Last August, Mayor Jerry Sanders stood next to Qualcomm co-founder and local philanthropist Irwin Jacobs to announce plans for a major transformation of one of Balboa Park’s central plazas.

Under the plan, pedestrians would reclaim the iconic Plaza de Panama. Traffic and parking would be eliminated in the square. Cars entering the park from the west would cross Cabrillo Bridge over State Route 163, but before entering the plaza would turn onto a new bypass bridge leading them to a parking structure.

But that plan has been criticized for months by preservationists who say building the bypass would alter some of Balboa Park’s most historic features. They say the bypass would partially obstruct the view of the historic park entrance — a view currently obstructed by eucalyptus trees. Led by the local Save Our Heritage Organisation, opponents have succeeded in slowing the plan and casting doubt on its future.

Now a key San Diego City Council vote scheduled July 19 could determine whether Jacobs, who has promised to fundraise $25 million of the plan’s $40 million cost, will continue to bankroll the project or whether he’ll pull out, effectively killing the effort.

Jacobs already has spent about $2 million on preliminary designs and environmental studies, but wants reassurance before continuing that the city will work with him and his team as they continue preparing the plan for needed approvals.

The council will vote July 19 on an agreement that would signal the city’s cooperation. It’s not a final approval — the council could still reject the project after the studies are done. But the agreement has become the target of preservationists’ opposition because without it, Jacobs is unlikely to continue paying for the required studies and planning.

Subscribe to the Morning Report.
Join thousands of San Diegans who get the day’s news in their inboxes every morning. Get the Morning Report now.

“Without this vote of support, the project will not happen,” Sanders said in a June 30 letter to Balboa Park supporters. “We do not want to see this incredible philanthropic opportunity pass us by.”

As the city’s budget problems have worsened, it has increasingly relied on private fundraising and philanthropy to pay for improvements, construction and maintenance of beloved but aging institutions like libraries, beach fire pits and parks. But the growing dependence on that kind of funding has come with criticism that the city is relinquishing control over its public resources.

The Save Our Heritage Organisation has criticized the Plaza de Panama proposal as subverting the traditional process, saying it gives one person an outsized influence on the fate of public property. As its main funder, Jacobs can dictate what he wants to see and pull funding if it doesn’t materialize.

The mayor and park museums have framed it as a now-or-never scenario and urged accepting Jacobs’ offer before it’s withdrawn.

“The idea here is, let’s take advantage of the fact we’ve got a philanthropist willing to support a study that would give us an analysis of whether this can be done, and what the best way is to do it,” said Bill Mayer, chairman of the board of Balboa Park’s Museum of Man. “Until that’s done nobody knows what the impact of these plans will be.”

The city faces a balancing act as it plots the Plaza de Panama’s future. The mayor, Jacobs and museums surrounding the plaza want the overhaul completed by the time of a planned World’s Fair centennial celebration there in 2015. But they also want to avoid a lawsuit that could delay the project and strain that tight deadline. Opponents have said alternatives are possible, and have suggested a legal challenge is likely if the city moves forward in support of Jacobs’ plan.

Artist rendering of the proposed bypass off Cabrillo Bridge.

Bruce Coons, director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, stopped short of promising a lawsuit, but said, “Our board has authorized us to do whatever it takes to preserve Balboa Park. People usually know what that means.”

The specter of a lawsuit was enough to give pause to a City Council committee, which last month considered endorsing the agreement but instead passed it on for a full council vote without a recommendation. Council members said they wanted the city attorney’s opinion on the merits of a possible lawsuit, but their reluctance was enough for Jacobs to suspend early design work on the plan until the full council’s vote.

While preservationists’ opposition has centered on the bypass bridge, they have many other objections, including to the introduction of paid parking and the planned parking structure’s proximity to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Noise from cars in the structure could be disruptive to performances, Coons said.

His organization has pushed an alternative that would eliminate parking and most traffic from the Plaza de Panama, but still route cars through one corner of it on the way to existing parking lots that would be expanded. Securing funding for that proposal is another matter.

Jacobs’ funding commitment is based on his own plan, which would eliminate traffic from the plaza entirely.

Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents Balboa Park, declined to say whether he would support the agreement with Jacobs, but through a spokeswoman said he hoped Jacobs would be open to alternatives if better ones could be found.

For now, opponents are hoping the prospect of a lawsuit will convince the City Council to reject the current plans.

Coons argues that the agreement under consideration on July 19 is illegal because it would effectively commit the city to the project before it has studied its full impacts on the environment and the park’s historic buildings.

In a memo Tuesday, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith assured council members that was not the case. The agreement is nonbinding and allows the council to reject the final plans once they and the environmental studies are complete, he said. Those studies depend on Jacobs’ wallet.

“Were Dr. Jacobs to be driven away from this project, it would be a huge loss for all San Diegans, especially those who care about the future of Balboa Park,” said Darren Pudgil, a mayoral spokesman.

Jacobs was out of town this week and unavailable for an interview.

(Disclosure: Jacobs is a major supporter of

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter:

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.