Is our crown jewel a park or a parking lot?

Last week the Historical Resources Board voted unanimously to oppose the Plaza de Panama project and in particular the bypass bridge. Previously the House of Pacific Relations voted against the plan and chose the SOHO-approved Lewis plan. According to SOHO, the Lewis plan “no harm to the park’s historic features.” I read the Lewis plan and am appalled that a self-described historical preservation group is supporting building an additional road through Balboa Park along with an underground parking garage.

The Lewis plan doesn’t address how the construction of the new road or the underground parking garage will be financed. The Plaza de Panama Committee supports a plan that will purportedly be financed through “private donations and self-sustained bond financing.”

What is the real problem that Balboa Park is facing? Do we want more people utilizing the park’s many amenities? If that is the case, why are we increasing the parking supply? Shouldn’t we look for ways to reduce the demand for parking? Increasing the number of cars into the park is a self-limiting exercise unless the goal is to just incrementally pave over all of Balboa Park.

If lack of parking is the problem then the real solution is to just move all the museums and The Old Globe to Mission Valley and build a gigantic parking structure surrounding both the theater and the museums and ensure that the parking is free. This will leave the park to the residents who want some respite from a hectic city life.

I am also curious on what the cost of either the Lewis plan or the Plaza de Panama Committee-approved plan is. What is the interest rate of these “self-sustained” bonds? The parking spaces will purportedly cost $5 per spot. That seems like it will be an additional cost for anyone visiting our crown jewel. If a family has to choose between visiting the park or watching a movie in Mission Valley with free parking, I’m not sure the park is going to be a huge draw.

There was a somewhat similar issue that our big sister to the north experienced and that we should learn from. The Disney Concert Hall in L.A. built a 2,188-spot parking garage that cost $110 million and it was financed by L.A. County, which was already in a financial black hole. The initial cost was $50,000 per parking space. Today, it costs $9 to park at Disney Hall. That means a single parking space nets a little more than $3,000 per year. Which means it will take 15 years to pay for a single parking space. This doesn’t account for the interest rate being charged by the bond and assumes that every single parking spot will be filled to capacity all year round. Both the Lewis plan and the Plaza de Panama plan are boondoggles. Parking garages never pay for themselves. Anyone stating otherwise is delusional.

Instead of turning the entire park into a parking lot, how about we restrict automobile access to the entire park including State Route 163 (why is there a freeway cutting through the park?) and support efforts to increase mass transit and private shuttles access from specific hubs such as Old Town, the urban core neighborhoods and downtown. The more people that are in the park, the easier it becomes for emergency fire and ambulance access as it is easier for human beings to move compared with a clog of automobiles. If the goal is get more human activity into the park, let’s stop supporting efforts to turn the park into an asphalt jungle.

Sam Ollinger lives in City Heights.

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