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As reported Monday in VOSD, seizing an opportunity, Frederick Frye, President and Board Chair, and Douglas Myers, CEO of the San Diego Zoological Society, have apparently opened the “bin,” pulled out a parking structure plan conceived with the preeminent desires of the zoo in mind, and have tossed it into the path of the Panama Plaza Centennial planning effort.

Almost a decade ago a zoo planning effort resulted in amendments to both the Balboa Park Master and Central Mesa Precise Plans (see pages 12-17). This occurred after a contentious year-long planning process followed by a review process undertaken in part by Civitas Urban Design, the same consultants currently working on the Plaza de Panama Centennial Plan. The zoo’s approved project would have resulted in a large multilevel parking structure under the area where Spanish Village is today.

Although expansion was a disclosed objective, the zoo’s primary stated reason was the absolute necessity for the health of their business operation of providing parking to a majority of their future patrons within a quarter mile’s walk of the main entrance. The zoo’s position then was based upon a transportation axiom reflecting the west’s historical dependence upon, and love affair with, cars.

To many of us then and many more certainly now, this is “old school” — an ideal that continues to place unproductive and undue focus on the auto as the singular primary mode of transportation. The progressive planning focus for the San Diego Zoo should have been then, and certainly should be now, on providing access to its patrons and patrons of the park in general, not being focused singularly upon parking.

Aside from any discussion of the relevance of this “axiom” now, one can simply apply this thinking to assess whether the zoo’s proposed project meets the goals and intent of the current proposal to return Plaza de Panama to a pedestrian environment. One needs only to ask, “Would the zoo’s proposed structure in the Spanish Village area provide better access to patrons of the Museum of Man, the Timken, the Mingei, the International Houses or the Globe, than the proposed expansion of Spreckel’s Organ Pavilion lot would?” Now, factor in any potential of achieving a longer-range planned goal of decreasing or removing parking altogether from Pan American Plaza.

The zoo’s original project relied upon attaining $95M in public funding to build the massive underground garage. Costs of ventilation were reduced by including a lengthy light and ventilation well along its eastern side, bounded by a pedestrian promenade along Park Boulevard. Autos were to enter and exit under this promenade onto Park Boulevard, with Zoo Place and Florida Canyon factoring in as well. The proposed capacity of the structure, (well more than a thousand vehicles), would bring more autos — not fewer — into the center of the park, a circumstance in direct conflict with the pedestrian focus of existing park plans, including the intent behind the Plaza de Panama Centennial proposal on the table now.

If the zoo’s garage existed today, air quality and sound impacts aside, it would be a much more daunting task to interject Multi-Modal Transport Systems into the mix on Park Boulevard. Currently services such as the Bus Rapid Transit and streetcar extensions on Park Boulevard are being proposed in SANDAG’s 2050 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).

The economic downturn of the past five years effectively shut down this project when people considering broader, longer range implications couldn’t, perhaps a small silver lining somewhere within the greater economic cloud over us.

Zoo planners have had about a decade now to reconsider and review their business model to determine how to best survive, hopefully to thrive, in their changing environment over the coming years. Hope would be that they have begun truly thinking of how to better integrate their mission into the core of the park by now.

Many ideas towards that end were left on the table in those discussions a decade ago. Bringing forward this plan again doesn’t bode well for that prospect. Rather, it’s possibly an indication the zoo is acting as they have historically, to their own benefit — just “old school” zoo. The Zoological Society still enjoys great standing in the larger Southern California region, hopefully this latest action will impart little delay or damage to the current Plaza de Panama Centennial effort underway.

Roger Lewis served as the Greater North Park Community Planning Committee’s representative on the Balboa Park Master Plan Amendment and was a member of both the Steering and Report Committees. He is currently an appointed member of the Mayor’s Parking Advisory Board and is an elected member of the North Park Redevelopment Project Area Committee.

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