Leaders of the San Diego Zoological Society have written a letter to Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs sharply criticizing their vision to remake the center of the park and return the Plaza de Panama to pedestrian use.

It doesn’t solve the real problem in the park, they say: That there’s not enough parking.

“Finite parking in Balboa Park has placed a de facto cap on attendance that threatens the financial health and wellbeing of all park institutions,” wrote Zoo President Frederick A. Frye and CEO Douglas G. Myers.

If it were implemented, Jacobs and Sanders’ plan would lead to construction of a parking garage near the Organ Pavilion south of the Plaza de Panama, the main opening to Balboa Park’s central attractions. The plaza would be revitalized into a gathering spot and Spanish-style public space.

Though the Zoo is not necessarily part of the area, its leaders are envious of the investment.

“We question the wisdom of spending $39 million for a net gain of only 272 parking spaces in a location that does not solve the park’s overall parking problem,” they wrote.

To be clear, the $39 million plan isn’t meant to solve a parking problem. It’s meant to solve a public-space problem and, at the same time, assuage some of the concerns about what that would do to parking.

Though Frye and Myers said they were “thrilled” with the discussions taking place, they said the mayor and Jacobs’ vision would actually cost more like $46 million and that city leaders should consider another alternative — one that would add 1,850 parking spots and cost $106 million.

The Frye and Myers plan would close the parking lots around the Zoo and replace them with a 2,500-space underground garage, which they say would mean 14 additional acres could be turned back into public space.

Jacobs’ plan has led to the formation of a nonprofit organization dedicated to working on the plan and remaking the Plaza de Panama. Jacobs (who is a major supporter of VOSD) told me he’d stick with the effort as long as no major stakeholder in the park told him “this makes no sense and I don’t want to support this.”

When I talked to him, he’d only gotten mostly signs of support from those stakeholders.

But the letter from the Zoo also seems to be speaking on behalf of other major institutions in the park, including the Prado Restaurant, who are worried about “access issues” for deliveries and patrons.

“These groups are the physical heart of Balboa Park and the redesign of the Plaza that fails to ensure and enhance their future would harm the Park as a whole,” the letter says.

The Zoo’s concerns are obviously about its own financial future. But there is no bigger institution in the park and it will take quite a bit of leadership in coming months to either effectively ignore those concerns or incorporate them into the vision the public’s been offered about a true gathering spot in the park’s heart.

The alternative, to let it sit as a stalemate for few more decades, isn’t attractive to anyone.

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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