After years of intense drama, the battle royale over Balboa Park’s future ended this summer — at least for now — with a promenade of sorts.

The Plaza de Panama, the swath of land between the art museum and the organ pavilion, is no longer a jungle of cars and pedestrians trying to avoid one another. The parking is gone and vehicles banished to one side. Tables, chairs and umbrellas have appeared and there’s plenty of strolling, lollygagging and constitutional-taking.

It’s nice. Not as nice, however, as the park’s institutions had hoped. They were banking on a grand plan to build a bypass bridge, clear the plaza of cars entirely and dig an underground parking garage. But their hopes fell victim to a court challenge. Then Mayor Bob Filner, who hated the plan, stepped in to make part of it reality in June.

He’s gone now, but his vision remains. So how are things going? Great (for a tiny museum that’s literally having the time of its life), OK (for museums as a whole) and not too well (for the disabled in particular).

Here’s a quick look at where things stand and what might come next for the park, the plaza and the nearby Cabrillo Bridge.

How’s the redesign working out for the big museums?

Remember that museum officials wanted to rid the Plaza de Panama of cars. They expected it would be a boon for the park as a whole and for their own institutions. But they didn’t get their wishes, at least not completely, and they’re not raving about the Filner redesign. They’re not bashing it, either.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Several of the park’s biggest museums — the Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Man and the Mingei International Museum — tell VOSD that they haven’t seen any noticeable change in attendance.

“We prefer to look at multiple years of attendance data before generalizing audience trends, and right now we have only been living with the new plaza renovation for a few months,” said Mingei spokeswoman Jessica Hanson York. “We can report that since the renovation our attendance is on track with last year’s numbers.”

The Museum of Art says its Sculpture Garden cafe is getting more traffic due to higher visibility, thanks to the plaza’s renovation.

What about the small museum that’s doing great?

The Timken Museum of Art has suddenly become, as they say in the movies, kind of a big deal. The museum, whose treasures include masterpieces by Rembrandt and Rubens, had more visitors in July — 22,000 — than in any other month in its 48-year history.

The museum, which is free, sits on the edge of the Plaza de Panama next to the Museum of Art. It may be getting noticed by the plaza’s new pedestrians, but Executive Director John Wilson isn’t sure what happened. “We’re just kind of scratching our heads,” he said, especially considering that the museum doesn’t have a new exhibit. It has, however, revamped its website, logo and gallery guide.

The museum also had record attendance for the month of August.

What’s up with the parking situation?

Some are concerned about the 60 or so parking spaces that were lost when the city converted the Plaza de Panama to serve pedestrians and drivers on their way somewhere else. Several spaces in the plaza were reserved for the disabled, giving them close access to the Museum of Art and The Old Globe Theatre.

“Patrons with mobility concerns are discouraged that what few spaces that were available to them in the Plaza de Panama are gone, thereby making their park experience that much more difficult,” said Michael G. Murphy, the managing director of the Old Globe. “Some patrons are unable to walk the distance from the Organ Pavilion parking lot to the Globe or the museums on the west side. Short distances can be difficult to maneuver for some individuals, and we want to provide easy access for everyone.”

But wasn’t the plaza’s parking lot — now gone — pretty small?

There weren’t many spaces in the plaza, and few were available outside of the early morning and late evening. Wilson, the Timken’s executive director, said it didn’t help that the city failed to enforce the 3-hour parking limit for the spaces.

What are they going to do about the parking problem?

Council President Todd Gloria, who’s serving as interim mayor, has said he’s working with city park officials to create more disabled parking spots in the Alcazar Garden parking lot, one of the park’s most obscure parking areas.

So where’s the Alcazar lot? You may recognize the Alcazar Garden, No. 33 on this park map, as the site of many photos of the California Tower. The parking lot is behind the garden.

Weren’t there hints of complaints just a few weeks ago?

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf aired some concerns reported by U-T San Diego, including, she said, the fact that “institutions and restaurants have experienced an immediate drop in revenue because of this, up to 20 percent.” She didn’t identify the institutions, however, and a spokeswoman told the paper that “they kind of fear retribution from the mayor’s office if they were critical of his plan.”

Now, the mayor at the time — Filner — is out of office. The councilwoman’s office later confirmed that only the Old Globe and the Prado, an upscale restaurant, had complained. And Murphy, the Old Globe official, told the paper that the theater hadn’t lost sales.

What about the new parking trams?

Parking at Balboa Park remains a challenge on busy days, although spaces are almost always available somewhere.

Yes, there’s public transportation to the park. But, like public transit as a whole in the region, it’s limited and often inconvenient. “Until adequate public transportation is a reality, we should provide easy access to the park in other ways for San Diegans and visitors,” the Old Globe’s Murphy said.

The park does offer a tram service during most daylight hours, but its stops are limited. (You can see a map of where the tram goes here.)

Filner pushed for the city to buy three large trams that can carry up to 100 people and can be used more easily by the disabled.

But Gloria’s office said the ex-mayor’s staff failed to provide the necessary fuel tanks. Gloria now expects the new trams to begin operating by mid-October.

What’s up with the Cabrillo Bridge? Will it be closed?

The Cabrillo Bridge, one of the icons of Balboa Park, links the west side of the park to its core, including the Plaza de Panama. There’s been talk about banning cars from the bridge temporarily or permanently in order to turn it over entirely to pedestrians and cyclists.

But the park’s institutions worry fewer drivers from the west will translate into fewer patrons, and they’ve opposed closing the bridge. An official with the Museum of Man, which is the closest institution to the bridge, even worried that eliminating cars would leave it “isolated on a cul-de-sac.”

Filner wanted to close the bridge this year on weekends and holidays but that plan fell apart. The bridge will be closed to cars for the first four months of 2014 for repairs. We’ll see then if the closure affects park attendance.

What else happens next?

There’s no sign that the plan that got shot down in court will come back to life, although museum bosses clearly wouldn’t mind if it returned in some form. For now, however, the plaza’s future must wait for San Diego’s next mayor to determine what he or she wants to do — and whether the other people in power will go along.

Correction: Due to incorrect information on the Balboa Park website, an earlier version of this post said parking trams don’t serve the west side of the park. They do. The city says the new trams, however, will not serve the west side of the park since their purpose is largely to serve those who park on the east side. 

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Community, Mayoral Election Issues 2014, News, Parks, Share

    Written by Randy Dotinga

    Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

    127 comments
    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross

    This piece points out that council member Zaph doesn't know what she is talking about and that the museums would have suffered much more under the Jacobs/Sanders plan. As usual any plan that Sanders supported was repayment to the developers for helping to elect him mayor.

    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross subscribermember

    This piece points out that council member Zaph doesn't know what she is talking about and that the museums would have suffered much more under the Jacobs/Sanders plan. As usual any plan that Sanders supported was repayment to the developers for helping to elect him mayor.

    Lari Tiller Power
    Lari Tiller Power

    Regarding the parking in Balboa Park now: I am a youngish person with severe mobility issues and have not been able to visit the Museum of Art since the change in accessibility. The walk from the parking area or even the drop-off area is so far that I have no energy left to appreciate the art once I get there. And then I have to walk back to the car. There are people with limits who are patrons of the arts that are cut off by not having the drop-off close to the entrance. For every minute I spend getting to the museums, that's less time I have to appreciate the art.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage

    The Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) Phased Alternative Design for the Plaza de Panama, Circulation and Parking Project was improved upon by Mayor Filner and community members. The only difference was use of the East Esplanade for vehicle traffic. http://sohosandiego.org/images/051411PlazaDePanamaSOHOplan.pdf Phases 1 - Circulation, and Phase 2 - Reclaiming the Plaza de Panama are complete. Phase 3 of SOHO's Precise Plan lite provides replacement parking for the 20 Accessible Parking Spaces in Alcazar Garden using limited grading and reconfiguration of the existing parking lot. With Accessible path of travel through the Alcazar Gardens. The City Council still need to approve funding for the replacement Accessible/Disable Parking to bring the sloped parking lot up to code. A parking structure was outside the scope of the SOHO plan. See Page 4 for SOHO's planned replacement parking on Old Globe Way at the southern boundary of the San Diego Zoo, and behind the Botanical Gardens. Just this week the San Diego Zoo announced a privately funded $18 million six-story parking structure in this very area for their employees. The new parking would also be available after-hours for patrons of the Old Globe Theatre.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    The Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) Phased Alternative Design for the Plaza de Panama, Circulation and Parking Project was improved upon by Mayor Filner and community members. The only difference was use of the East Esplanade for vehicle traffic. http://sohosandiego.org/images/051411PlazaDePanamaSOHOplan.pdf Phases 1 - Circulation, and Phase 2 - Reclaiming the Plaza de Panama are complete. Phase 3 of SOHO's Precise Plan lite provides replacement parking for the 20 Accessible Parking Spaces in Alcazar Garden using limited grading and reconfiguration of the existing parking lot. With Accessible path of travel through the Alcazar Gardens. The City Council still need to approve funding for the replacement Accessible/Disable Parking to bring the sloped parking lot up to code. A parking structure was outside the scope of the SOHO plan. See Page 4 for SOHO's planned replacement parking on Old Globe Way at the southern boundary of the San Diego Zoo, and behind the Botanical Gardens. Just this week the San Diego Zoo announced a privately funded $18 million six-story parking structure in this very area for their employees. The new parking would also be available after-hours for patrons of the Old Globe Theatre.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson

    Regarding the disabled parking situation: what needs to be compared is how the disabled would have managed, given the Jacobs plan and now, not with the way it was a year ago. The disabled would have had no better parking under the Jacobs plan (that the Globe supported) than now.

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl

    Dr. Jacobs wasn’t the only donor to the PdP Project. Other people donated to it too, because they thought it would be good for Balboa Park. I donated to the Project while it was in the design stage and intended to donate more when the City was ready to start construction.

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill

    I didn't say Jacobs was the only donor to the project. What I said was -- and this is a really important point that many people (including you) have failed to understand, Irwin Jacobs never said he would pay for the project. He was very firm that he was NOT willing to put up the money himself. Therefore, when people say that the renovation to Balboa Park was going to be "free" thanks to Mr. Jacobs, they are grossly mistaken. He wanted the City to sell bonds for the parking garage. As citizens and tax payers, we all would have ended up paying for the PdP project in the end.

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill

    Sharon, Jacobs was addamant that he was not going to foot the bill himself. He was going to try to help raise the funds through thePDP Committee. Huge difference.

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl

    The disabled would have had more parking under the Jacobs Plan. The entire Alcazar Garden lot would have been made handicapped only, and it wouldn’t have cost the taxpayers anything. All of the money would have been donated. Now taxpayers have to pay to put handicapped parking into just part of the Alcazar parking lot. Just as taxpayers had to pay to get the cars out of just part of the Plaza de Panama. We could have gotten cars out of the entire thing for free with the Jacobs plan.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    The fact remains that the Alcazar lot is not as convenient for disabled people (especially those who can't walk very far) as the spaces in the Plaza de Panama that are now gone. Filner plan or Jacobs plan: It's the same. Maybe the park could put in those little carts like they use at the airport to help the disabled get from parking to museum.

    David Cohen
    David Cohen

    He can't buy Balboa Park. If he tries again, he will be tied up in court for years.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    Regarding the disabled parking situation: what needs to be compared is how the disabled would have managed, given the Jacobs plan and now, not with the way it was a year ago. The disabled would have had no better parking under the Jacobs plan (that the Globe supported) than now.

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill subscriber

    Sharon, Jacobs was addamant that he was not going to foot the bill himself. He was going to try to help raise the funds through thePDP Committee. Huge difference.

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl subscribermember

    The disabled would have had more parking under the Jacobs Plan. The entire Alcazar Garden lot would have been made handicapped only, and it wouldn’t have cost the taxpayers anything. All of the money would have been donated. Now taxpayers have to pay to put handicapped parking into just part of the Alcazar parking lot. Just as taxpayers had to pay to get the cars out of just part of the Plaza de Panama. We could have gotten cars out of the entire thing for free with the Jacobs plan.

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl subscribermember

    Dr. Jacobs wasn’t the only donor to the PdP Project. Other people donated to it too, because they thought it would be good for Balboa Park. I donated to the Project while it was in the design stage and intended to donate more when the City was ready to start construction.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    The fact remains that the Alcazar lot is not as convenient for disabled people (especially those who can't walk very far) as the spaces in the Plaza de Panama that are now gone. Filner plan or Jacobs plan: It's the same. Maybe the park could put in those little carts like they use at the airport to help the disabled get from parking to museum.

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    He can't buy Balboa Park. If he tries again, he will be tied up in court for years.

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill subscriber

    I didn't say Jacobs was the only donor to the project. What I said was -- and this is a really important point that many people (including you) have failed to understand, Irwin Jacobs never said he would pay for the project. He was very firm that he was NOT willing to put up the money himself. Therefore, when people say that the renovation to Balboa Park was going to be "free" thanks to Mr. Jacobs, they are grossly mistaken. He wanted the City to sell bonds for the parking garage. As citizens and tax payers, we all would have ended up paying for the PdP project in the end.

    amy roth
    amy roth

    To Alana Coons: There certainly was NOT a "vast majority of San Diegans" who opposed the Jacobs plan. Quite the opposite: Just about every poll taken showed the vast majority of San Diegans APPROVING of the plan -- indeed welcoming it! The City Council approved it unanimously, I believe. Even the judge who was forced to overturn it because of whatever irregularity in the municipal code Bruce Coons managed to dig up said he did so with a heavy heart. And when San Diegans who had looked forward to the gorgeous results of this plan found out it had been overturned, it was with shock and mourning. Indeed, in single-handedly forcing his will on the people of San Diego in this instance, it seems to me Bruce Coons committed an egregious act of civic malevolence. Had this happened in New York, it would have sparked an outcry so loud we'd have heard it out here. Bruce Coons is lucky he lives in a laid-back city like ours.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    I'm still not aware of any scientific public poll about the Jacobs plan. Can anyone remember one and direct me to it?

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson

    Randy: how can you let Amy's comment that there were ANY polls, much less several, taken about the public's opinion regarding the Jacobs plan?

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson

    Randy: if there was one it was done by the Jacobs folks and hushed up because they didn't like the results. Otherwise, none were done.

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl

    I remember a poll Roger Showley did for the UT on the Jacobs plan. Despite SOHO emails urging their members to vote against the Plaza de Panama Project, the majority of people voted for it. The “vast majority” people, not just in the City of San Diego, but in all of San Diego County are in favor of the superior Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    You're saying ALL the public supporters of the Jacobs plan were in it for "personal gain." I'm not a fan of the plan myself, but that's quite a exaggeration.

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill

    Did you attend any of the meetings or watch any video recordings?

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill

    To Amy Roth: Yes, please tell us which polls you are referring to. Also, you should know that the City's Historic Resources Board did not approve the plan, nor did the Parks Department Board, nor did the vast majority of community planning boards and dozens of other community based groups who weighed in on the subject. If you had attended any of the many informational meetings or hearings about the Plaza de Panama Committee's proposal for Balboa Park, you would be aware that the general public was adamantly opposed to the plan, not in favor of it. The people who spoke in favor of the PDP plan at the public meetings were Irwin Jacobs' paid consultants, his business and social acquaintances (mostly members of San Diego's elite society), and other people/ organizations/ businesses who directly or indirectly had a real or merely perceived financial incentive to align themselves with Mr. Jacobs and his deep philanthropic pockets. The public supporters of the Jacobs Plan were in it for personal gain while those opposed to the plan simply cared about protecting a National Register Listed historic park from a devastating onslaught of concrete and a major increase in automobile traffic... And by the way, your assessment of Bruce Coons or SOHO couldn't be more off the mark. For your information, SOHO has over 2000 members, has been around for more than forty years, and is considered one of the most effective and respected non-profit organizations dedicated to historic preservation advocacy in the US. To try to characterized SOHO's Executive Director personally as some kind of renegade villain is utterly ridiculous.

    amy roth
    amy roth

    I personally wen on a tour of the park with one of the architects for the Jacobs plan who answered questions for the many citizens on the tour and explained how things would work. I didn't make up my mind until then. Several City Councilmen were on the tour, and I noticed they were closely questioning everything. We learned how the tram system would work -- every 10 to 15 minutes, from East to West. We learned how the disabled would be accommodated, in special areas that would have paved entry into the park that would be easier for disabled people to navigate. We learned about all the renovation of broken street areas, buildings that were falling apart after 100 years and other details. It was clear this would be a glorious rebirth -- and a $25 million gift to pay most of it! There's no question San Diegans favored this plan. But as the metropolis we are, we somehow managed to look the gift horse in the mouth and get bitten. It was a horrible miscarriage of the democratic system.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    Amy: What do you find unacceptable about the current redesign? It didn't cost much money, it almost entirely cleared the Plaza of cars, and it doesn't require paid parking.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga

    No, the City Council did not approve it unanimously. I don't recall seeing polls. Do you have links?

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson

    Sharon: as a renegade SOHO member you know the people whom you are talking to here. Do you really think you can make stuff up and it won't be noticed?

    amy roth
    amy roth subscribermember

    To Alana Coons: There certainly was NOT a "vast majority of San Diegans" who opposed the Jacobs plan. Quite the opposite: Just about every poll taken showed the vast majority of San Diegans APPROVING of the plan -- indeed welcoming it! The City Council approved it unanimously, I believe. Even the judge who was forced to overturn it because of whatever irregularity in the municipal code Bruce Coons managed to dig up said he did so with a heavy heart. And when San Diegans who had looked forward to the gorgeous results of this plan found out it had been overturned, it was with shock and mourning. Indeed, in single-handedly forcing his will on the people of San Diego in this instance, it seems to me Bruce Coons committed an egregious act of civic malevolence. Had this happened in New York, it would have sparked an outcry so loud we'd have heard it out here. Bruce Coons is lucky he lives in a laid-back city like ours.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    Randy: if there was one it was done by the Jacobs folks and hushed up because they didn't like the results. Otherwise, none were done.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    You're saying ALL the public supporters of the Jacobs plan were in it for "personal gain." I'm not a fan of the plan myself, but that's quite a exaggeration.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    Amy: What do you find unacceptable about the current redesign? It didn't cost much money, it almost entirely cleared the Plaza of cars, and it doesn't require paid parking.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    Randy: how can you let Amy's comment that there were ANY polls, much less several, taken about the public's opinion regarding the Jacobs plan?

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    I'm still not aware of any scientific public poll about the Jacobs plan. Can anyone remember one and direct me to it?

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl subscribermember

    I remember a poll Roger Showley did for the UT on the Jacobs plan. Despite SOHO emails urging their members to vote against the Plaza de Panama Project, the majority of people voted for it. The “vast majority” people, not just in the City of San Diego, but in all of San Diego County are in favor of the superior Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    Sharon: as a renegade SOHO member you know the people whom you are talking to here. Do you really think you can make stuff up and it won't be noticed?

    Alana Coons
    Alana Coons subscriber

    You remember incorrectly Sharon.

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    A poll of conservative U-T readers?

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill subscriber

    Did you attend any of the meetings or watch any video recordings?

    Jaye MacAskill
    Jaye MacAskill subscriber

    To Amy Roth: Yes, please tell us which polls you are referring to. Also, you should know that the City's Historic Resources Board did not approve the plan, nor did the Parks Department Board, nor did the vast majority of community planning boards and dozens of other community based groups who weighed in on the subject. If you had attended any of the many informational meetings or hearings about the Plaza de Panama Committee's proposal for Balboa Park, you would be aware that the general public was adamantly opposed to the plan, not in favor of it. The people who spoke in favor of the PDP plan at the public meetings were Irwin Jacobs' paid consultants, his business and social acquaintances (mostly members of San Diego's elite society), and other people/ organizations/ businesses who directly or indirectly had a real or merely perceived financial incentive to align themselves with Mr. Jacobs and his deep philanthropic pockets. The public supporters of the Jacobs Plan were in it for personal gain while those opposed to the plan simply cared about protecting a National Register Listed historic park from a devastating onslaught of concrete and a major increase in automobile traffic... And by the way, your assessment of Bruce Coons or SOHO couldn't be more off the mark. For your information, SOHO has over 2000 members, has been around for more than forty years, and is considered one of the most effective and respected non-profit organizations dedicated to historic preservation advocacy in the US. To try to characterized SOHO's Executive Director personally as some kind of renegade villain is utterly ridiculous.

    amy roth
    amy roth subscribermember

    I personally wen on a tour of the park with one of the architects for the Jacobs plan who answered questions for the many citizens on the tour and explained how things would work. I didn't make up my mind until then. Several City Councilmen were on the tour, and I noticed they were closely questioning everything. We learned how the tram system would work -- every 10 to 15 minutes, from East to West. We learned how the disabled would be accommodated, in special areas that would have paved entry into the park that would be easier for disabled people to navigate. We learned about all the renovation of broken street areas, buildings that were falling apart after 100 years and other details. It was clear this would be a glorious rebirth -- and a $25 million gift to pay most of it! There's no question San Diegans favored this plan. But as the metropolis we are, we somehow managed to look the gift horse in the mouth and get bitten. It was a horrible miscarriage of the democratic system.

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    No, the City Council did not approve it unanimously. I don't recall seeing polls. Do you have links?