Last week, City Councilman David Alvarez made an extraordinary statement for a San Diego politician on the council dais.

He said a major civic project was likely going to cost the city money. And he said it was worth it.

Alvarez was explaining his support for the $45 million plan to remake Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama. Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs is pledging to fund the majority of the project, but the city is on the hook for a new parking garage. Not to worry, say project supporters. They say parking fees will pay for the garage, without requiring the day-to-day operating budget to contribute anything.

That’s unlikely, Alvarez said. The city’s independent budget analyst says the budget could take a $1 million annual hit.

But Alvarez said that was OK.

“The project brings more than just a parking structure and a bridge,” Alvarez said. “It brings a new experience to the visitors of Balboa Park. So even if the city needs to contribute some amount over the term of the bond for the parking garage, and I think we will, our park deserves that.”

You might think there’s nothing special about what Alvarez said. After all, things cost money. But San Diego politicians and interest groups have elevated the notion that big ideas don’t cost anything to a fine art.

Every major project Mayor Jerry Sanders has proposed during his seven-year tenure has come with the claim that regular taxpayers won’t have to pay for it. The new downtown library uses money that would otherwise disappear. The new City Hall, which is now off the table, would have saved money. The Convention Center expansion and new Chargers stadium will pay for themselves. He made these arguments in one fall 2009 speech during the bottom of the economic downturn.

Alvarez’s position on the Plaza de Panama makes him an outlier. He believes the plan, which passed 6-1, actually will cost money. And he said publicly that it’s worth the price.

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

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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