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“I hope that you of San Diego… keep your waterfront and develop it so that it may add to the beauty of your city. Do not let a number of private individuals… make it hideous with buildings, and then force your children to pay an exorbitant sum to get rid of the ugliness they have created.” – Teddy Roosevelt, 1915 at the Panama-California Exposition.

In my circle of city design professionals, I noticed that only a select few were terribly disappointed when the judge ruled against Irwin Jacobs’ Centennial Bridge. I believe this is because the grade-separated, poorly designed, bypass bridge/parking lot is not a beloved idea. That said, Jacobs is a beloved citizen and we all know the will to build this bridge is a short-term political decision to honor Jacobs’ philanthropic past and future.

Know that we have stated our opposition to Centennial Bridge at City Council and Planning Commission workshops and hearings. The most disappointing aspect of San Diego’s fractured dialogue has been our inability of moving beyond a yes or no decision, and our inability to explore, test and vet better designs and plans. A design process was missing from this project that could serve to achieve the many goals surrounding our greatest civic achievement, Balboa Park. The workshops were mostly used as forums to justify and defend the initial design proposal.

In the spirit of better design, I argue here for a better design for a more dignified and culturally valuable Plaza de Panama. Here’s our Stepner-Blackson plan.

Below are 17 reasons why we see our plan as better fit for San Diego than the Centennial Bridge plan:

1. Removing more than 56 parking spaces is a fair trade for turning the auto-oriented Plaza de Panama from a mostly employee parking lot into a pedestrian-oriented plaza.

2. Of the too few beautiful building and structures in San Diego, altering the Cabrillo Bridge in order to fix the Plaza de Panama parking problem is not a fair trade.

3. The Centennial Bridge, an auto-oriented, grade-separated bypass, is an over-engineered and too expensive (short- and long-term) solution to simply removing more than 70 parking spaces from the Plaza de Panama.

4. With our plan, seven-eighths of the plaza is completely pedestrian-oriented, allowing for children to play while parents drink sangrias and dine from the best food trucks set up throughout this very large plaza. Our plan keeps 16 handicap parking spaces and turns westbound traffic around El Cid, while allowing for valet dropoffs in multiple places.

5. Our plan costs $60 million fewer to build than the Centennial Bridge/garage.

6. The Centennial Bridge’s long-term maintenance is unfunded. The paid parking garage is necessary to construct the bridge/garage today. This is short-term thinking. In our plan, future renovations and modifications are easier and cheaper while achieving today’s goal of turning a parking lot into a pedestrian plaza.

7. Handicap, elderly and international tourists-on-buses will have dignified and direct access to the great plaza (all at grade). We all should demand a more dignified and ceremonial entry into the plaza than every entry/exit occurring in a below grade parking garage.

8. Our plan maintains the original design integrity of Cabrillo Bridge, which is a metaphor for the Panama Canal. We cross an open ocean (the bridge), enter the California Tower Quadrangle (the canal) and arrive in a great new land (the grand plaza). Same for Alcazar Gardens, which is intended to me a more contemplative place than the Plaza de Panama’s front door. And the Spreckels Organ Pavilion links the Plaza de Panama to the later 1935 Pan-American Plaza, which is a future plaza parking lot to be renovated. Jacobs’ plan will grade-separate this link.

9. The auto-oriented bypass bridge and above/below-grade-separated road is a 20th-century traffic engineering solution that will restrict future tram/bus service throughout the park. This is the 21st century and we know people are driving less as gas prices rise. Trams will be able to directly enter the plaza in our plan.

10. Valet service will directly access the theaters, two of the four museums and Prado restaurant(s).The multiple drop-off points will slow traffic, will quickly modify expectations from today’s free flow and provide better manage of access to the plaza.

11. This plan addresses the uptown residents’ fear of people parking in their neighborhoods because those drivers looking for parking on the west side will still be able to drive access the vast parking areas south and east of Plaza de Panama. This is the only east-west auto connection for two miles (from Robinson Avenue to C Street). This may be closed in the future in our plan. However, the Centennial Bridge completely depends upon cars crossing Cabrillo Bridge.

12. However, our plan discourages promenading trips from east to west. While this is a great place to promenade through, we’ll stick to Bertram Goodhue’s intent and leave it from west to east and make cars that do travel through behave rather than dominate the plaza.

13. The plan allows for a cheaper tram system that would allow us to utilize our currently empty parking lots farther from the plaza on Marston and Inspiration Points.

14. The current design team’s full pendulum swing from all-cars to all-pedestrians design is a sophomoric solution for this unique civic space and reflective of Jacobs’ all-or-nothing/take-it-or-leave it political approach.

15. The Centennial Bridge is of a Sabre Springs off-ramp design quality and simply not dignified enough to be attached to our California Tower and Cabrillo Bridge icons.

16. Because this plaza is isolated on a mesa, and not located in the center of downtown, we need to maintain as much connectivity as possible to activate the plaza. Our plan understands the need for transit to connect Balboa Park from downtown as well.

17. $65 million would be better spent on revitalizing the once-iconic Balboa Stadium and add another historic amenity to this great park for our 2015 celebration.

To answer questions about how to implement or finance this plan, we offer a plan necessitating only paint and signage to redirect traffic flow and guide people to free parking areas. We are not proposing any grading or reconstruction of cultural icons and can test or modify the design more easily if it’s determined to be a failure and/or not achieve our goals. Because this could be a pilot project, our plan does not require the same permitting requirements as the Jacobs plan and our city’s new traffic department’s implementation team can lead the re-organization of traffic flow in the plaza.

Over a well-coordinated weekend, our plan can be in place and tested via paint, signs, boxed shade trees, new tables, chairs and umbrellas. And, for less than $49,000, our plan will activate the plaza by next month while politicians continue to haggle over lawsuits.

In short, our plan stands for the common goal of revitalizing the Plaza de Panama in a contemporary context. Our plan understands the need to activate the space, elevate human dignity and avoid maintenance deficits in the future (see Teddy Roosevelt’s quote above). We are not against cars, but are against the cars currently being parked in the plaza. We thank Irwin Jacobs for his extraordinary achievement in gaining universal consensus throughout our city that the plaza must be pedestrian-oriented, and this simple, elegant plan here can achieve that right now.

Unfortunately, too many of today’s leaders have forgotten what George and Hamilton Marston knew all too well; that building towards social and cultural value always equates to economic value while the converse is not always as true. The Centennial Bridge is built to generate economic value (parking revenue to fund the bridge) first and then hope for some sort of trickle-down effect to generate cultural value.

Howard Blackson is a principal and director of Planning at PlaceMakers, LLC.

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Howard Blackson

Howard Blackson is an urban design director at AVRP Skyport in downtown San Diego, and former Civic San Diego Board Member.

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