The battle over the ultimate fate of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama is still raging. Here’s one revealing exchange from our comments section:

  • Amy Roth: “What about filling up the empty space in the central plaza that now looks so bleak? Weren’t we going to have umbrella tables and chairs installed there?”
  • Eric Spoerner: “As I recall, the city will be observing how visitors actually behave in the space before they place furniture, etc.”
  • Roth: “How are people supposed to behave? There’s nothing to do there but walk away, or through it to get to the other side. Look what New York has done in Times Square and Herald Square — all those chairs and tables brought those previously traffic-filled logjams to vivid pedestrian life!”
  • Spoerner: “I don’t disagree with you that the furniture will make it umpteen times better, but to be fair I’ve seen people congregating, kids playing/running, etc., here every time that I’ve visited since the fix was made.”
  • Roth: “That’s great, but let’s get with the furniture! Then kids can be playing and their parents can be sitting and having a drink and reading their smartphones. It could be Starbucks Central of San Diego!!”

How do you want to see the plaza used? Let us know in the comments.

Comments have been lightly edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us here

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    Written by Dagny Salas

    Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

    66 comments
    Peter Schrock
    Peter Schrock

    What is it about California that makes us allergic to open space? Maybe we should take a closer look at the Piazza San Marcos in Venice, the Zócalo in Mexico City, or (dare I say it) Red Square in Moscow for inspiration. All of these are powerful cultural landmarks made up of mostly empty space.

    Peter Schrock
    Peter Schrock subscribermember

    What is it about California that makes us allergic to open space? Maybe we should take a closer look at the Piazza San Marcos in Venice, the Zócalo in Mexico City, or (dare I say it) Red Square in Moscow for inspiration. All of these are powerful cultural landmarks made up of mostly empty space.

    Felix Tinkov
    Felix Tinkov

    These are all great ideas. The key for me would be to ensure that nothing permanently be placed in the view corridor along the length of El Prado.

    Felix Tinkov
    Felix Tinkov subscribermember

    These are all great ideas. The key for me would be to ensure that nothing permanently be placed in the view corridor along the length of El Prado.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Forgot to include Parks Dept. maintenance staff limitations because of deep funding cuts.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Because grass requires a lot of water and maintenance, and an open plaza can easily be enjoyed without grass. Not everyone thinks grass should be everywhere & especially not in a region that has water availability issues (we're effectively a desert even here near the coast).

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    The ferry piers in Tiburon, California comes to mind. Every weekend, they put out tables and a local restaurant serves people breakfast on the pier. It's very popular with the locals and people come on the ferry from all over the bay area to eat there. The key would be for the city to select the right restaurant operator to team up with a local coffee shop operator to activate the plaza. this option should be looked at as part of city's staff's own study of the space.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    The ferry piers in Tiburon, California comes to mind. Every weekend, they put out tables and a local restaurant serves people breakfast on the pier. It's very popular with the locals and people come on the ferry from all over the bay area to eat there. The key would be for the city to select the right restaurant operator to team up with a local coffee shop operator to activate the plaza. this option should be looked at as part of city's staff's own study of the space.

    William Hamilton
    William Hamilton

    How about hosting an international competition to design the hardscape for the plaza? Seems a lot of firms would be all over that!

    William Hamilton
    William Hamilton subscriber

    How about hosting an international competition to design the hardscape for the plaza? Seems a lot of firms would be all over that!

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    NYC's Bryant Park would be a good model... many small tables with chairs where people can work, soak up the sun or chat, plus a few food vendors. As for Starbucks: they have air conditioning, reliable wi-fi and (sometimes) comfy chairs. It's hard to find an independent coffeehouse with all three, at least in SD. I've been to almost all of them (such is the fate of a work-at-home type) and can think of one that meets all those criteria.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    NYC's Bryant Park would be a good model... many small tables with chairs where people can work, soak up the sun or chat, plus a few food vendors. As for Starbucks: they have air conditioning, reliable wi-fi and (sometimes) comfy chairs. It's hard to find an independent coffeehouse with all three, at least in SD. I've been to almost all of them (such is the fate of a work-at-home type) and can think of one that meets all those criteria.

    amy roth
    amy roth

    Obviously I didn't mean "Starbucks" literally! I meant it as a metaphor for a comfy home-away-from home-like setting where you could have a snack or drink, read a book or newspaper or electronic device, meet friends even! Any of the ideas that have been submitted would be terrific in my opinion

    amy roth
    amy roth subscribermember

    Obviously I didn't mean "Starbucks" literally! I meant it as a metaphor for a comfy home-away-from home-like setting where you could have a snack or drink, read a book or newspaper or electronic device, meet friends even! Any of the ideas that have been submitted would be terrific in my opinion

    Carol Simpson
    Carol Simpson

    Why is there a need for food trucks and coffee carts? There is a café already in the Sculpture Garden. There's tea at the Japanese Tea Pavilion.

    Carol Simpson
    Carol Simpson subscribermember

    Why is there a need for food trucks and coffee carts? There is a café already in the Sculpture Garden. There's tea at the Japanese Tea Pavilion.

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos

    Yes, people will sit in many places with amenities, but it's a matter of practicality. Tearing down a library doesn't come anywhere close to (or make as much sense as) paving over a relatively small parking lot in the middle of the park. Not every plaza needs to be downtown (although I'm glad that downtown is getting one at Horton Plaza). One of the things I enjoy about Italy is that there are plazas everywhere and they all have a different feel. This new plaza doesn't need to be the one space that embodies all of San Diego, but it certainly adds an improvement to Balboa Park. I can't imagine that in a couple years, people will walk out of the Museum of Art and say, " You know, it's nice to have all these people here, but this space should really be turned into a parking lot."

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    They are also in the middle of population centers. Balboa Park is not the downtown area of a urban core with millions of residents. Also, last time I was in venice the piazza was full of tables for the restaurants there, not all that open. The only real change in Balboa is it went from a full parking lot (on weekends anyway) to an empty one.

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    Yes, people will sit in many places with amenities, but it's a matter of practicality. Tearing down a library doesn't come anywhere close to (or make as much sense as) paving over a relatively small parking lot in the middle of the park. Not every plaza needs to be downtown (although I'm glad that downtown is getting one at Horton Plaza). One of the things I enjoy about Italy is that there are plazas everywhere and they all have a different feel. This new plaza doesn't need to be the one space that embodies all of San Diego, but it certainly adds an improvement to Balboa Park. I can't imagine that in a couple years, people will walk out of the Museum of Art and say, " You know, it's nice to have all these people here, but this space should really be turned into a parking lot."

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    They are also in the middle of population centers. Balboa Park is not the downtown area of a urban core with millions of residents. Also, last time I was in venice the piazza was full of tables for the restaurants there, not all that open. The only real change in Balboa is it went from a full parking lot (on weekends anyway) to an empty one.

    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase

    There are also now "kinetic pavers" - that generate electricity when walked on! They were demo-ed at the London Olympics and this is the kind of installation that is worthy of a Centennial celebration!

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson

    Why not create something truly unique to San Diego? Hardscape materials now exist that clean the air when exposed to sunlight, and are self-cleaning. Use those materials to create a "picture" when seen from the air and patterns on the ground. Inscribe on those pavers "Dreams" in pictographs or words. Install a QR code and number that links to a database holding information about the author of the Dream and additional information. Make Balboa Park's Plazas and Walkways one big canvas for the Public. If the pavers are made of interlocking design, "locked" to a grid underneath, and allow for water to percolate between them, the "picture" created by the colored pavers could be changed to match an annual theme for the Park. How to pay for it? "Donations for A Dream" campaign. "Hardscape" on a grid that has electrical, water, and sewage connections running underneath that could be accessed as necessary for events and activities. Balboa Park was built as a "City of Dreams" in 1915. Why not truly make it one? Use of a grid underneath the paving system would allow for removable growing sections as part of the changing landscape of Dreams.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink

    Why would we spend money doing that when we have numerous excellent landscape designers in San Diego *including* Vicki Estrada who already has a very good plan based on her work doing the Balboa Park Master Plan (1989) and Central Mesa Precise Plan (1992).

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink

    Why would we spend money doing that when we have numerous excellent landscape designers in San Diego *including* Vicki Estrada who already has a very good plan based on her work doing the Balboa Park Master Plan (1989) and Central Mesa Precise Plan (1992).

    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase subscriber

    There are also now "kinetic pavers" - that generate electricity when walked on! They were demo-ed at the London Olympics and this is the kind of installation that is worthy of a Centennial celebration!

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    Why not create something truly unique to San Diego? Hardscape materials now exist that clean the air when exposed to sunlight, and are self-cleaning. Use those materials to create a "picture" when seen from the air and patterns on the ground. Inscribe on those pavers "Dreams" in pictographs or words. Install a QR code and number that links to a database holding information about the author of the Dream and additional information. Make Balboa Park's Plazas and Walkways one big canvas for the Public. If the pavers are made of interlocking design, "locked" to a grid underneath, and allow for water to percolate between them, the "picture" created by the colored pavers could be changed to match an annual theme for the Park. How to pay for it? "Donations for A Dream" campaign. "Hardscape" on a grid that has electrical, water, and sewage connections running underneath that could be accessed as necessary for events and activities. Balboa Park was built as a "City of Dreams" in 1915. Why not truly make it one? Use of a grid underneath the paving system would allow for removable growing sections as part of the changing landscape of Dreams.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Why would we spend money doing that when we have numerous excellent landscape designers in San Diego *including* Vicki Estrada who already has a very good plan based on her work doing the Balboa Park Master Plan (1989) and Central Mesa Precise Plan (1992).

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Why would we spend money doing that when we have numerous excellent landscape designers in San Diego *including* Vicki Estrada who already has a very good plan based on her work doing the Balboa Park Master Plan (1989) and Central Mesa Precise Plan (1992).

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    It is a bit barren, but tables, chairs and umbrellas (and food/drink) will bring people in. I'd love to sit there and work on my laptop.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink

    I'm guessing that you haven't yet been to the "new" Plaza de Panama which has people enjoying it even without the amenities under discussion. There's also the reality that it's not only those who live walking distance from the Plaza but visitors from all over including national and international tourists.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    Bryant Park? It is next to the New York Public Library and has 36,109 population in block groups that intersect within a .5 mile trade area, while plaza Panama has 2508 pop with the same parameter. It's a barren area, only seeing traffic during events. It's not a good comparison.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    It is a bit barren, but tables, chairs and umbrellas (and food/drink) will bring people in. I'd love to sit there and work on my laptop.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    I'm guessing that you haven't yet been to the "new" Plaza de Panama which has people enjoying it even without the amenities under discussion. There's also the reality that it's not only those who live walking distance from the Plaza but visitors from all over including national and international tourists.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    Bryant Park? It is next to the New York Public Library and has 36,109 population in block groups that intersect within a .5 mile trade area, while plaza Panama has 2508 pop with the same parameter. It's a barren area, only seeing traffic during events. It's not a good comparison.

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos

    I definitely like the idea of having all of those things in the plaza. What about a farmer's market? Outdoor movie nights? Live music? There is so much potential!

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    I definitely like the idea of having all of those things in the plaza. What about a farmer's market? Outdoor movie nights? Live music? There is so much potential!

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    Tea Pavilion doesn't have a wide selection, and it's too much to expect people to carry trays or armfuls of food over to the plaza by the art museum. Food trucks are a great idea, especially since there's car access.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason

    Last time I looked at the Sculpture Garden menu, nothing really jumped out and we ate outside the park. Food trucks would offer a wider (and changing) variety of food and prices.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    Tea Pavilion doesn't have a wide selection, and it's too much to expect people to carry trays or armfuls of food over to the plaza by the art museum. Food trucks are a great idea, especially since there's car access.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    Last time I looked at the Sculpture Garden menu, nothing really jumped out and we ate outside the park. Food trucks would offer a wider (and changing) variety of food and prices.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    "Adding an improvement" isn't sufficient to take action. Every square ince of our city can be improved, but it has to make sense to do so. Spending money on chairs, tables, landscaping or anything else when the city is crumbling has to be weighed carefully, and I don't believe a case has been made that it makes sense to further develop the plaza. Also I can certainly see people saying as they hoof it from their remote parking "Boy, look at that empty paved area, it would be nice if we could park there"

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    Sure Oscar, but the same could be said for any number of places in the city. Maybe tear down the old library and put chairs there, put them on the lajolla poop rocks (or in the nearby park), a table for every bus stop, etc... People will sit where there are people and seats, and if they are put in the plaza someone will sit on them, but is the empty parking lot the best place, even in the Park itself? There are lots of places I see more people, on the lawns further east and near the zoo parking by the kiddy train for instance. A Plaza belongs downtown in my mind, like the examples of world class plaza's given here. An empty paved area in the park isn't all that inviting a sitting area without grass and trees when they are so close.

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos

    This was a good change. While Balboa Park is not in the middle of a dense neighborhood, people turn out in droves for special events (December Nights, Earth Day, etc.). Design the plaza with furniture, music/performance spaces, cultural events, more food options, and people will go out of their way to be in the plaza, while those in the park already will stay. Who wouldn't want to sit in a nicely lit plaza and listen to music on a warm summer evening after a play at the Old Globe or a visit to the San Diego Zoo?

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    "Adding an improvement" isn't sufficient to take action. Every square ince of our city can be improved, but it has to make sense to do so. Spending money on chairs, tables, landscaping or anything else when the city is crumbling has to be weighed carefully, and I don't believe a case has been made that it makes sense to further develop the plaza. Also I can certainly see people saying as they hoof it from their remote parking "Boy, look at that empty paved area, it would be nice if we could park there"

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    Sure Oscar, but the same could be said for any number of places in the city. Maybe tear down the old library and put chairs there, put them on the lajolla poop rocks (or in the nearby park), a table for every bus stop, etc... People will sit where there are people and seats, and if they are put in the plaza someone will sit on them, but is the empty parking lot the best place, even in the Park itself? There are lots of places I see more people, on the lawns further east and near the zoo parking by the kiddy train for instance. A Plaza belongs downtown in my mind, like the examples of world class plaza's given here. An empty paved area in the park isn't all that inviting a sitting area without grass and trees when they are so close.

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    This was a good change. While Balboa Park is not in the middle of a dense neighborhood, people turn out in droves for special events (December Nights, Earth Day, etc.). Design the plaza with furniture, music/performance spaces, cultural events, more food options, and people will go out of their way to be in the plaza, while those in the park already will stay. Who wouldn't want to sit in a nicely lit plaza and listen to music on a warm summer evening after a play at the Old Globe or a visit to the San Diego Zoo?

    William Hamilton
    William Hamilton

    "International" includes San Diego and it doesn't have to cost a lot. For such an incredible, literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I think the more the merrier.

    William Hamilton
    William Hamilton subscriber

    "International" includes San Diego and it doesn't have to cost a lot. For such an incredible, literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I think the more the merrier.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    Sorry, but it is hardly a hub of activity, nor is the Plaza itself drawing more crowds that I can see. The point is that it isn't really conducive to be a public gathering place, there is no draw for people to go to the Plaza itself, it's inconveniently located in and of itself. It might draw people who otherwise would have met somewhere else nearby in the park, but it isn't going to be a successful bistro nor is it an additional draw. It just lacks the foot traffic, unlike places like Bryant Park that have a lot of people. Chairs and tables? they'd get better use at a beach or near the Embarcadero Midway area. The bums will like furniture though.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    Sorry, but it is hardly a hub of activity, nor is the Plaza itself drawing more crowds that I can see. The point is that it isn't really conducive to be a public gathering place, there is no draw for people to go to the Plaza itself, it's inconveniently located in and of itself. It might draw people who otherwise would have met somewhere else nearby in the park, but it isn't going to be a successful bistro nor is it an additional draw. It just lacks the foot traffic, unlike places like Bryant Park that have a lot of people. Chairs and tables? they'd get better use at a beach or near the Embarcadero Midway area. The bums will like furniture though.

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