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The plan to make over Balboa Park’s central mesa is officially back on.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and a slew of park leaders recently announced that plans to move forward with a dramatic overhaul of the heart of the park.

The plan, now part of the city’s longterm planning blueprint for the park, collected dust following a 2012 lawsuit. Now that the project’s back on the table, let’s revisit what inspired it and what the folks behind it envision.

What the Overhaul’s About

In 2010, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders declared that he wanted to transform the Plaza de Panama. The plaza had long served as hub for cars rather than the pedestrian space it was decades ago.

Approached by Sanders, Qualcomm co-founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs decided a more drastic makeover was needed.

Jacobs eventually sunk millions of dollars into plans and studies. He proposed clearing all the plazas in the center of the park and building a bypass bridge that directed arriving cars from the Cabrillo Bridge to a grass-covered, partially underground parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

The plan was eventually approved by the City Council in July 2012 after a series of contentious public meetings. Then it languished for years after a lawsuit by the nonprofit Save Our Heritage Organisation and a ruling against the plan that’s since been overturned.

While that plan was on hold, ex-Mayor Bob Filner decided to take action. He removed parking from the Plaza de Panama and opened its upper end to pedestrians. It’s since been outfitted with tables and chairs and more recently, lined with sculptures from the Museum of Art.

Fast-forward to 2016. Now, even with much of the Plaza de Panama cleared of cars, wanderers still encounter vehicles in the southern portion of the plaza. They also often walk in front of them or nearly into them in the Plaza de California, El Prado West and the Esplanade south of the Plaza de Panama.

The three-level garage could add at least 260 net parking spots in the center of the park, an area where motorists and pedestrians often nearly collide and drivers crawl through lots in search of parking.

Yet the plan was never just about parking. Nor will it solve all of Balboa Park’s parking woes, Jacobs said.

Jacobs and the designers were most focused on allowing park visitors, rather than cars, to dominate the park’s core and to avoid the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts.

“I think people will just be unaware of cars when they’re in Balboa Park now,” Jacobs said.

What the Overhaul Will Look Like

Right now, motorists making their way into Balboa Park from the Cabrillo Bridge drive through two plazas – the Plaza de California and El Prado West – before they get to the more better-known Plaza de Panama.

If the project goes forward, a bypass bridge will instead take motorists around those plazas and into the Alcazar Garden parking lot.

Rendering courtesy of Heritage Architecture & Planning

Here’s what it looks like now before you drive into the Plaza de California.

VOSD file photo

And here’s a rendering that shows what it may look like after the overhaul.

Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

Preservationists dislike that the bypass bridge would block a view of the south wing of the Museum of Man, shown above, that’s now covered by trees. They’re also frustrated that the plan would require the removal of about 70 feet of railing on the Cabrillo Bridge and the sidewalk alongside it.

SOHO and others, including a National Park Service official, have suggested the city consider other plans that would avoid changes to the bridge.

Supporters of the overhaul have long argued other aspects of the project – namely the reclamation of plazas visitors now share with cars – make that move worthwhile and that other options they studied wouldn’t fully accomplish that goal.

Here’s what the Plaza de California and the El Prado West look like now.

Photo courtesy of  KCM Group
Photo courtesy of  KCM Group
Photo courtesy of KCM Group

And here are what renderings suggest they’ll look like in the future.

Rendering courtesy of KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

Cars would also be booted from the southern portion of the Plaza de Panama and the Esplanade roadway to its south.

Rendering courtesy of KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

Instead, cars that enter the park via the Cabrillo Bridge would be routed to the Alcazar Garden lot. Handicapped visitors would park there and others could pay for valet service or drop off passengers.

Others would drive through that lot to a garage that would replace the big asphalt lot you see in the first photo below. It will have space for nearly 800 cars.

Here are before and after views from the sky.

VOSD file photo
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

This is what designers say one of the garage entrances will look like from the ground.

Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

And here’s a partial look at the top of the garage, which would be converted into about two acres of public space.

Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

SOHO has also expressed concerns about this part of the makeover, saying it would disrupt the park’s natural landscape.

The team pushing the overhaul has emphasized improvements in the area and that it would contribute to their overarching goal: reclaiming land now crawling with cars.

What It’ll Take to Make it Happen

Despite the objections, the plan to remake Balboa Park’s central mesa is part of the city’s official development plan for the park – and now it’s also got support from the mayor and many park leaders.

That means it’ll likely move forward as long as cash for it comes in and a new financing plan is approved by the City Council.

SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons, whose group’s lawsuit put the project on hold for years, pledged to watch the matter closely.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has said he believes the court’s more recent blessing of the project should shield it from legal hold-ups.

The city plans to consult experts to come up with a new cost estimate for the project, initially thought to be about $45 million.

Faulconer has said staffers will also be revisiting the financing scheme for the project.

The mayor said paid parking in the new garage, also a controversial element of the project, will remain part of the funding mix. The city had planned to use parking revenue to cover the cost of a $14 million bond to bankroll garage construction, the piece of the project that the city was supposed to cover.

The city could seek other city-controlled funding sources depending on how much project costs have increased since 2012.

Private donors were originally supposed to foot the rest of the bill.  Jacobs said he’s already dropped about $11 million on the project and expects others will write the additional checks.

Jacobs and a contingent of Balboa Park institutions will be leading fundraising efforts once they get a new cost estimate for the project. Jacobs has repeatedly expressed confidence that the money will materialize.

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

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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