If you’ve ever grumbled about parking in Balboa Park, experts say you should consider paying up to fix the problem.
Frustrated motorists often circle lots at the center of the park in search of free parking on busy days, encountering pedestrians and other crawling cars along the way. Leaders of some park institutions have long claimed a dearth of parking is one of Balboa Park’s most pressing problems and public garages have been repeatedly discussed as potential solutions.
A handful of outside parking and planning experts – all of whom have visited Balboa Park – told Voice of San Diego a comprehensive pricing plan for current parking in Balboa Park could offer immediate relief for parking headaches while the city continues deliberating long-stalled plans to build those parking garages.
The latest of those plans – initially approved by the City Council four years ago, but back on the table after a court delay – calls for a paid, 800-car underground garage as part of a broader project to get cars out of the park’s central mesa. Only one 650-spot garage, mostly used by San Diego Zoo employees, has materialized in the last decade despite city-sanctioned studies and plans calling for more parking.
But experts say Balboa Park might be able to do a lot with what it’s already got.
“If you started charging for it, you might find miraculously that there’s suddenly more parking,” said Donald Shoup, a professor emeritus at UCLA who’s literally famous for his parking research.
That’s despite the longtime opposition to paid parking in Balboa Park and, well, just about everywhere else.
Shoup and his fans, who dub themselves Shoupistas, say free parking can encourage bad behavior such as hovering around in search of parking, hogging close-in spots for hours and filling public space that could be used for other things with cars – all longtime realities in Balboa Park.
“What you have right now is not a parking supply problem but a parking management problem,” said Patrick Siegman, a San Francisco-based transportation planner and economist who’s visited Balboa Park many times.
A paid parking system, Siegman and others say, could supply real-time data to help the city establish when and where parking is in greatest demand, and whether additional parking is needed. Ideally, fees would be set with the goal of keeping some spaces open in every lot at any given time so it’s always possible to find a spot.
Shoup and Siegman believe dynamic, demand-based pricing in current asphalt lots and reduced or even nonexistent charges in less-used lots could help resolve two longtime parking conundrums in Balboa Park.
Cars inch through often packed lots at the center of the park despite a plethora of options in two larger, further-flung lots along Park.
A 2011 parking survey completed along with environmental reviews for the Plaza de Panama project found lots near The Prado were at or near capacity during peak weekday and weekend hours. At the same times, the two areas southeast of the park’s core – known as the Federal and Inspiration Point lots – had hundreds of open spaces.
City signage now attempts to direct visitors to those lots, where trams pick up and drive visitors to The Prado. (A city spokesman said park and recreation officials are hopeful that as more San Diegans learn about the free parking with shuttle service, they’ll take that option.)
A 2006 plan to address the park’s parking and circulation issues emphasized a related challenge: Balboa Park employees often arrive hours before visitors and take the spots visitors want most – and for hours longer than visitors would use them.
The result, according to that study: “Visitors walk an average of 1,435 feet from parking space to their destination. Employees at the Prado area institutions walk an average of 565 (feet) from parking space to destination.”
Parking Concepts, Inc., the firm that authored the parking analysis for the Plaza de Panama project, concluded the plan – initially slated to charge $5 for five hours of parking – could push employees to farther-away lots.
“Although there would be no prohibition on employees or staff parking in the new structure, the parking fee would deter most, if not all, employee parking in the structure,” the consultant wrote in the study.
Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick, who chairs a group of Balboa Park institutions backing the Plaza de Panama plan, confirmed the city and park institutions haven’t set parking rules for employees despite the 2006 study’s recommendation that the city do so.
The zoo has since built a garage behind the Botanical Building that’s likely keeping zoo employees out of the zoo lot on Park Boulevard, and freeing up those spaces for park visitors.
But other park employees can still take valuable parking spots.
Shoup and Siegman believe charging for parking in the existing asphalt lots closest to park institutions would change longtime employee parking practices and encourage some visitors who now search for parking in the heart of Balboa Park to avoid the process altogether.
They and other experts also say charging for parking could even encourage more environmentally-sound behavior.
For one, they said, less circling around looking for parking translates into fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at nonprofit Trust for Public Land, said paid parking can also promote alternate modes of transportation over car-centric projects and put a greater emphasis on maintaining public spaces.
Right now, a bus that stops along Park Boulevard is the only direct transit option to Balboa Park, and it’s outside the park’s popular core.
Harnik said paid parking could encourage more future transit investments and mean fewer vehicle trips, a major goal of the city’s Climate Act Plan.
“The very fact of charging for parking tremendously reduces the amount of driving,” Harnik said. “People think twice about carpooling and sharing a ride.”
But Kidrick and other park leaders are unlikely to get behind a park-wide plan to charge for parking anytime soon.
It wouldn’t be politically popular. Many city residents view it as a de facto entry fee to a public park meant to be free.
And institutions are already advocating for the Plaza de Panama plan, which would bring the first non-valet, paid parking to Balboa Park.
Kidrick said institutions will be watching how the parking garage and park circulation evolve along with the Plaza de Panama revamp before promoting other garages or parking policy changes. They do expect to lobby for other solutions in the future.
“We see Plaza de Panama as the first phase of future creative planning to better the situation because Plaza de Panama was never intended to answer all of the parking ills of the park,” Kidrick said. “It takes a great first step and give us the chance, when it’s completed, to take a look at the park and how it’s used even more and how this project has positively affected it.”
The Plaza de Panama plan is not meant to solve the parking problems in the park, but rather to clear the cars from many of those roadways and lots in its core and replace the lost parking with a garage. If you wanted to address parking immediately, Shoup’s convinced a broader plan could deliver results.
“Before you build a garage, try charging for parking,” he said. “You may not need a garage.”