A little more than two years after an ambitious, controversial plan for Balboa Park was rejected by a San Diego Superior Court judge, the so-called Jacobs plan is back on the table – barely.

A few months have passed since a state appellate court overturned Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor’s ruling, clearing the way for San Diego to reconsider the project.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Judge: Plaza de Panama Approval Violates City Law

Since then, two City Council candidates vying to represent Balboa Park’s neighborhood have said they wouldn’t support the project. The mayor has said the city would need some time to consider the impact. And it doesn’t even look like the Jacobs plan’s namesake backer will step back into the ring to bring the plan to fruition.

Meanwhile, the group most vocally opposed to the plan isn’t done with the legal fight — it recently filed a petition with the California Supreme Court that blocks any movement within the city.

It’s a new chapter in a years-long story for the city, but it’s tough to judge at this point how strong a chance the project has in its second life.


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

Getting Up to Speed

The Balboa Park bypass plan was introduced in 2010, to be included in a package of developments to celebrate the anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition. The Union-Tribune gave a good summary of the proposed additions:

[Philanthropist Irwin] Jacobs’ plan, approved by the City Council after extensive environmental analysis and public debate, would have detoured cars off the Cabrillo Bridge onto what was called “Centennial Bridge,” past the Alcazar Garden behind the House of Charm and on toward a new 800-space garage south of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The top of the garage was to be landscaped as 2.2 acres of new parkland and new walkways would have replaced the present traffic pattern from the Plaza de Panama to the Pan-American Plaza at Presidents Way.

Members of communities around Balboa Park weren’t thrilled, and neither was the Save Our Heritage Organisation, or SOHO. The preservationist group challenged the plan in court in 2012, and Irwin Jacobs, the philanthropist who’d been its champion, dropped it in the wake of Taylor’s ruling.

In May of this year, when the appellate court overturned the ruling, Jacobs told the Union-Tribune he wanted some time to review things before commenting further. I reached out to see whether he’d had enough time to consider diving in for Round 2.

The Jacobs plan for Balboa Park is back... kinda.

“Joan and I have many other projects we are involved with at this time and are simply watching legal and other developments within the city,” Jacobs wrote in an email. He clarified the legal developments referred specifically to the Balboa Park project.

So right now, the revived plan doesn’t have a substantial funding source. That isn’t the only potential roadblock.

On July 8, SOHO filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, after its petition for a rehearing by the appellate court was denied. The Supreme Court has 60 days from that filing date to consider taking up the case, and may extend that time another 30 days.

Gordon Kovtun of KCM Group was Jacobs’ chief consultant on the plan. Kovtun said the “legal issues” would need to be resolved before anyone commits to moving forward, but said he couldn’t speak for Jacobs. Gerry Braun, spokesman for the city attorney’s office, confirmed the city must wait “as it’s technically still up on appeal.”

Craig Gustafson, press secretary for the mayor, said Faulconer “was supportive of the project as a Council member and continues to believe it represents a wonderful opportunity to improve Balboa Park. The city is waiting for full resolution of the litigation before determining whether to proceed with the project.”

Faulconer and Councilman Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park, both said earlier this year that reconsidering the plan would involve taking another look at the park itself, and the many changes it’s undergone in the last three years.

Former Mayor Bob Filner pushed through a deal after the 2013 rejection of Jacobs’ plan that mostly removed vehicles from the plaza. The Cabrillo Bridge experienced a $40 million retrofit. There’s also the new parking garage for zoo employees, and renovations to Old Globe Way.

Does the Jacobs plan still make sense for Balboa Park? That’s what the city has to consider in coming months.

“Supporters of Balboa Park have rightly used the last few years to invest in the park’s infrastructure and institutions so that it remains San Diego’s crown jewel,” Gloria said in a statement. “While I still believe in the benefits of Dr. Jacobs’ vision, I am not aware of any current efforts on the city’s part to bring back the Plaza de Panama project.”

Taking Sides

Despite its hurdles, the plan’s got some support, and it’s coming from inside the house. Tomas Herrera-Mishler, CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy, and Betty Peabody, founder of the Friends of Balboa Park, represent two of the four chief organizations within the park. Both of them endorsed the plan during our live podcast event in July. Here’s Herrera-Mishler:

“The Conservancy, let me be very clear, has always been in favor of this project, and continues to be in favor of this project. That’s the policy of the board. What I want to say is, I think it’s really important that we look at the whole park, and look for those conflicts between people on foot and people in cars and get rid of them, because they’re so dangerous, and there are so many of them throughout the park.”

And here’s Peabody:

“The bypass bridge was not appealing to some people. We had members of our board as well as our membership who fell on both sides of it, so we tried to take a neutral position last time, although I served on Irwin Jacobs’ committee. No one will come out with everything they want. Everyone will come out with something, and we’ll all be better off as a result of it. We absolutely cannot have that conflict [between cars and pedestrians] any longer. The pedestrians are totally oblivious; they just wander all over in every direction and I can live with the bypass bridge … We’ve had the best people in the world – literally – working on that team, and if we can’t solve it for Balboa Park, I think we’re in trouble as a civilization.”

Beyond park boundaries, though, two potentially powerful voices are singing a different tune. Chris Ward and Anthony Bernal are running to represent District 3 on the City Council, which includes Balboa Park. Gloria fought to keep the Jacobs plan alive in February 2013, just after Taylor blocked the project.

Ward and Bernal won’t carry the same torch.

We talked with Ward and Bernal at our live podcast in June. Here’s what Ward told us when we asked whether he’d support this project if it came before the Council:

“I have a lot of really deep concerns that a lot of the community members shared from the communities that surround Balboa Park – the impacts that a project like that would have … The idea that we’re gonna have paid parking in Balboa Park was something that really, really troubled me. Balboa Park has always been free for everybody, for the public, and to be able to come there and enjoy a Saturday or Sunday afternoon free of charge – we shouldn’t have a requirement for paid parking. And putting that garage in, that was the only way the thing could pencil out … There are a lot of really good components there but I know there was some other areas of disagreement around how we would change up the Cabrillo Bridge. I’m open to ideas, and certainly was not at a level of discussion as Councilman Gloria probably was with all the stakeholders involved, but I have my doubts that I would’ve been supportive.”

Bernal said he wouldn’t support the plan either:

“Because of that new parking garage, I’m not sure if right now at this point that project needs to move forward … We have about $225 million in deferred maintenance and capital inside the park, so we gotta really focus in our investments over the next four years of where we want to spend that money. We want to make sure that we have a world-class park for the next generation and when we talk about that, we want to say … we need to rebuild some of the buildings inside the park.”

So, the two guys running to replace Gloria are against the project he helped champion. That’s a sizable hole blown in the contingent that once backed the big plan to reimagine San Diego’s crown jewel.

Add to that the pending legal challenge and absent funding source, and the future of the plan is murky at best.

Clarification: An earlier version of this piece said the Plaza de Panama was now “vehicle free.” The renovations pushed by former Mayor Filner did not completely remove vehicles — a roadway passes through the edge of the plaza.

Disclosure: Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Must Reads, News

    Written by Catherine Green

    Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at catherine.green@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

    18 comments
    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    It is time for the City to undertake planning for an underground parking structure at Inspiration Point, with park on top, and to delete the Organ Pavilion parking structure (w/ attendant bypass & roadway tunnel) from the Balboa Park Master Plan.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Even if Jacobs resumes his support of his plan, he never offered to pay for anything but the planning and environmental review. His stated intention was for the Plaza de Panama Committee to raise the money to pay for the bypass and parking garage.

    David Benz
    David Benz subscriber

    Get rid of the cars and bring back the Electriquette


    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    The "small changes" of The Plaza de Panama Committee's Jacobs Plan have big consequences for Balboa Park's future. It stamps The Park as a car centric destination, even though history now shows that cars create more problems than solutions. The bypass bridge, valet parking lot, trenched road with fences separating The International Cottages and The Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and a 3 story parking garage that potentially endangers The Organ while removing over 10,000 truckloads of earth to cover the hazardous Arizona Landfill on East Balboa Park Mesa is a poor solution to a Big Problem. It will create even more waiting and idling cars.

    A comprehensive solution should include a multi-modal building at Inspiration Point that links to a Central Mesa shuttle system through a tunnel underneath Park Boulevard. The Central Mesa shuttle system could travel behind The Ford Building to Pan Pacific Plaza. A secondary line could run north along the west side of Park Boulevard to Old Globe Way, then along Old Globe Way to the backside of the Globe's Administration Building to the breezeway between The California Building (Museum of Man) and the MoM Administration building to the Cabrillo Bridge and over to Sixth Avenue and West Mesa.

    The shuttle system should be electric and virtually silent running.

    Access by All of the Public is the solution, not access by those owning cars and driving to Balboa Park.

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl subscribermember

    Balboa Park should be a safe place to walk, but it’s not safe now with cars driving through the middle of the park. The Plaza de Panama project, that the City Council has already approved, would get the weekend bumper to bumper traffic jam off the Prado, out of the Plaza de California, and out of the Plaza de Panama; and give the park back to people. It would also spend money on deferred maintenance and give us much needed new parking.

    Do you have trouble finding parking at Balboa Park on a Sunday afternoon? The last time we went all the lots were full; we had to park outside the park and walk in.

    We need more parking in Balboa, but taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for a free underground parking garage. Let the people who want to park close pay for it. That will free up parking for the rest of us; 80% of the parking would still be free.

    People already pay to park at Balboa if they don’t want to walk. We have valet parking there now, that’s paid parking.

    Anthony Bernal and Chris Ward need to think about this again. City of San Diego taxpayers should not have to pay for a “free” parking garage for tourists. Take out a bond and let the tourists pay for it. That’s what the Uptown Planners who represent communities around the park voted for, and that’s what the City Council voted for.

    Brian Edmonston
    Brian Edmonston

    @Sharon Gehl


    While I don't disagree with you, I just don't think these changes are urgently needed.  We parked near 6th street and crossed the bridge.  That is technically in the park and there were enough spaces.  


    And while cars can drive in one lane on the Prado, it was fairly pedestrian friendly.  I had small children with me and it was still comfortable.


    If you want more parking add another bridge near the SW corner.  This would bring the unused parking at that corner of the park into play.  


    Combine this with the freeway lid and you could walk from little Italy to the Prado in 20 minutes.  This would fill the desperate need to reconnect these parts of the city.



    Brian Edmonston
    Brian Edmonston

    While improving the Prado is a nice idea, I don't think it is an urgent need.  The Prado is in reasonably good condition and it is reasonably friendly to pedestrians.  I was just there this weekend.


    Something much more desperately needed, however, and more worthy of Mr. Jacob's resources and influence, would be the freeway lid at Cortez Hill. This would begin at at the southwestern corner of Balboa park, not too far from the Prado.  It would extend pedestrian and park space almost down to little Italy.  


    Right now that walk from Balboa to little Italy is very unpleasant and confusing, and it should not be so.  The 5 freeway cuts a huge gash into what should be an otherwise very walkable part of the city. The freeway lid would fix that.


    This resulting new park space could potentially be connected to the Prado via a new bridge (perhaps just for pedestrians) named after the Jacobs family.


    This would be a major and worthwhile upgrade to the current park layout.


    Of course, even the very wealthy Mr. Jacobs could not afford to fund the El Cortez freeway lid, but this is where his influence would be critical.  


    I have no doubt that if Mr. Jacobs led a well organized effort, perhaps making some important phone calls to California Senators Finestein and Boxer, this project could get moving, and Mr. Jacobs would get his legacy bridge in Balboa Park that we could all enjoy.


    It would be similar to the Rose Kennedy park in Boston created during the big dig, which was Ted Kennedy's last great pork barrel success.  Beats sending our money to Iraq.





    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Why is the media continuing to beat this dead horse of an idea? Poll the public to see who wants to build a huge new concrete bridge through the heart of the park. I know we get slow news days, but stop flogging this idea whose time has long passed.

    The new employee parking garage will free up over 600 "new" parking spaces in the Zoo lot for park visitors. The Plaza De Panama is free of cars and parking. Let it go.

    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross subscribermember

    Hopefully we won't waste more taxpayers money on the ill conceived Jacob's/Sander's bypass bridge plan.

    SOHO and other preservationists fought this historically destructive plan for the 1914 Cabrillo Bridge.

    Former Mayor Filner took the correct approach of eliminating parking in the Plaza de Panama at a fraction of the cost of other plans. What was overlooked is tourists cars and tourist buses give tourists a preview of the plaza by being able to pass through. Tourism is frequently hyped as being a major revenue source in this city.

    sandiegosteven
    sandiegosteven subscribermember

    Why wouldn't we consider allowing parking charges in the park to be collected and solely used for the upkeep of the park? People can take public transit, bike or park outside and walk into the park if they don't want to pay. I think a parking fee by default will help drive other forms of transportation to use the park and provide a needed financial boost to help with park infrastructure. 

    my2centz
    my2centz subscriber

    The parking structure and garage were hideous structures as proposed which would have seriously damaged the open look of the park. I go to the park often and do not have any more trouble finding parking than going to the mall or Walmart. If they insist on building a parking structure access can be provided from Park blvd without having to build a bridge through the heart of the park. 

    Tammy Tran
    Tammy Tran subscriber

    I now realize that Dr. Irwin Jacobs' Plaza de Panama Plan may be the only way to rid cars and traffic entirely from inside the park, which would make it a lot more beautiful because of its tranquility in the middle of a bustling city.


    I just hope that the Jacobs' family would fund the entire project through some sort of Giving Pledge and proceeds from the parking garage.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Tammy Tran You're wrong - the plan would bring more cars into the Central Mesa, just re-route them through a quiet parking lot immediately adjacent to the tranquil Alcazar Garden, which would no long be tranquil because of through foot traffic from the 2-lanes for valet service. With paid parking in the garage, drivers would head for the non-paid parking at the Pan-American Plaza (Ford Building lot), or behind the Federal Building by Park Blvd. or over at Inspiration Point, using the shuttles to reach Plaza de Panama, as today.. There would still be backed-up traffic at high-use times, just as today, it would still be across the Cabrillo Bridge and slowed by the turns on and off the bypass, and by pedestrians coming and going on the bridge.

    Proceeds from the parking garage would not pay for the bonds + interest + operating expenses. SF's Golden Gate Park parking garage demonstrates that; parking fees are by the hour there and much higher than the $5 fee proposed here yet the park director had to request increases in February 2012 because of the deficit in revenue. As here, people would most likely park there for special events when the park is full or at night. Most of the time, the garage would be at least half empty or worse (based on fluctuations described for the Golden Gate Park garage).

    William Schneider
    William Schneider subscriber

    I'm of the opinion that the Cabrillo Bridge should be closed to auto traffic altogether. I don't see the point of having a bypass road run from the bridge to a parking structure. Just direct all of the traffic to Park Blvd where there can be a separate entrance and exit to a parking structure (if it's determined there's a need for one at all).

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

     "The idea that we’re gonna have paid parking in Balboa Park was something that really, really troubled me. Balboa Park has always been free for everybody, for the public, and to be able to come there and enjoy a Saturday or Sunday afternoon free of charge – we shouldn’t have a requirement for paid parking."

    For the same reason, the museums and restaurants should also be free, right? Or is free admission for cars more important than free admission for people? I don't think Mr. Ward thought this one through.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann Unless City Council imposes fee parking on all Balboa Park parking lots, the single proposed fee parking is for the Organ Pavilion structure. With free parking in all other areas, the fee parking is the last place drivers will choose to go. You cannot equate museums and restaurants, operated by non-City entities on City parkland, and trying to do so is a failure of logic.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Judith Swink If you are correct that charging anything for parking would make everyone park elsewhere, then all they have to do to free up some parking spaces at the Organ Pavilion is to charge a penny for parking. That doesn't sound so bad.

    Myron Shelley
    Myron Shelley subscribermember

    I'm not sure what defines "Preservation" and what defines "Progress". But I can understand separating vehicles and pedestrians and making it easier to visit our beloved Park.  I don't recall whether or not there were contemporaneous protests, but I can recall the days when we could drive through the Prado from Park Boulevard to Sixth Avenue until someone decided to construct a fountain in front of the Natural History Museum.  Well,  we have survived that historical desecration and it would seem that everyone is better off for it.  For Heaven' sake, people, build the bypass bridge and the garage (for those who are willing to pay a small fee for the convenience) and keep the free parking and tram from across Park Boulevard and lets get on with our lives.