The plan to make over Balboa Park’s central mesa is officially back on.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and a slew of park leaders recently announced that plans to move forward with a dramatic overhaul of the heart of the park.

The plan, now part of the city’s longterm planning blueprint for the park, collected dust following a 2012 lawsuit. Now that the project’s back on the table, let’s revisit what inspired it and what the folks behind it envision.

What the Overhaul’s About

In 2010, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders declared that he wanted to transform the Plaza de Panama. The plaza had long served as hub for cars rather than the pedestrian space it was decades ago.

Approached by Sanders, Qualcomm co-founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs decided a more drastic makeover was needed.

Jacobs eventually sunk millions of dollars into plans and studies. He proposed clearing all the plazas in the center of the park and building a bypass bridge that directed arriving cars from the Cabrillo Bridge to a grass-covered, partially underground parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

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

The plan was eventually approved by the City Council in July 2012 after a series of contentious public meetings. Then it languished for years after a lawsuit by the nonprofit Save Our Heritage Organisation and a ruling against the plan that’s since been overturned.

While that plan was on hold, ex-Mayor Bob Filner decided to take action. He removed parking from the Plaza de Panama and opened its upper end to pedestrians. It’s since been outfitted with tables and chairs and more recently, lined with sculptures from the Museum of Art.

Fast-forward to 2016. Now, even with much of the Plaza de Panama cleared of cars, wanderers still encounter vehicles in the southern portion of the plaza. They also often walk in front of them or nearly into them in the Plaza de California, El Prado West and the Esplanade south of the Plaza de Panama.

The three-level garage could add at least 260 net parking spots in the center of the park, an area where motorists and pedestrians often nearly collide and drivers crawl through lots in search of parking.

Yet the plan was never just about parking. Nor will it solve all of Balboa Park’s parking woes, Jacobs said.

Jacobs and the designers were most focused on allowing park visitors, rather than cars, to dominate the park’s core and to avoid the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts.

“I think people will just be unaware of cars when they’re in Balboa Park now,” Jacobs said.

What the Overhaul Will Look Like

Right now, motorists making their way into Balboa Park from the Cabrillo Bridge drive through two plazas – the Plaza de California and El Prado West – before they get to the more better-known Plaza de Panama.

If the project goes forward, a bypass bridge will instead take motorists around those plazas and into the Alcazar Garden parking lot.

Rendering courtesy Heritage Architecture & Planning
Rendering courtesy of Heritage Architecture & Planning

Here’s what it looks like now before you drive into the Plaza de California.

VOSD file photo
VOSD file photo

And here’s a rendering that shows what it may look like after the overhaul.

Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

Preservationists dislike that the bypass bridge would block a view of the south wing of the Museum of Man, shown above, that’s now covered by trees. They’re also frustrated that the plan would require the removal of about 70 feet of railing on the Cabrillo Bridge and the sidewalk alongside it.

SOHO and others, including a National Park Service official, have suggested the city consider other plans that would avoid changes to the bridge.

Supporters of the overhaul have long argued other aspects of the project – namely the reclamation of plazas visitors now share with cars – make that move worthwhile and that other options they studied wouldn’t fully accomplish that goal.

Here’s what the Plaza de California and the El Prado West look like now.

Photo courtesy KCM Group
Photo courtesy of  KCM Group
Photo courtesy KCM Group
Photo courtesy of KCM Group

And here are what renderings suggest they’ll look like in the future.

Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group
Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

Cars would also be booted from the southern portion of the Plaza de Panama and the Esplanade roadway to its south.

Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group
Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

Instead, cars that enter the park via the Cabrillo Bridge would be routed to the Alcazar Garden lot. Handicapped visitors would park there and others could pay for valet service or drop off passengers.

Others would drive through that lot to a garage that would replace the big asphalt lot you see in the first photo below. It will have space for nearly 800 cars.

Here are before and after views from the sky.

VOSD file photo
VOSD file photo
Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group
The city of San Diego is counting on parking revenue from a new garage in Balboa Park to cover its share of a project that would remake the park's central mesa.

This is what designers say one of the garage entrances will look like from the ground.

Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

And here’s a partial look at the top of the garage, which would be converted into about two acres of public space.

Rendering courtesy KCM Group
Rendering courtesy of KCM Group

SOHO has also expressed concerns about this part of the makeover, saying it would disrupt the park’s natural landscape.

The team pushing the overhaul has emphasized improvements in the area and that it would contribute to their overarching goal: reclaiming land now crawling with cars.

What It’ll Take to Make it Happen

Despite the objections, the plan to remake Balboa Park’s central mesa is part of the city’s official development plan for the park – and now it’s also got support from the mayor and many park leaders.

That means it’ll likely move forward as long as cash for it comes in and a new financing plan is approved by the City Council.

SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons, whose group’s lawsuit put the project on hold for years, pledged to watch the matter closely.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has said he believes the court’s more recent blessing of the project should shield it from legal hold-ups.

The city plans to consult experts to come up with a new cost estimate for the project, initially thought to be about $45 million.

Faulconer has said staffers will also be revisiting the financing scheme for the project.

The mayor said paid parking in the new garage, also a controversial element of the project, will remain part of the funding mix. The city had planned to use parking revenue to cover the cost of a $14 million bond to bankroll garage construction, the piece of the project that the city was supposed to cover.

The city could seek other city-controlled funding sources depending on how much project costs have increased since 2012.

Private donors were originally supposed to foot the rest of the bill.  Jacobs said he’s already dropped about $11 million on the project and expects others will write the additional checks.

Jacobs and a contingent of Balboa Park institutions will be leading fundraising efforts once they get a new cost estimate for the project. Jacobs has repeatedly expressed confidence that the money will materialize.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Must Reads, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Steven Lord
    Steven Lord

    oh my... PEOPLE!!  Those of you who continue to object to this project are arguing to "preserve" the lovely blight of ugly parking lots, bothersome vehicles competing with pedestrians and tranquility, viewsheds of the backsides of buildings and a "natural" landscape of asphalt and dirt.  Surely you all realize that LITTLE about Balboa Park has "escaped" development and improvements since it's earliest days (thankfully), otherwise, we'd be looking at a treeless landscape without gardens, a phenomenal zoo, museums or the Old Globe. The city of San Diego doesn't always get it right when it comes to development, but in this instance we should be applauding this project and profusely thanking Irwin Jacobs for his forward-thinking and selfless magnanimity.  Naysayers here represent the ever-present minority of vocal opponents to progressive change, particularly when it inconveniences them.  And let's please disabuse ourselves of any notion that anything worthwhile that the city provides us should be free, including parking.  Public spaces cost money to development and maintain, and user-fees for parking are logical and entirely appropriate.  Perhaps low- or fixed-income San Diegans could receive subsidized parking passes? Maybe EVERY city resident should be able to purchase discounted monthly or annual passes.

    Kristen Aliotti
    Kristen Aliotti subscriber

    Your disclosure about VOSD major funding coming from Irwin Jacobs (promoter of the terrible PAID PARKING GARAGE Plan)  should be at the beginning of every article, not at the end. Every sentence of VOSD pieces about Balboa Park, the Plaza de Panama, or parking there should be evaluated carefully, in light of your dependence on your donor. 

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    "Crawling with cars" - what was the traffic count when the Cabrillo Bridge was closed for renovation? The economic impact? The parking garage replaces 680 free parking spaces with 680 paid spaces, providing convenience for people with the money to spend - and increasing the overall costs to people visiting the Park.

    #FaulconersFolly does NOTHING to fix the underlying challenges facing Balboa Park as identified in the 2008 Study funded by The Legler-Benbough Foundation.

    Where is Faulconer's Plan for that? The proposed Charter Change and allocation of Lease Revenues generates only $1M additional annual dollars for 5 regional parks (BP is 1).

    Mary Keeley
    Mary Keeley

    As I understand it, the original charter of Balboa Park stated that the Park would be free to all citizens IN PERPETUITY. That means free forever--paying for parking will prohibit low income citizens from enjoying this marvelous park. I believe the money could be better spent in restoring the lovely and unique buildings we have in the park.  I fear profit making will simply ruin our park. Even Central Park has only one road for cars going through one small portion and no parking lot marring its beauty! Our park is just as unique and much more careful consideration should be made before it is harmed forever.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Mary Keeley On the other hand, not charging by the hour for parking allows people to hoard parking spaces all day and prevent others from enjoying the park.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Mary Keeley Simple solution:  San Diego City residents show their driver license upon leaving the garage.  Free.  If your license is from El Cajon, Vista, London or New York, or anywhere else outside of the city of San Diego, you pay.

    merlot4251 subscriber

    The simple answer is to close the Cabrillo Bridge to all vehicular traffic and reroute the traffic around to the Park Blvd side for those wishing to go to the zoo or museums.  Extend the tram service across Cabrillo Bridge to the west side of the park for those not wishing to drive around to the other side.  I ride my bicycle on a regular basis in the park and on weekends, with the cars backed up across the bridge, they are usually too close to the curb to ride, so I have to walk my bike across on the sidewalk.  This encounters another problem with the narrow sidewalks and large numbers of people, small kids and strollers, as well as dogs going and coming to the dog park at the west end of the bridge. This would allow dedicated bike lanes in each direction across the bridge with the center lane for the tram.  Secondly, construction of a parking structure behind the Organ Pavilion will create a huge amount of dust and debris.  As a member of the Spreckels Organ Society, that is Bad News for the Organ.  You would need to shroud the whole pavilion during the construction to protect this unique instrument and that would interfere with the acoustics.  A better place for the parking structure is the old Starlight Bowl.  It is abandoned, a quaint anachronism of the past, and already sits in a bowl which would involve less excavating for the parking structure.  Overall, a less expensive and more pedestrian and cyclist friendly upgrade for the park. Spend the money saved on the long list of other urgent repairs needed in the park.

    bgetzel subscriber

    People - please calm down! In the name of decency, you needn't slander the name of a man who has done much for this city and who has the city's best interests at heart. Irwin Jacobs spent millions of his own money in developing this plan, and he is not going to make a dime from its fulfillment.It is your right to to state your opinion of the plan. But, if you do so, stick to some evaluative criteria. Unfortunately, it appears that the divisiveness of national politics has infected people on the local level. 

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    The renderings hint at the descending roadway that will separate the International Cottages from The Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The roadway changes, Valet Parking Lot of Alcazar Gardens, and new 600+ paid parking spaces (with two levels paid reserve for Valet) increase traffic into Balboa Park and dumps 10,000+ truckloads of earth onto the Arizona Landfill which created the unusable part of East Mesa.

    This roadway makeover does absolutely nothing to fix the deteriorating conditions of the Balboa Park infrastructure and facilities.

    Of course The Old Globe Theater, with its wealthy supporters, will have closer valet parking for their rebuilt facilities - which have no historical significance.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Imran Awan And everyone who uses the valet parking in that lot, and everyone who uses the ADA parking in that lot, will be walking through what now is a very quiet and contemplative garden. The continuous traffic through the Garden side of the lot and the valet lanes will add to the impacts on the Alcazar Garden, even by those who would drive through to & from the garage.

    chendri887 subscriber

    What's the point of a paid parking structure?  I've gone to Balboa Park my whole life, and even on the most crowded of days, I've been able to find free parking near the park.  

    Jake Tison
    Jake Tison

    Here we go again! Nobody wants this!!  Jacob's is fishing for another wall to put his name on. Yes, The Jacob's do a hell of a lot for San Diego but this plan is horrible.

    Here's the video I put together with some real facts.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    We don't need a new $14-38 million parking garage. It would be much cheaper to put up some electronic signs directing drivers to the nearest empty parking spaces.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    Took my grand kids and family to the Museum of Man last Monday. Parked behind the Fleet theater in a disabled spot, as I get around in a wheelchair. Went from there to the Museum of Man, saw one car coming across the bridge, it was no threat to me or the kids. After the museum we went to have lunch at the Japanese restaurant next to the organ pavilion saw a grand total of one other car.  I didn't see one pedestrian jumping out of the way of cars.

    Why do people with money think they know more then the average person? Leave the park alone! From what I saw there is no problem between cars and pedestrians. Some rich person is probably in line to make lots more money from this parking garage. I don't think it has anything to do with civic enrichment, it has to do with money. 

    Stephen Hon
    Stephen Hon subscribermember

    Agree with Don Wood on the vagueness of the issue of cars colliding with pedestrians. I regularly walk and ride through Balboa Park and have not seen any issues in the Plaza especially since Filner's plan was implemented. 

    Beyond the desecration of the historic integrity of the Cabrillo Bridge and Balboa Park itself, the Jacobs plan has always been one of the worst ideas ever considered for Balboa Park in the past 40 years. It is also completely unnecessary. The fact is that relatively few cars enter Balboa Park via the Cabrillo Bridge based upon my experience as both a bike rider and a pedestrian. You could just close the Bridge to all but emergency vehicles and Park shuttles and there would be almost no impact. Most people enter the Park via Park Boulevard. The traffic study in the EIR made it quite clear that closing the bridge to traffic would have minimal impact on Park Boulevard traffic patterns.

    The article also fails to mention the impact on parking of the new Zoo Parking structure for employees, which is available to people after hours. 

    It should also be noted that the original cost estimate for the parking structure was low balled. A few years before the Jacobs plan was even proposed I heard a presentation by staff from UCSD at a community planning meeting on the cost of parking structures. Cost per space is affected by the location and whether the structure is above ground or below ground and other factors. The cheapest cost projected for the number of spaces proposed in the City's plan would have been about $28 million and could have gone as high as $38 million because the space is difficult and ventilation systems would be necessary.

    Regardless of the assessment of legality by Jan Goldsmith (whose legal record is pretty marginal) there is a real question whether a new EIR should be undertaken since the purpose and need for the project have been greatly affected by the Zoo Parking structure and the changes already made to the Plaza de Panama. 

    It would also be nice if the issue of all of the dirt excavated for the proposed garage would be dumped at Morley Field on top of the area once covered by the Arizona Street landfill be discussed at some point.  I have never seen one concept for making sure it not just dumped and raising the height from 4 to 8 feet across the landfill. Residents who enjoy running, biking or walking on top of the old landfill already have to endure the sight of the Park and Recreation vehicles stored there as well as some really ugly trailers. It is a relatively peaceful area out by the landfill open space area with great views of the ocean Balboa Park and Florida Canyon. Since it is highly unlikely that Irwin Jacobs and his rich friends ever venture over the East Mesa area, they could care less of that impact.

    Sari Reznick
    Sari Reznick subscribermember

    @Stephen Hon The most egregious part of this plan, IMHO, is the change to the Laurel Street entrance bridge into Balboa Park.  This is absolutely the worst idea period.  This entrance is beautiful and makes a real architectural statement.  Do not mess with it!  I idea of installing metal posts is hideous!  Don't people have any aesthetic sense at all?

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    This article flippantly claims that "motorists and pedestrians often nearly collide" in the park all the time. Just how often have there been cases of cars actually running into pedestrians last year? "Nearly colliding" seems like a vague claim.

    The 1989 update of the Balboa Park Master plan does call for a below grade parking garage to be built below the parking lot behind the Organ Pavilion, but it does not call for a new concrete bypass bridge running from the Cabrillo Bridge to the new garages. That element was part of Jacob's over-engineered "solution" to a problem that probably doesn't exist.

    Here is an alternate vision that VOSD and the city should seriously consider:

    1. This city should support the Citizen's Plan Initiative, which would increase the city's TOT tax and add revenue to the city's general fund.

    2. The city should use some of that addition al TOT tax to construct the below grade parking garage.

    3. The city should close the Cabrillo Bridge to automobile traffic, and educate the public to get into the park via Park Blvd.

    4. The city should use the additional TOT revenues to refurbish the California Plaza and adjoining roadway areas into

      pedestrian plazas.

    This vision would clear cars out of the north area of the park at a far lower cost, without defacing the Cabrillo Bridge or creating a massive new concrete bridge in the heart of the park.  It doesn't completely clear cars out of the whole park, but neither would the Jacob's proposal. It would invest TOT funds to build the garage without any need to begin charging for parking in the park, which may be prohibited by the city charter. It is a compromise that solves the issue of removing cars from the Prado area, without requiring major surgery to get there.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Don Wood I disagree with you on where new underground parking should be built. Any new parking structure should be built at Inspiration Point. The surface lot there accommodates over 1200 cars, a number that would be substantially more in an underground  2-3 level structure at that already somewhat terraced location than the 280 net spaces projected in the Organ Pavilion lot. The only reason the 1989 Master Plan didn't designate Inspiration Point for the parking structure is because it still belonged to the U.S. Government.