is the president and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum.
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