Statement: “I could put up six traffic cones tomorrow and stop the cars from coming in, so this is not a $40 million operation,” Mayor Bob Filner said in a Feb. 6 interview on KPBS’s “Midday Edition.”

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: Two days after a philanthropist’s plans to revamp Balboa Park crumbled, Mayor Bob Filner weighed in on KPBS’s “Midday Edition.”

Irwin Jacobs, a billionaire who agreed to help renovate the plaza, aimed to build a bypass bridge to keep traffic out of the park’s central mesa, the Plaza de Panama, but a judge’s Feb. 4 ruling halted those plans.

Jacobs’ committee expected the project to cost $45 million.

Filner said he’d like to find a less costly solution. To make his point, he suggested the project shouldn’t be so complicated. After all, Filner said, he could simply put up a half-dozen traffic cones and keep traffic out of the plaza.

Filner isn’t the only one to make such a claim, so we decided it was worth taking a closer look as city leaders consider how or whether it’s possible to move forward with plans to clear cars from the plaza before the 2015 centennial celebration.

The city puts up cones or blockades for various events and closes both the plaza and the Cabrillo Bridge on occasion. The city’s Park and Recreation Department handles operations at Balboa Park so it could presumably set up those barriers anytime without getting approval from outside agencies. Filner could direct city staffers to put up orange cones or flower pots at any time.

On that level, Filner’s statement is true.

But the city hasn’t put up those cones yet because even that seemingly quick fix requires multiple considerations.

The mayor acknowledged to Voice of San Diego last week.

“We’re gonna in a few weeks propose a solution and actually carry out a low-tech solution to get the cars out of the center of Balboa Park while maintaining some of the circulation and parking for disabled,” he said.

Filner would not elaborate, and said there are dozens of ways to eliminate parking in the Plaza de Panama and that he’s working to determine the best one.

When asked whether he’d really use cones to keep cars out of the plaza, Filner said no but joked that “maybe we’ll have one symbolic one out there.”

Planning experts say replacing the lost parking will be key to any solution.

The plaza accommodates 55 parking spots, including about 20 for handicapped visitors.

The city could face an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit if it doesn’t replace those handicapped spots with other equally accessible parking, said Vicki Estrada, a planner who has spent much of her career devising plans for the park.

Estrada suggested the city could add more handicapped spots in the nearby Alcazar Gardens lot and route eastbound traffic on Pan American Way around the El Cid statue so cars wouldn’t enter the plaza. Cars coming from the Cabrillo Bridge might only venture in one corner of the plaza.

To make that work, the Alcazar Garden lot would need to be repaved and restriped. The city would also likely need to build ramps for handicapped park visitors. Estrada estimated this would cost under $1 million.

“Whatever you do, it’s got to be ADA accessible,” Estrada said. “That’s the challenge for (Filner).”

And if the project requires a permit, there’s a chance it could face further scrutiny due to the California Environmental Quality Act.

The city didn’t respond to questions about permitting and other requirements that might reveal whether a special review would be necessary.

If Filner moves forward with such a plan, he’ll need to communicate the changes in traffic flow to San Diegans who regularly use the park. Some would be furious.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who supported the Jacobs plan, said the mayor will need to increase parking to draw public support for his vision for the plaza.

“This would be like telling Fashion Valley to just transfer its parking down the road a while and that it will be just fine,” Roberts said.

Filner does have some ideas. He’s informally proposed off-site parking and shuttles. Those solutions, of course, wouldn’t come free of charge.

They’d also be complicated. The city might need to make arrangements with outside groups to use existing parking garages, or even to build a parking garage.

Those plans may not impress museums in the plaza. They have long raised concerns about access to their institutions should the Cabrillo Bridge be closed (something Filner has not directly proposed) but have also expressed frustration with the idea of reduced access if plaza parking and drop-offs are eliminated.

Filner will need to persuade those skeptical museum staffers that his solution won’t dissuade elderly and handicapped visitors, as some suggested in a July 2011 memo.

Filner may also need to determine how to pay for any upgrades. Filner and others would like to see the plaza cleared of cars by 2015, but as we’ve noted recently, the city’s budget deficit for next year will likely hit $40 million, a reality that could hamstring the city’s ability to pay for any overhaul.

Those complications don’t jibe with Filner’s assessment that he could easily keep cars out of the Plaza de Panama with some cones.

A permanent solution may not cost $40 million but what Filner suggested on KPBS would only be a temporary solution. It wouldn’t be a fair comparison to the Jacobs plan, which involved building a bypass bridge and an underground parking garage. Filner simply proposed blocking off the plaza.

Filner could certainly place cones, flower pots or bollards in front of the plaza tomorrow but his statement leaves out some critical context: There isn’t a simple fix here. Even Filner admits that.

To suggest otherwise is misleading, and that’s the label we’re giving Filner’s claim.

The mayor took an element of truth and exaggerated, making it sound as if those who spent years devising elaborate plans to remove cars from the plaza were misguided. There’s a reason they spent so much time working out potential solutions. Removing parking from the plaza is complicated and will require a thoughtful solution that considers all San Diegans who use the park.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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