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In 1910, the committee staging the Panama-California Exposition moved the proposed exposition site from a small piece of land just north of San Diego High School to the park’s expansive central mesa. Doing so required massive development of untouched park terrain and led John C. and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the initial planners of the exposition and sons of the revered architect of Central Park, to resign in protest.
In the 1940s, what is now State Route 163 bisected Balboa Park in the Cabrillo Canyon. Two decades later, Interstate 5 trampled the southern edge of the park, burying the Olmsted brothers’ preferred exposition site in concrete.
The recently abandoned plan to transform Balboa Park was keeping with this long history of needlessly defacing San Diego’s “crown jewel.” A bypass, extending from the eastern terminus of Cabrillo Bridge, would have looped vehicles around the Plaza de Panama into a parking garage constructed just south of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Fortunately, escalating costs and concerns about preservation doomed the proposal.
But the Plaza de Panama project incorporated some common sense elements to improve accessibility and enhance the park experience. Most importantly, it would have closed the plaza to vehicles, thus making it a safer and more enjoyable experience for all San Diegans. This and other aspects should be incorporated in a new vision for Balboa Park, one that refocuses parkland away from cars and toward human-centered designs.
This new vision entails closing the entirety of El Prado and Cabrillo Bridge to cars, from Sixth Avenue to the Plaza, and opening the roads to pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders. Similar road closures, as well as the conversion of surface parking lots into parkland, should occur on Presidents Way and Pan American Road south of the Organ Pavilion. Of course, closing these areas to vehicle traffic means offering alternative modes to access the park.
Protected bicycle lanes along Sixth Avenue and Park Boulevard would allow active transit users to more efficiently and safely access a car-free central mesa. There is obvious demand for such infrastructure. Community activists recently formed a human barrier on 30th Street in North Park to simulate and advocate for a much-need protected bike lane.
Public transit options will also need to be expanded to achieve this new vision for the park. Both Sixth Avenue and Park Boulevard could feature bus-only lanes, offering riders of existing routes in and around Balboa Park a more efficient commute. Additionally, a dedicated shuttle from the City College transit station could continuously transport visitors in and out of the park. These improvements could be funded by charging for parking along Park Boulevard and in the zoo parking lot.
There is precedent for abolishing cars from great urban spaces. Last year, New York City reclaimed Central Park from the automobile, and both Oslo and Amsterdam are stripping their urban cores of parking. Rather than diminishing its appeal, removing cars from Balboa Park’s central mesa would enrich the cultural and social fabric of San Diego.
As happened with the Plaza de Panama project, opponents of this new vision will probably scoff at the cost of reorienting the park toward alternative modes of transportation and pedestrian accessibility and safety. But there is a cost, usually overlooked, to preserving the status quo: we simply cannot continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. Maintaining existing automobile-oriented infrastructure is untenable in the age of climate change and constrained municipal budgets.
Balboa Park can be more than an amusement park for tourists. With the demise of the latest Plaza de Panama project, there is an opportunity to move Balboa Park toward the Olmsteds’ original ideal: an accessible and sustainable urban oasis for all. With bold leadership from local policymakers and continued support from the community, we can achieve this vision.
Brendan Dentino is a co-chair of the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County policy committee and housing policy consultant.