Hundreds of vocal fans of Balboa Park, the city’s horticultural and cultural heart, showed up at City Hall on Monday to debate its future.

On the table was a plan to build a bypass bridge that would divert cars from passing under the ornate archway at the end of Cabrillo Bridge. That road would lead to a new three-level parking structure with green park space on top behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The end, imagined, result: The plazas in the heart of the park returned to pedestrian use instead of remaining automobile thoroughfares and a parking lot.

Opponents fear the plan’s impact to the park’s historic character. Many of them showed up waving signs at noon, ate mixed nuts shared by a Mission Hills resident during a break at 6:00 p.m., and were still at City Hall at 9:30 p.m. when the meeting finally wrapped up. It was a heated afternoon with more than six hours of comments from more than 140 speakers, most of them in opposition.

The council voted 6-to-1 to support the project, praising the team of philanthropists and city staff who’d brought it to this point. Councilman Tony Young was out of town, and Councilwoman Sherri Lightner opposed the project. She called the plan expensive and intrusive, an excessive risk to taxpayer funds.

I won’t take you down the long, chronological road of the City Council hearing — if you want the play-by-play, you can read my tweets along with insights from others filed under the #plazaBP hashtag. And if you want the basics on the project, check out our Reader’s Guide.

Here are a few highlights from the meeting and things to watch going forward:

A Precedent for Philanthropy?

Mayor Jerry Sanders began the afternoon with a tale from the Plaza de Panama lore.

One afternoon a few years ago, he and one of the county’s richest men, Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs, took a four-hour walk in Balboa Park. They hiked in the canyons and climbed up the California Tower to survey the park, especially noting a mess of cars in the park’s central Plaza de Panama.

That afternoon kicked off a two-year process that led to Monday’s City Council vote. Jacobs has been heading the Plaza de Panama committee ever since. He’s pledged to cover the lion’s share of the project cost with his own and other private donations. The city’s piece is $14 million for the parking structure.

Sanders and other proponents of the plan painted this project as a bellwether for the success of other such intersections between private dollars and public projects.

Rhetorical Flourishes

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Ron May, an opponent of a plan to renovate Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama, protests outside of San Diego City Hall before a City Council meeting where the plan was being considered.

The meeting room erupted in boos and hisses several times throughout the afternoon and evening. The first eruption came when the mayor suggested that the opposition hadn’t presented a cohesive plan in opposition. He jabbed at opponents and chastised them for criticizing Jacobs.

Sanders said Jacobs had faced “vile and idiotic comments” from opponents. “Giving away 25 million dollars shouldn’t be this hard.”

Some of the most pointed words came from those opponents. Dan Soderberg called the process “autocratic” and an “abomination.”

This one was untouchable.

Best rhetorical flourish today? Speaker: PdP is a “blunt force sacrifice of this city’s crown jewel on the altar of the automobile” #plazabp

— Kelly Bennett (@kellyrbennett) July 10, 2012

Rhetorical Flourishes, Part II

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Opponents and supporters of a plan to renovate Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama watch a City Council hearing from an overflow room.

Bruce Coons, SOHO’s chief, spoke emphatically.

“You do not want to be known as the council that voted to destroy Balboa Park,” he said. He called the decision the last straw in a long line of times when government decisions have infringed on Balboa Park. “This is an extreme desecration of our greatest legacy,” he added.

As the council members delivered their comments, Lorie Zapf called out Coons. She mentioned a slide from a video SOHO posted over the weekend that claimed the project “will eliminate all free parking in Balboa Park.” That’s not true as the plan is proposed — it leaves more than 5,600 free parking spaces in the park. Coons has argued that the city might have to charge elsewhere to incentivize people to park in the new structure, but that doesn’t make the claim true that this plan will eliminate all free parking.

Zapf said “so many fabrications from Coons” made it hard for her to know what he was telling the truth about.

Park maven Betty Peabody, who’s volunteered there for 43 years, offered her support for the project. “No one will ever get 100 percent of what we want but we’ll all gain something” with this plan, she said.

The Would-Be Mayors

Photo by Sam Hodgson
City Council members, including mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio (middle), watch a City Council hearing about whether to renovate Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama.

The two candidates for mayor took starkly different positions on the plan.

Filner, appearing as a congressman, started the afternoon rallying with a crowd of opponents to the plan gathered outside City Hall at noon.

Later, inside the council meeting, when Filner got up to speak, a number of opponents murmured their agreement with his points. And then, like so many well-rehearsed parishioners, they began to chime in.

What will the city do if enough parking revenues don’t come in? Filner posited. The city might have to raise taxes, he argued.

And what will they call the tax?

Filner turned to the crowd.

“The Carl DeMaio tax!” they yelled.

DeMaio, listening to the speakers from his place on the City Council, grinned good-naturedly. Or maybe that smile was left over from when his opponent in the mayor’s race had difficulty pronouncing the word “unmitigable.”

What Comes Next

The city’s decision paves the way to borrowing money for its $14 million share of the project. And if the plan faces no delays, construction could begin this October. The first stage would be relocating utility lines, and then the second stage — excavation for the parking structure — would begin after the park’s giant December Nights event this winter. Construction is scheduled to wrap up by October 2014, in order for the park to operate at full capacity for the 2015 centennial celebrations.

But that all presumes there are no delays to the project. Opponents, led by the Save Our Heritage Organisation, hinted at the likelihood of legal challenge.

And the hints were even sharper from SOHO’s attorney, California historical preservation attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley. In her comments to the City Council, she outlined a number of key places that made the plan untenable in her opinion. The consultant for the Jacobs plan disputed her findings, but the implications are unclear late tonight.

It’s possible today won’t be the last time we’ll hear those arguments. I’ll look into the arguments she made and the city’s responses in a future post.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.

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

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

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

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