A plan to remove cars from Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama will face its biggest hurdle in a few weeks. The City Council is due to vote July 9 on the plan, which has sparked fiery discussions and divided community groups and park institutions in the two years since Mayor Jerry Sanders and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs announced it together.

Today, the plaza in front of several central park museums is a complicated mess of cars, roundabout traffic and pedestrians. The city has planned for decades to return it to solely pedestrian use.

Jacobs’ plan diverts traffic on a bypass bridge to the right of the Cabrillo Bridge through to a new parking structure. He wants that final approval this summer so the cars can be gone from the plaza in time for a giant 2015 celebration.

But a coalition of opponents led by the Save Our Heritage Organisation say the bypass bridge irreparably impacts the historic character of the park by partially obscuring the entrance façade. (That façade is now partially obscured by trees and foliage.)

While opponents also want to remove parking from the plaza, they’ve floated a number of alternatives in hopes of killing the bypass bridge. They’ve talked about just closing Cabrillo Bridge entirely to cars — an unpopular idea with museum and theater directors — or sending cars through the plaza but not allowing them to park.

Now, they’ve thrown their weight in recent weeks behind a new plan to run traffic along peripheral roads in the park. But because it came in after the Jacobs plan’s state-required environmental review was out, it won’t receive the same kind of public vetting and analysis as Jacobs’ plan and several alternatives did before the City Council decides on July 9.

In its July meeting, the City Council could vote to approve the Jacobs plan, to further explore the alternatives from its environmental review, to study the new plan SOHO prefers, to do nothing or to consider a whole different plan nobody’s raised yet. SOHO hopes bringing attention to this alternative will force a compromise.

“We’re trying to find a solution that meets all the goals of Dr. Jacobs and still have much less impact on the park,” said Bruce Coons, SOHO’s director.

Compromise would be crucial for the SOHO plan, because they don’t have any money for it. They’re hoping Jacobs will decide to fund their plan instead of the one he’s been working on for two years.

The Lewis Plan

A retired local architect named Bill Lewis, who worked on the Convention Center and the Mission Valley mall, learned about the Jacobs plan in the newspaper a few months ago, disliked it and thought he could do better. He volunteered to join forces with the coalition led by SOHO.

Much of his argument comes down to parking — how much there should be and where it should go. Lewis wants a parking garage, but in a different place than Jacobs — he wants about 800 parking spaces built under the Plaza de Panama itself. If visitors can’t park within 250 feet of the institution they want to visit, Lewis posits, you’ve got a problem.

Lewis’ plan envisions “rim roads” as the traffic access for the park. The north road would run along the north behind the Museum of Art and The Old Globe, stretching all the way from Sixth Avenue to Park Boulevard. The west road would run parallel to State Route 163 and under one of the arches of the Cabrillo Bridge.

Lewis would also restripe the parking lot behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. He says his plan yields more new parking spots than Jacobs’ plan and pledges that visitors wouldn’t have to pay for parking. Jacobs’ parking structure could cost $5 for five hours.

Sticking Points: Money and Resolve

Lewis claims the whole thing could be done more cheaply than Jacobs’ plan. But he and SOHO don’t have any money for it.

Jacobs has promised to fundraise or, theoretically, personally bankroll most of his $45 million project, except for $12 million to $14 million that’d be netted from the paid parking structure.

SOHO hopes Jacobs will agree to fund their plan instead. Jacobs, Coons and Lewis have met voluntarily with a mediator, but any compromise seems a ways off.

Jacobs on Lewis’ idea: A “worse plan.”

Coons on Jacobs’ idea: “Seriously, the other plan is stupid. There’s no way to couch it.”

Coons acknowledged there are a couple of points in Lewis’s plan that don’t match SOHO ideals. The group would rather see parking on the periphery of the park than right in the middle.

And some of Lewis’s drawings show a left-turn bypass bridge off the Cabrillo Bridge — a similar idea to the right-turn bypass bridge SOHO has decried. Coons clarified to say the group supports the plan without that bridge, even though many drawings still show it.

“It’s not the way we would’ve designed it from SOHO’s standpoint,” Coons said. “But the practical nature of his plan was immediately obvious.”

Completing a full environmental review of this new project could threaten the project’s potential to be finished by 2015. Coons said he’s confident the plan wouldn’t need a separate review.

But in a memo to the City Council with open questions to Lewis about his plan, mayoral aide Gerry Braun said he was dubious. “I do know how San Diegans react to any attempt to circumvent public processes and public review,” he wrote.

Coons said Lewis plans to share responses to the questions in a meeting with Braun on Monday and will release his response publicly afterward.

Disclosure: Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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