Institutions in the heart of Balboa Park are lobbying for the controversial project that would dramatically overhaul the space they call home.

When it comes to the Plaza de Panama plan, even many of its supporters see some downsides. They just believe the downsides are worth the trade-off. Yet the institutions within the park are one group that is getting virtually everything they want from the plan.

If the project goes forward, there will be more open space for park visitors and more centralized parking without sacrificing the western Cabrillo Bridge entrance that museums believe is crucial for their audiences. While some support the plan simply because it provides more access to the plazas for pedestrians, the museums believe all elements – clearing the plazas, increasing parking in the park’s core and maintaining the bridge entrance – are vital.

That’s led to broad support among park institutions despite the significant criticism the project’s drawn over the last five years.

“We have a wonderful, wonderful project that is intended to be a first step in the future of improving the access in and out of this park,” said Jim Kidrick, CEO of the Air & Space Museum.

Kidrick chairs Balboa Park United, an informal group of more than a dozen nonprofits and park institutions rallying behind the project.

Kidrick and the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a Balboa Park United member that represents 29 park institutions, wouldn’t provide a list or a count of the individual groups backing the project. Instead, they highlighted support shown in a number of Cultural Partnership board votes on the Plaza de Panama project over the years.

“We’re coming together and we’re coming out and saying we’re united in our belief that this project is worthy of completion,” Kidrick said.

The group may have played a behind-the-scenes role in reviving the project.

Kidrick and a handful of others met with philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, a longtime champion of the project, to assess his interest in moving forward weeks after the state Supreme Court declined to weigh in on the legal case that had for years put the park makeover on hold.

Jacobs told Voice of San Diego that the institutions’ interest, coupled with Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s support, supplied the “final push” necessary to put the project back on the table.

Faulconer and his staffers also met with Kidrick and other park leaders to discuss the project before the June 30 announcement that the Plaza de Panama project was back on.

That day, Faulconer said Balboa Park United and Jacobs would lead fundraising efforts for the project.

Kidrick, who later spoke on behalf of park institutions, declared the day of the announcement “the finest day for our park since 1935.” (That was the year of the California Pacific International Exposition, a major event in park history.)

Nearly a dozen park institutions hailed the improved access, increased parking and reclaimed pedestrian space in statements to VOSD.

“The plaza’s ambience and beauty are ruined by automobiles – by their noise, their smell and their incongruousness with the historic architecture,” Museum of Man CEO Micah Parzen wrote in a statement. “Diverting cars around the California Quadrangle would restore the quality of the experience in the museum’s front yard.”

Mingei Executive Director Rob Sidner said his museum, which is working on its own restoration plan that includes public space on the museum’s ground floor, is also excited about the possibilities associated with a car-less Plaza de Panama and El Prado West.

Other museum leaders, including Old Globe Managing Director Michael Murphy, emphasized the importance of the nearly 800-car garage that’s part of the Plaza de Panama plan.

“Every day and evening, park guests make it clear to us that they are frustrated by the severe shortage of parking, repeatedly proving that access, convenience and safety are important to their experience of the glories of the park,” Murphy wrote. “Lack of parking is the biggest threat to Balboa Park.”

Kidrick and Reuben H. Fleet Science Center CEO Steven Snyder both mentioned the need to hold onto multiple entry points in the park, including the western Cabrillo Bridge.

Jacobs, who etched out the overarching vision for the Plaza de Panama project, has said he decided the bypass bridge was essential because it will allow the city to boot cars from park’s central plazas while still welcoming cars in that end of the park.

Kidrick pointed to a 2011 traffic study that found about 42 percent of cars arriving and leaving the park’s central mesa drove over the Cabrillo Bridge.

“Maintaining that access has been absolutely a key element to go forward,” Kidrick said.

That’s not to say all Balboa Park institutions are on board with the Plaza de Panama plan.

Leaders of the Spreckels Organ Society, the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages and the Committee of 100 – all of which opposed the project in 2012 – said they learned of official plans to proceed with the Plaza de Panama project the day of Faulconer’s announcement.

Melvin Weekley, a House of Pacific Relations board member, said the groups that collectively manage the international-themed houses near the Organ Pavilion will decide whether to take a stance on the project at an upcoming meeting. He said the nonprofit’s concerned about access to the international cottages during and after construction, particularly given the significant number of seniors involved with the organization.

Ross Porter, executive director of the Spreckels Organ Society, said his group is most focused on impacts of construction, which could interfere with the society’s performances if not properly timed, and wants to learn more about potential noise impacts associated with cars driving to the parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion.

Porter said he hopes to talk to city staffers and others working on the project more in coming months to ensure planners consider the Organ Society’s concerns.

“We collectively, I think, believe that this plan is going forward, no matter what our opinion is,” Porter said.

Mike Kelly, president of the preservation group Committee of 100, said his group will also decide soon whether to take a stance on the project. It previously supported the push to clear the plazas of cars but opposed the bypass bridge.

“We fought the battle and lost,” Kelly said.

Yet Kidrick said the lion’s share of institutions in the park and park visitors can count on a win and he’d like to add to the coalition supporting the project.

“We’re not done creating this united effort,” he said.

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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