Arguments for and against the proposed renovation of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama have evoked nostalgia, emotional appeals, even the law. But the project’s success or failure may turn on a fundamentally subjective question: would the proposed changes be an improvement for the park and the city, or not?
To answer that question, you have to know what the project proposes, how it would be funded and the impacts various stakeholders believe it would have on their interests in the park. On the eve of a key City Council vote on the project, here’s a roundup of some common questions about the Plaza de Panama proposal, its key elements and controversies, and the next steps.
I’m a little out of the loop. What’s this about a proposed renovation project in Balboa Park?
Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs want to remove parking spaces and cars from the Plaza de Panama, and turn it into a pedestrian square. To do that, they’ve proposed building a bypass bridge and road that would re-route cars away from the plaza shortly after crossing the historic Cabrillo Bridge. The bridge would lead to a new underground parking garage in the center of the park, which would replace the parking lost in the plaza. From there, visitors could walk or take a tram to the plaza. They want it all done by 2015, when the park is going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition.
A garage in the middle of Balboa Park, the city’s crown jewel? It reminds me of that Joni Mitchell song where she sings about paving paradise to put up a parking lot.
That’s what opponents of the plan argue, too. Preservationists don’t want the parking structure, the bridge, or the new road, because of the way they would alter the park’s natural landscape. They would require concrete retaining walls to be installed, and a lot of digging. The preservationists, led by the Save Our Heritage Organisation, also believe the changes would irreversibly alter the park’s historic character. Jacobs and the Mayor’s Office believe the changes would actually be an improvement, because the new underground parking garage would include a rooftop park that would replace an asphalt parking lot. And it would completely rid the Plaza de Panama of traffic, instead of partially.
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Isn’t there any other way to kick traffic out of the plaza without all that building?
Before the Jacobs plan, the city wanted to reclaim the plaza for pedestrians by eliminating its parking spaces but still running cars through it on their way to nearby parking lots. Then Jacobs stepped in and offered to bankroll this much more ambitious project that would take cars out entirely and make the Plaza de Panama a completely pedestrian square. Preservationists think the city’s original plan is better because it would avoid all the building, and be less expensive and less permanent. But Jacobs has only offered to help pay for the design that his committee has come up with. The mayor thinks it would be foolish not to take advantage of that offer for private funding.
Does that mean Jacobs has a lot of influence over what this project looks like?
Yes. He came up with the idea, formed the committee to lead it and promises to raise $25 million to help it happen.
Opponents warn about abdicating the city’s decision-making to a philanthropist just because he’s willing to fund a project, while the mayor has argued it’s an opportunity for the government to work with a private citizen on a project the city can’t afford on its own.
How much is this all supposed to cost? And how much is Jacobs paying for?
The Plaza de Panama Committee, which Jacobs formed to lead the project, has estimated the entire thing would cost $40 million. Jacobs has made a personal commitment to raise $25 million, which would pay for everything except the parking garage. The city would issue a bond to pay the roughly $15 million for the parking structure. To repay that bond, it plans to charge for parking in the garage. Revenue from the parking fees would also pay for the garage maintenance and to run the tram.
What if there’s not enough parking revenue to cover the bond payments?
The city’s day-to-day operating budget would have to cover the difference. The city’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst has warned that before issuing the bond, the city should be conservative in estimating how much revenue parking fees will actually bring in. Otherwise, the city could owe more each year than it’s bringing in.
What if the project ends up costing more than $40 million?
Jacobs has said the Plaza de Panama Committee would raise the money to cover all cost overruns.
I just thought of something. Why not just close Cabrillo Bridge off to car traffic entirely?
The city’s park director talked to Balboa Park museum officials about this possibility.
The Cabrillo Bridge is the only entrance to the park from the west side, and traffic studies have estimated that roughly 40 percent of Balboa Park’s car traffic enters by crossing that bridge. Museums that surround the Plaza de Panama think closing the Cabrillo Bridge to cars would mean they would get fewer visitors. They’d still like cars to be able to cross the Cabrillo Bridge. Several of them have publicly endorsed the Jacobs plan.
So while the plan to close the Cabrillo Bridge gets talked about a lot, neither side is actively pushing for it.
What is the City Council voting on Tuesday? Final approval for the plan?
No. It’s voting on an agreement called a Memorandum of Understanding, which is non-binding and essentially says that the city is committed to working with Jacobs on further refining the plan as his committee completes designs and the required environmental impact studies. It also lays out the funding responsibilities that both the project committee and the city would assume if the project gets final approval from the City Council.
If it’s non-binding, why do they need it?
Jacobs wants some kind of assurance that the city is serious about helping the project move forward before he spends any more money on designs and impact studies.
Opponents have argued that the agreement on Tuesday would essentially set the City Council up to have to approve the project in the future. But the MOU says that it is non-binding, and that the City Council can reject Jacobs’ project in the future.
When would the project come before the City Council for final approval?
The Mayor’s Office wants the City Council to approve the project by March of next year. Before then, the Jacobs committee will have to study the impact of its own plan and several alternatives that the City Council could also consider.
What happens if the City Council rejects the agreement on Tuesday?
It would effectively put an end to the Jacobs plan.
Disclosure: Jacobs is also a major donor to voiceofsandiego.org.