In 1992, San Diego adopted a highly detailed, long-term plan for renovations to Balboa Park’s Central Mesa, the main tourist area that includes its museums, pedestrian plazas and other attractions like the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

The Central Mesa Precise Plan was the result of years’ worth of planning and discussions between city officials, park institutions and advocates. It is the document that preservationists now cite in opposing a major renovation proposed by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs that would eliminate parking and traffic from the Plaza de Panama and turn it into a pedestrian square.

It is also the document that provides the foundation for the main alternative proposed by the Save Our Heritage Organisation, which is leading the charge against Jacobs’ plan.

Reclaiming the plaza for pedestrians has always been a goal in the Precise Plan. The preservationists agree with that goal, but not with the way Jacobs has proposed achieving it — by building a bridge to reroute cars away from the plaza and toward a new underground parking structure in the center of the park.

SOHO calls its alternative the Precise Plan Lite, because it would incorporate some but not all elements of the original plan. Most notably, it would not build a new parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion.

Here’s what SOHO’s plan proposes:

Cars would enter and exit Balboa Park by crossing the Cabrillo Bridge, as they do today. They would drive through the Prado, into the Plaza de Panama, and turn south toward the existing parking lots.

SOHO’s proposed traffic plan | Graphic courtesy of SOHO

You can see that in the SOHO plan, the Plaza de Panama would be partially transformed into a pedestrian square. It would eliminate the parking spaces currently there, but continue to route traffic through the plaza. This layout would eliminate the need to build the new bypass bridge, seen here in the Jacobs plan, that would reroute cars before they’ve entered the Prado:

Designer’s rendering courtesy of the Plaza de Panama Committee

That bridge is the most controversial element of the Jacobs plan because preservationists believe it would destroy the historic character of the park entrance. Jacobs’ plan would look like this:

Designer’s rendering courtesy of the Plaza de Panama Committee

Jacobs wants to build the bridge because it would allow the city to completely remove cars and traffic from the Plaza de Panama, not partially.

Preservationists believe their plan is preferable because it follows the one laid out in the heavily-vetted Precise Plan, which envisions eliminating parking from the plaza while continuing to run traffic through one corner of it.

But how to replace those parking spots is where SOHO’s plan differs from the Precise Plan. To replace them, the Precise Plan proposes building an underground parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion, which Jacobs’ plan would also do along with a rooftop park.

Designer’s rendering courtesy of the Plaza de Panama Committee

Preservationists want to replace that parking by slightly expanding and reconfiguring existing parking lots nearby. It wouldn’t change much from how it looks today.

Photo courtesy of the Plaza de Panama Committee

Bruce Coons, SOHO’s director, acknowledged that his organization’s plan differs from the vetted plan by not building the garage that both the adopted plan and Jacobs envision. But Coons said SOHO’s plan wouldn’t preclude the parking garage from being built at some point in the future, since it is in the Precise Plan.

“We just think this is the way to start, we’re not saying this is the end product,” he said.

At the same time, though, SOHO wants to see fewer cars in the Central Mesa, not more, which a garage could attract.

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office has taken issue with several elements of the SOHO plan. Mainly, that it does not completely eliminate cars from the plaza and the Prado and may cause traffic backups as cars stream through the plaza. Jacobs has said he would not fund a project that did not eliminate all cars from the plaza.

Also, the reconfiguration of the existing parking lots would likely trigger costly improvements required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, something the cash-strapped city would have to find a way to pay for.

Coons acknowledged that, but said SOHO’s alternative is the only plan he thought could be completed by 2015, the city’s self-imposed deadline to get the plaza ready for the 100th anniversary celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Sanders believes Jacobs’ plan could also be completed by 2015. But SOHO has filed a lawsuit challenging it and has vowed to continue fighting the effort.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of voiceofsandiego.org

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido

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

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