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The fundraising goal for the city and philanthropists who want to get cars out of Balboa Park’s central mesa just got higher.

City officials now estimate it could cost as much as much as $75 million to execute the Plaza de Panama plan, a preliminary guess that’s 67 percent higher than when the project was approved in 2012.

Four years ago, supporters projected they’d need $45 million to transform Balboa Park’s plazas plus build a parking garage and a bypass bridge. Philanthropists were to chip in $31 million and the city would cover the rest by charging fees to park in the new garage.

The City Council’s infrastructure committee on Thursday voted to allow city staffers to spend up to $1 million firming up construction plans, which will give the city a clearer picture of the new cost. The full Council is expected to sign off next month and to weigh in on the financing plan in November.

Katherine Johnston, the mayor’s director of infrastructure and budget policy, told Voice of San Diego the city will soon have more accurate cost estimates, but initial indications point in one direction.

“The costs have gone up dramatically,” Johnston said.

She said a handful of issues since the project was approved in 2012 led to the higher costs: a three-year-old mandate to pay workers more on city construction projects, new stormwater regulations, building code changes and a more competitive market since the end of the recession.

That means the city will likely end up paying more, too.

A memo to the infrastructure committee said the city’s share will not exceed $45 million, mostly covered through parking revenues.

The city’s share was previously capped at about $14 million. The city had planned to borrow money to build a parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion and charge visitors for parking there to cover debt payments. Another $2 million was going to be funneled to a reserve fund in case parking revenues didn’t come in as planned.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s staff still has to settle on how much the city should throw at the newly-revived project– and get the City Council to agree to it.

“We think the city’s contribution will have to be more than it was before but we haven’t committed to any specific dollar amount because we don’t have a refined cost estimate,” Johnston said.

Yet Johnston remained positive the project will move forward despite the increased financial commitment for both the city and philanthropists.

“I have a lot of confidence in our community partners,” she said. “We wouldn’t have gone forward if we didn’t.”

Faulconer has said Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and park institutions would lead fundraising efforts.

Jacobs, who’s led the committee rallying behind the Plaza de Panama project, declined to comment on Thursday.

Jacobs  remained upbeat about the project’s prospects in an interview with VOSD last month.

Jacobs has already spent about $11 million on the project and expects others to contribute additional cash. He thinks money will materialize for the Plaza de Panama project as it did for the new Central Library downtown, which relied on both government sources and checks from philanthropists including Jacobs and his wife.

“The model we had with the library is a very good model for this project,” Jacobs 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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