The Morning Report
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Thursday, I called City Councilman Todd Gloria.
I wanted to know what happened. Last summer, Gloria had stood with Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs to unveil Jacobs’ vision for remaking Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama. Months earlier, the mayor had asked Jacobs to donate to support what had been the plan to clear cars from the plaza.
Jacobs had taken that idea and “dared us to dream bigger,” Gloria told me then. Jacobs envisioned a much broader clearing of cars from the plaza by redirecting traffic around it completely. But instead of just closing the park to traffic, his plan preserved automobile access with a new parking garage.
Here’s a great animation of the vision. And here’s how Gloria described it when they unveiled the plan:
“The vision to wrestle this space away from automobiles and give it back to the people has been long held by park advocates. It has been a goal of every long-range plan envisioned for the park.
“Today’s announcement gives us a glimpse into the vibrant future of Balboa Park. With a champion like Dr. Jacobs, I am confident that the long-held dream for the reclamation of the Plaza de Panama will be achieved.”
By Wednesday, though, 10 months later, Gloria was less enamored.
“I have very strong concerns about this project as it’s currently detailed,” he told his council colleagues at the city’s Rules Committee before they decided not to endorse the project and a memorandum of understanding Jacobs said was necessary before he and other donors would start writing checks.
Jacobs immediately suspended his efforts. The Plaza de Panama committee he set up would stand down. The project wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t alive either.
The Union-Tribune didn’t mess around with its assessment. The lack of support from Gloria and colleagues, the paper wrote, was a “dagger in the heart of philanthropy.” The paper tied it into the broader effort going on to save the park after the mayor admitted the city could not take care of it.
At just the moment when City Hall is trying to build a new financial model based on philanthropy to assure a sparkling future for San Diego’s priceless gem, Balboa Park, the City Council Rules Committee this week essentially turned its back on $25 million in philanthropy for the park. This cannot be allowed to stand.
It’s a good point. Balboa Park is at a crossroads, as I described last fall.
So what happened? That’s what I wanted to ask Gloria.
He said he did not expect Jacobs to suspend his effort if the Council did what it did.
“He’s in for a lot of cash along with other donors and they needed certainty and we couldn’t give him certainty,” Gloria said.
Municipal governments aren’t in the habit of giving certainty to major projects quickly. But pushing the situation was an aggressive timeline. Jacobs and Gloria were determined to clear the plaza of cars before the 2015 celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition.
So what gave Gloria pause about the plan he had championed? Gloria denied it was a change of heart, but then explained how complaints about the plan had persuaded him that it would struggle. It was destined to provoke a lawsuit from historical preservationists or perhaps others, which would threaten the ambitious goal to have it done by 2015.
He said 95 percent of the concerns centered on the bypass ramp Jacobs’ team had designed to direct traffic south after crossing the Cabrillo Bridge from Sixth Avenue. Of particular concern, Gloria said, was this letter Caltrans sent outlining its own concerns about how construction would affect the bridge.
But Gloria knew about the bypass bridge when he unveiled the project and championed it. Again, what changed?
“The benefit of getting seven acres of green and open space and preserving parking availability at the cost of this ramp wasn’t connecting with people to the extent I thought it would,” Gloria said.
And that’s why, at the meeting Wednesday, he suggested the city just cut off automobile access to the Plaza de Panama from time to time.
“Perhaps if they can give people a taste of it they’d be willing to see that benefit exceeding the cost of some of the alterations that we have concerns about,” Gloria said.
I can picture it now, a few days of a car-free plaza and the preservationists and stakeholders who rallied against Jacobs’ plan will slap their foreheads and say: “Oh my, he was right!”
Many complained that Jacobs was trying to force a particular vision on the park. But it was more that he had two assumptions about the effort that others, apparently, never accepted. One, that you should not allow cars near the plaza and you should open all those seven acres around it to pedestrian use. Two, that you should still allow automobile access.
Once you conclude those two things, then you’re kind of boxed into a solution like he came up with. It’s not that he’s in love with a parking garage, I don’t think, it’s just hard to do anything else if you assume those two facts about the situation.
Gloria insists that the dream is not dead. After the news that Jacobs had suspended his efforts, Gloria proclaimed on Twitter that it would be OK. “Mark my words, the community’s vision for a parking free/pedestrian friendly Plaza de Panama in #BalboaPark will be achieved by 2015,” he wrote.
I asked, though, if they were back where they started when the city first approached Jacobs for financial support for earlier plans, which had ranged in price from $6 million to $12 million.
Gloria acknowledged they were. But now they could work through the newly forming Balboa Park Conservancy to raise the money.
That group is being handed quite a to-do list.
Full disclosure: Jacobs is a major supporter of voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.