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To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, Mayor Jerry Sanders wanted to do something grand. But Irwin Jacobs has deeper pockets, and he wanted to do something grander.
The Qualcomm co-founder one-upped the city’s goal to partially remove traffic from one of Balboa Park’s central plazas so pedestrians could use it. By building a new bridge and road, Jacobs said, he could remove traffic entirely, and not only that, but replace an existing parking lot with an underground garage and even slap a park on top.
The mayor loved the idea. Preservationists hated it.
On Tuesday, the City Council gave Jacobs a key vote of support he wanted before he further refined his plan for the plaza’s renovation. By a vote of 7-1, with Councilwoman Sherri Lightner opposing, it agreed to support Jacobs as he works on his plan and completes required studies on its impacts on the park, as well as possible alternatives. Without the vote of support, Jacobs planned to walk away, along with his design team and his offer to raise a majority of the project’s $40 million cost.
The vote, Jacobs said, was enough for him to immediately resume planning and environmental studies on the project, which he had postponed last month after failing to get support from a council committee. But the council made the decision despite the pleas of preservationists and other opponents, who packed council chambers to vehemently decry the plan as a power grab that would destroy San Diego’s crown jewel.
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Council members said they did not necessarily agree that Balboa Park should not change, though they wanted more information before rejecting or approving Jacobs’ plan.
“There’s an old saying,” Council President Tony Young said. “Nothing ventured is nothing gained.”
Council members stressed that their vote to support Jacobs moving forward would not commit them to give the project their final approval in the future. Opponents had argued that the agreement they approved, called a memorandum of understanding, would give Jacobs’ project such momentum that the council would have to approve it down the road.
“I want to be clear that this does not commit me to approving the project at the end of this process,” said Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents Balboa Park.
Preservationists, led by the Save Our Heritage Organisation, dislike Jacobs’ plan on its face for many reasons, including the introduction of a paid parking garage, the way the bypass and new road would obstruct existing views, and the way the whole plan would change the park’s existing landscape. They believe those changes would destroy the park’s historic character.
But they had a more fundamental objection to Jacobs’ plan which they repeatedly raised during Tuesday’s council meeting: that Jacobs, not the public, had been primarily responsible for developing it. As the cash-strapped city comes to increasingly rely on private funding sources to maintain and improve beloved public assets like libraries, fire pits and parks, a recurring question has emerged: How much control should the city relinquish over what those improvements will look like?
The conditions that Jacobs has placed on his continued support to improve Balboa Park have rubbed opponents of his plan the wrong way.
Jacobs wants a plan that would completely eliminate cars from the Plaza de Panama as well as a stretch known as the Prado that leads to the plaza from the terminus of the Cabrillo Bridge on the park’s west side. Instead of entering the plaza after crossing the bridge, cars would turn onto a new bypass bridge that would route them to a new underground parking garage in the center of the park. At Tuesday’s meeting, Jacobs said he would be willing to support a plan other than his own, but only if it completely removed cars from the plaza and was superior to his.
“A project that can do that in a better fashion than we’re proposing and doesn’t cost a lot more, we can support,” Jacobs said.
But he said a proposal to close the Cabrillo Bridge to accomplish that goal would hurt the number of visitors to the park, which the park’s museums publicly oppose. And preservationists’ main proposal would eliminate parking spaces from the Plaza de Panama, but still route traffic through one corner.
No other proposals have been presented that would accomplish his goals, Jacobs said in an interview.
“The subtext today is unstated but obvious,” opponent Welton Jones told the council during public comment. “A philanthropist wants the city to back his project in Balboa Park exactly his way, or he’ll take his money and go home.”
Before the vote, Mayor Jerry Sanders seemed to acknowledge that as the project’s main funder, Jacobs — who says he’s spent about $2 million so far — had the ability to shape it, though the council could reject him.
“If you believe Dr. Jacobs’ approach is wrong and something you could never support, this is the time to say so before he spends millions more,” Sanders said.
Streams of representatives from museums and other institutions in Balboa Park asked the council to give Jacobs the support that would allow him to continue developing his plans.
Council members said they did not want to close the door on the project before the studies were completed that could help them decide whether to support Jacobs’ plan or another one. The environmental reports Jacobs is funding will study his own plan as well as several alternatives, although city staff told council members it was not clear in how much detail the alternatives would be studied.
“Before we shake our heads, let’s get all the facts in,” Councilwoman Marti Emerald said.
Bruce Coons, director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, said the group hadn’t decided whether to file a lawsuit but that it would continue to oppose Jacobs’ plan in the months ahead.
He said he did not believe Jacobs’ team would seriously consider any alternatives.
“Jacobs was very clear it had to be a superior project that got traffic out of the Prado,” Coons said. “And he decides what’s superior.”
The Mayor’s Office hopes the Jacobs plan will return to council by March, so that, if approved, it can be completed by the time the park celebrates the Panama-California Exposition centennial in 2015.
Disclosure: Jacobs is also a major donor to voiceofsandiego.org