Scott Lewis on Politics Logo

More than two years ago, I wrote this piece about Balboa Park being at a crossroads. The city and its mayor had approached philanthropist Irwin Jacobs to fund an existing plan to rid the Central Mesa of its parking lot, redirecting traffic.

Jacobs decided the plan wasn’t good enough. And off we went. He imagined freeing more acres from cars and all the ugly things that go with them. But he wanted to protect vehicular access to the park’s interior. It was what the institutions, the museums, etc., demanded.

The city decided Jacobs’ plan was the only one that could satisfy both requirements.

This was at a time when momentum was building for the plans to address the park’s needs. The former mayor stood in the middle of the park and said the city simply couldn’t afford to take care of it. Philanthropists lined up behind him.

Three committees were created to tackle three gigantic problems: 1) How badly deteriorated the park had become and who would pay to fix it; 2) How to restore the Plaza de Panama for pedestrian use; and 3) How to celebrate our 100-year anniversary of the great Panama-California Exposition.

Fast-forward two years and the group formed to address the park’s deterioration and help fund its revitalization has yet to make an impact. It has been taught a lesson, too, in what philanthropy can do in the park.

Has Jacobs helped us test the limits of philanthropy in helping a city realize its dreams? Yes, you can build a library. No, you can’t build a bridge. What’s the delta between what we need and what people are willing to give?

The second group, the one Jacobs formed to handle that second problem and restore the Plaza de Panama, is dying. It could never make peace with Save Our Heritage Organisation preservationists.

The preservationists argued that city law demands anyone wanting to tear up the park prove that the way the park exists is simply an unreasonable use of the land.

They won. The judge explained why and city attorneys, ill-prepared for the challenge, were not able to persuade him otherwise.

But that was just a legal thing.

The real problem was deeper. Jacobs was firmly committed to the notion that the institutions in the heart of the park had to be served by cars. The preservationists would not accept a bridge to accommodate that.

Those two stances are irreconcilable. And, despite the city attorney’s assurances, the city’s laws favored the preservationists.

It seems so anti-climactic that this monster of a civic debate would end so quietly. Jacobs issued a statement Tuesday:

I am saddened at the court’s decision that has effectively ended the Plaza de Panama Project. It is a shame that this action could prevent us from having the pleasure of watching children happily playing in a car-free Plaza de Panama, or enjoying a quiet cup of coffee in the Plaza de California.

SOHO was thrilled that it had “saved” the park. It prevailed on perhaps its fiercest showdown. Not long ago, we explained how it worked and how this fight was different.

Finally, there’s that third group: the one planning our big 2015 celebration. There are five hurdles standing in its way.

Now there’s at least some certainty about one of them: the terrain it’s going to be dealing with.

The park, after all, won’t be changing.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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