Preservationists disagree with just about every part of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs’ plan for turning Balboa Park’s traffic-choked Plaza de Panama into a pedestrian square.

But they do agree on this: The plaza would be better without the cars. The cars need to go.

The problem is that besides Jacobs’ plan, only one other idea has emerged that would accomplish that goal.

That idea is to close the historic Cabrillo Bridge to cars and only allow pedestrians on it. The bridge spans State Route 163, and cars cross it to enter the plaza and the park’s museum-lined core. Closing it would achieve Jacobs’s goal of eliminating all parking and traffic from the Plaza de Panama, because the bridge is the only way to get there from the west. It would also eliminate the need for Jacobs’ proposed bypass bridge, which cars would turn onto just after crossing the Cabrillo Bridge but before entering the park. The cars would never get that far.

But many of the museums and other cultural institutions within the park don’t want to see the bridge closed. And though preservationists like the idea and suggested the city consider it, they haven’t made it part of the formal proposal they’ve offered as an alternative to Jacobs’ plan.

Traffic studies indicate that about 40 percent of all cars entering that central area come across the Cabrillo Bridge. Closing it would force drivers several miles out of the way to enter the park’s core from the east.

After opponents of Jacobs’ plan suggested the city test closing the bridge to gauge its impacts, City Council members asked city staff to survey nearby museum directors and other institutions about how it would affect them. Those institutions are the main attractions in that area of the park. The directors strongly opposed it, saying they feared it would drive visitors away.

The preservationist Save Our Heritage Organisation has proposed removing all of the parking spaces from the Plaza de Panama and replacing them by reconfiguring nearby parking lots. But they would keep the bridge open. That would allow the plaza to be transformed mostly for pedestrians. But it would still require cars to drive through the plaza on their way to the parking lots — and would remove fewer cars from the plaza than Jacobs’ plan. But the city could decide to close the bridge during special events expected to draw many pedestrians to the plaza, said Bruce Coons, SOHO’s director.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Under Jacobs’ plan, a new detour bridge would redirect cars before they enter the Prado, shown here leading up to the Plaza de Panama in the background. SOHO’s plan would keep it open to cars, at least for now.

But that is a proposal that Jacobs, who the city is depending on to come up with the money for the plaza’s renovation, has said he would not support. In a recent interview, he said the city needed a plan that people could “get excited about,” like completely removing cars from the plaza and the Prado and transforming the heart of the park into a pedestrian promenade.

Anything less, the city would have to pay for itself.

Disclosure: Jacobs is a major donor to 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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