Balboa Park could soon see major investments if a vision Mayor Kevin Faulconer set on Thursday comes to fruition.

None of what he’s laid out for the crown jewel with an estimated $300 million needs list, however, is guaranteed.

Faulconer announced Thursday he’s giving the go-ahead to the controversial plan to build a bypass bridge and parking garage to keep cars out of the center of the park and proposing a November ballot measure to extend a city proposition that’s now throwing minimal cash at Balboa Park.

If the measure is approved, Faulconer said, the City Council could approve a bond that could draw millions of additional dollars for Balboa Park and a handful of other regional parks in the city.

“I think we’re gonna have the dollars now to do some fantastic, overdue help in this park and that’s the good news,” the mayor said Thursday, standing in front of the Balboa Park Botanical Building.

But that new money will rely on voter approval, and details of the Plaza de Panama project also still need to be hashed out.

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

Here’s a look at the questions that still remain about the plans Faulconer announced Thursday.

How will the city (and supporters) pay for the Plaza de Panama revamp?

When the project was approved in 2012, Plaza de Panama supporters estimated it would cost $45 million to clear the plaza, build the three-level parking structure and the bypass bridge that would divert cars from the historic Cabrillo Bridge.

At the time, Qualcomm founder-turned-philanthropist Irwin Jacobs promised he and other donors would bankroll most of the project. The City Council voted to borrow $14 million for the parking structure and said it would rely on parking revenues to pay that back.

On Thursday, Faulconer said the city will need to update its cost estimate for the project and reassess its financing strategy. He pledged that the new ballot measure would not fund the Plaza de Panama project but did say parking revenues will remain a part of the financing mix.

Faulconer said the new financing plan will go to the City Council in coming months.

While Faulconer’s team works on that plan, Jacobs and the newly created Balboa Park Alliance will be out trying to raise cash.

The Balboa Park Alliance consists of the Cultural Partnership and the 29 park institutions who belong to it, plus the Balboa Park Conservancy, the Friends of Balboa Park and the Balboa Park Trust.

After the press conference, Jacobs told me the group will probably need to raise $20 million to make the project happen.

Jacobs said he’s confident that’s possible now that the project has cleared court hurdles and Faulconer and others have shown their commitment to it.

That brings more certainty that the project didn’t have before and thus makes fundraising easier, Jacobs said. “Until now, we never knew whether it was going to go forward.”

Who’s lurking on the sidelines and what does that mean?

Faulconer was flanked by many Balboa Park and city leaders when he announced his plans on Thursday but the Plaza de Panama project has always been controversial.

The Save Our Heritage Organisation, the preservationist group that sued the city over the project in 2012, vowed shortly after the press conference that it would be watching closely to see how the city would finance the project – and whether it did so legally.

Bruce Coons, SOHO’s executive director, said the group will decide whether to sue again once it gets more information.

“We have to wait for their next action before we seek to counter it,” Coons said.

An appellate court judge knocked down SOHO’s earlier challenge last year but another lawsuit could stall the project.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said Thursday he’s confident that won’t happen.

“The fight is over. The project’s been approved. The courts have blessed it,” Goldsmith said.

One key Balboa Park stakeholder was absent and offered only a a tepid statement following the press conference.

That was Councilman Todd Gloria, an early champion of the original Plaza de Panama push alongside Jacobs. Gloria represents the area on the City Council.

A spokesman for Gloria said the councilman was traveling Thursday. He said Gloria supported the mayor’s efforts to bring more funding to the park but made it clear he wants more information.

“I look forward to hearing the details of this proposal to make sure it makes sense for all regional stakeholders who care about Balboa Park,” Gloria said.

Chris Ward, who’s set to take over the Council seat now held by Gloria in December, also wasn’t at the press conference though he was listed on press releases touting the announcement. Faulconer was joined for the announcement by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and City Council members Mark Kersey and Lorie Zapf.

A spokeswoman for Ward initially told me he missed the announcement because of a doctor’s appointment.

But spokeswoman Molly Chase later wrote in an email that Ward ” decided to take time to analyze (including committee discussion today) and talk to stakeholders important to District 3 about the announcement. He hopes to be included in future discussions should these proposals move forward.”

Ward previously criticized the Jacobs plan.

It’s unclear how much sway the City Council member who represents Balboa Park will have over other Council members’ decisions or whether Gloria or Ward would oppose a financing plan. But if either did oppose it, it would potentially cripple the project or the mayor’s ability to fast-track it.

Another potential complication: City Council President Sherri Lightner, who is now responsible for setting the agenda for the Council, was the only Council member to oppose the Plaza de Panama plan when it went up for a vote in 2012.

How much money does the Mission Bay measure expansion mean for Balboa Park? And will it pass?

Almost a decade ago, Faulconer co-authored a ballot measure that ensured more cash from city leases at Mission Bay Park would flow to projects at Mission Bay Park.

That measure also pledged additional cash for regional parks including Balboa Park, Mission Trails Regional Park and several others. Historically, it hasn’t brought significant cash to Balboa Park.

Now Faulconer’s asking the City Council to place a measure on the November ballot that would extend and rework some aspects of the Mission Bay Park ordinance, known at the time as Prop. C. One tweak would likely bring an additional $1 million to regional parks annually. It would increase the share of Mission Bay Park money going to other regional parks and reduce the amount going to Mission Bay Park.

That alone wouldn’t be a significant game-changer for Balboa Park, which would only receive a piece of the pie.

But another piece Faulconer’s proposing could be more meaningful. He wants the city to seek a 30-year bond that his staff believes could be leveraged by Mission Bay lease revenues and used to borrow $44 million. Katherine Johnston, the mayor’s director of infrastructure and budget policy, said Thursday the city estimates some of Balboa Park’s historic structures need $60 million in upgrades.

Johnston said the mayor wants Balboa Park projects to take priority early on if the ballot measure and the bond move forward.

“The intent is to have very strong focus on Balboa Park,” Johnston said. “We would like transformative change there.”

But there’s still much to be hashed out and it’s not clear how much Balboa Park could benefit over the long haul.

Then there’s the fact this change will require voter approval, which is likely but not certain.

After all, that November ballot is getting increasingly crowded.

Should the Plaza de Panama plan of three years ago be updated to reflect today’s realities?

There was much blowback when the Plaza de Panama project was proposed years ago. Opponents argued the project destroyed the park’s historic character and brought more cars into the center of the park, even if it diverted cars from the Plaza de Panama.

Many also said the park didn’t actually need the 797 underground spots from the new garage.

But the mayor’s office said the plan is to move forward with the same general plan and that its interest is more about reclaiming six acres now covered in asphalt and turning them into public spaces – permanently.

“This is reclaiming the heart of the park to improve the visitor experience,” Johnston said.

That’s not to say there may not be minor tweaks. For instance, Jacobs said, a water feature initially planned for the plaza may not make sense given the drought.

Generally, though, backers said the plan should go forward as is since it’s already been approved.

Yet there have been changes since that Plaza de Panama plan first emerged. There’s a new parking lot for San Diego Zoo employees and more visitors are getting to the park through alternate modes of transportation. The plaza’s already been mostly cleared of cars.

Gloria has previously suggested the city spend time analyzing whether it still made sense.

“Given the numerous changes in Balboa Park over the past three years and the current focus on celebrating the centennial, it would be appropriate to examine the project in the current context to ensure its continued viability at this time,” Gloria said last May after the appellate court ruling.

But Peter Comiskey, who leads the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, said the bypass bridge and parking garage address an issue institutions who belong to his group remain all too familiar with: Visitors often slowly crawl the park looking for parking and on busy days, they don’t always find it.

Comiskey believes the Plaza de Panama plan will collectively tackle all those issues – and turn the dilapidated asphalt lot behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion into parkland at the same time.

“The plan is the best thought out plan that exists on the books, period,” he said.

Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee and longtime opponent of the Plaza de Panama plan, believes the city should’ve at least studied current parking needs at the park before recommitting.

Some review is likely in coming months before the project goes to a City Council vote but no major fact-finding efforts are planned.

“There has been no analysis that I’ve heard of that takes into account the impact of the zoo employee parking structure on how many spots that’s created for the general public and tourists,” Granowitz said. “The parking structure does not meet best practices for parks.”

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.

    John Thurston
    John Thurston

    Though design compromise considerations should still be worked on so that the by pass bridge looks as though it has always been there, this plan is and has always been the  best thought out plan for eliminating cars, and cross park traffic congestion from the park.

    The naysayers will as you can read below, make all sorts of hateful comments towards San Diego's most generous philanthropist, and anyone who dares to question the liturgy of the Taliban like SOHO and their ilk. These "Preservationists" have never in my memory of living here since 1959 ever been capable of working together for a common goal, achieving win win compromises, or causing anything other than an outcome that didnt waste everyone's time and money, yet produces nothing positive say for the egos of its director and his wife.

    Rather than resorting to the hysteria of the plans critics with  comments about 1000s of trucks of dirt, methane spewing landfills, and the destruction of all they hold sacred, a few rational points should be considered.

    Mass Transit must make a return to the Park and Zoo to reduce overall auto traffic to those destinations. That extension will not come free or from hiked price to the zoos and museums, but most likely a combination of Transit tax sources. There is no free lunch, or parking or Trolley.

    There once was a loverly terraced arcade about the location of the Fountain is now where the "Street Car" stop was for decades. Though a trolley extension would be a great aid in reducing auto traffic, it is totally foolhardy to expect the auto to disappear anytime soon in Southern California, nor for visitors arriving at Lindbergh Field to not travel directly up Laurel street to the Park.  Parking infrastructure on the west side of the park is economically and politically infeasible. Traffic could never be worse than it is now with people using the park as  bypass from Bankers Hill/Hillcrest to North/South Park. All that would cease with the parking garage only access on the Laurel Street bridge.

    Shuttles from inconvenient locations downtown would only replace private automobiles on the exact same congested roads.

    Filner's Plaza de Sahara reduction of parking spaces is a fine ad for cheap Target patio furniture, but still allows for an annoying mix of cross park traffic, museums goers, valets, and buses must be dodged by pedestrians. Get all vehicular traffic out of the original pedestrian plazas, its really very simple, but there is no satisfying the never change a thing, never want to pay for a thing crowd in this town.

    Comments about destroying the Park, or no public park charges for parking are being made by those who are apparently unaware of the newly completed and successful parking garage in once formerly terribly congested Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Last I checked that city and its Park are still a #1 destination and visited park in the country, seemingly un-destroyed by the inclusion of pay parking.

    We must do something to maintain and pay for  Balboa Park's existing crumbling building infrastructure, but it's 1950s era automobile routing and accommodations must be updated to and paid for with 21st century realities, not some idyllic return to the past, nor any unrealistic bicycle utopias.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    The museums "support" this because they have all received numerous threatining calls to their Executive Directors, from Sanders and Faulconer implying that their free rent and TOT monies were in jeopardy if they didn't fall into line. I guess if all the regular citizens got such calls from the Mayor, threatining higher water bills or something , then more would be for it. As it is, there are very few supporters of this that aren't on the potential payroll, recipients of threats, personal friends of Mr Jacobs, or those just willing to take a Mayor at his word. Mayor Faulconer thinks he has a new mandate, but notice that he never dared to mention this during the campaign. The election was only 3 weeks ago, this had to have been solidly in the works then.

    And, by the way, the Voice of San Diego needs to be investigating contributions from the logical beneficiaries of this, such a the Jones family/Ace Parking, and various contractors.

    sosocal subscriber

    So will Ace Parking be paid to run this? Just asking...

    Brer Marsh
    Brer Marsh

    Did you know that the "crown jewel" is also referred to as "The Balboa Park-ing Lot"? And yet they still want to pour more concrete to house more cars.

    Here is one of many suggestions I have to offer. Develop a bicycle valet service that is indoors and secure. Bicyclists would ride up and check their bikes for free and be able to leave them there while enjoy the park worry free. It could be self serve during the week and have a valet during busy days. Knowing there is a secure place to park an expensive bicycle would encourage people to ride instead of drive.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    It will probably take a public referendum to stop this juggernaut. While we're at it, maybe its time to eliminate all city taxpayer subsidies to all the Balboa Park Alliance member institutions. If they are unable to stand on their own financially, perhaps they shouldn't be enjoying sweetheart facility leases in the park. If Dr. Jacobs and his buddies want to contribute to something, let them finance the maintenance of Balboa Park buildings that are falling apart because the organizations occupying them won't pay for their upkeep, and the city won't either.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    As an octogenarian Balboa Park user who is not using a walker yet but has a bit of trouble walking long distances , particularly uphill, here are the improvements I’d like to see:

    1. A tram that stopped, picked up and disgorged people a couple of places between the hospital area and the plaza.
    1. A tram that went from the southwestern parking area across the bridge to the plaza, utilizing the parking that often is empty because for the long walking distances.
    1. Some sort of refreshment stand in the aerospace museum area.

    I personally think that the idea you mustn’t charge money for riding the tram is stupid.  A 25c fare would defray a lot of the cost and how can people object to that?  Certainly the tourists would understand, and the old timers like myself might gripe “on principle” but shortly shut up  (Exactly what principle is involved is anyone’s guess.  I suppose it’s the same one that decrees you can’t charge for parking near the beach, even though almost every city in SoCal currently does so).

    I know the Jacobs plan diverting traffic at the end of the bridge, routing it through what is now quiet vegetation into a multi-story parking garage has been vetted by a lot of people, but I’m still trying to find the problem it solves.Is the goal of totally ridding cars from a plaza that’s already essentially auto free so precious you need to spend multimillions to achieve it?If there’s all this money, let’s tackle the huge maintenance backlog.  

    Steven Greer
    Steven Greer subscriber

    This continues to be a great idea.  One issue about Balboa Park, however.  The heart of the park is as much a tourist attraction as a locals meeting place (this is different from the playing fields, and some other parts of the park).  Because of that, trolley service from downtown and from the "Hotel Circle" areas in Mission Valley could replace many of the potential car trips to the area. They should (re-) build the trolley line up Park, and then have it go to Mission Valley. Getting cars out of Balboa Park is a great idea.

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    Steven Greer - I'm not understanding how you can think that increasing traffic across Cabrillo Bridge, through a Valet Parking Lot, along a descending roadway that will separate Spreckels Organ Pavilion and The International Cottages, and ripping out over 10,000 truckloads of earth next to The Spreckels Organ that will be added to a leaking Landfill is a "good idea."

    Improving Public Access through an offsite Transportation Hub at Inspiration Point with Automated Electric Shuttles would be a good idea.

    Steven Greer
    Steven Greer subscriber

    @Kevin Swanson To each his or her own.  Having car access from 6th Avenue and the rest of the city remains important.  Taking cars completely out of the plaza de panama is a huge plus.  Keeping parking and access both to tourists and locals in the park, without a wait or walk is important.  Increasing the amount of parkland near the museums is a huge plus.

    Balboa Park, its institutions, and its uses have all changed substantially over the years.  Nothing can stop that.  Most of the original buildings were built to be torn down, and were torn down.  Keeping that dynamism alive is a good thing.

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    @Steven Greer @Kevin Swanson I proposed the concept of automated electric shuttles and a Transportation Hub at Inspiration Point 5 years ago as part of a San Diego 2015/Balboa Park 2015 outline. Using an automated shuttle system that removes cars from the Central Mesa would enable faster access and reduce the traffic nightmare that exists from the Junior Orchestra, Junior Theater and others near Old Globe Way. Creating practice and performance space above a Transportation Hub would improve safety.

    The original buildings were built to be torn down because of the budget and the short term planning, not because they were not architecturally worth saving. Even the 1935 buildings have been poorly maintained!

    The City's Politicians have continued to think on short term results without planning for long term viability. The Zoo receives a tax revenue stream for its operations, while the other Renters in the Park struggle to meet their operating expenses, even while receiving significant rent subsidies for their facilities.

    Perhaps the dynamism that is needed is for new tenants? Its tenants have not really changed substantially over the years...

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    The zombie walks again. We don't need to kill the center of the park in order to save it.  Everybody grab a garden tool and your can of gasoline and let's kill this stinking dead thing once and for all. 

    osbornb subscriber

    This is a 20th Century solution, the irony of which can be seen every Earth Day when a line of cars heading to Balboa Park is backed up along Park Boulevard all the way to University Avenue. Wouldn't it make more sense to work out a mass transit plan for park visitors that helps San Diego achieve its climate action goals?

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    I'm very curious about the parking structure revenue projections for reasons other than paying for the structure.  Of course, paying for itself would be an important piece. But it is at least plausible that the parking garage could help generate operations and maintenance revenue for the park as a whole in the long term.  Paying the true cost of parking, while unpopular to some, is the right call.   I'll leave the preservationist considerations to the experts, but given the massive, chronic underfunding of existing liabilities in the park I can understand why so many who work inside the park are supporting the concept.  I've never - not even on Earth Day or December Nights - been unable to find parking. And with the advent of ride-sharing we probably ought to at least ask if car parking demand is remaining steady versus declining. 

    In any event, there is an interesting bit of verbal gymnastics in the information about this new effort. Somehow, without a tax increase, proponents have managed to tout this as an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term funding.  Someone really must have put in significant time on that language.

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    @Omar Passons The right call would be to build a transportation hub on Inspiration Point that includes parking, facilities, and a base station for automated electric shuttle system for the Park through a tunnel underneath Park Boulevard. Another right call would be to remove the parking lots and return them to their historic uses a la the 1935 Exposition.

    bgetzel subscriber

    The proposal is historic! it is the first major initiative put forth by Mayor Faulconer ( He previously tagged on to supporting  the ill advised, and later dumped, convention center expansion.). Contrary to some of the other comments, the garage is absolutely needed. As a holder of the Balboa Park Pass, I ffrequently vist the park and all its museums. I found that I can never visit the park after noon or on weekends, as finding parking is a real chore at those times. We need to make parking easier for park visitors.

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    @bgetzel Consider parking offsite and using Public Transportation to visit the Park. The money that is being spent could provide landscaping in the Park - along with a FREE Shuttle service from the Smart Corner Trolley Station to the Park. We need to make ACCESS easier - and that does not need to include paving Park Land to put in a Parking Lot - as was done during the last 100 years.

    Kristen Aliotti
    Kristen Aliotti subscriber

    To think you start out (again) with the false statement that this is an effort to keep cars out of the center of the Park. 

    Why do you keep repeating lines like that? It's simply not true. Consider the location of the garage. It is also very much in the "center of the park." 

    The fact is it does exactly the opposite. Its result (and perhaps the GOAL) is to bring cars into the center of the park FASTER, destroying several hugely important spaces in the process. 

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    "Faulconer's Folly" "The Big Dig" actually increases traffic across Cabrillo Bridge and President's Way - and creates traffic in the Heart of the Park Central Mesa through Valet Parking Services. "The Big Dig" will create a descending stream of cars between the International Cottages and The Spreckels Organ Pavilion while over 10,000 truckloads of earth are ripped out next to the historic Spreckels Organ. That earth will be trucked to Balboa Park's East Mesa and piled onto The Arizona Canyon Landfill. That Landfill, created by dumping toxic trash into a canyon, continues to leach waste into the Balboa Park Aquifer while methane gas exhausts into the air.

    Visionary Planning would look at building a Transportation Hub at Inspiration Point and using an Automated Electric Shuttle System from it under Park Boulevard to deliver Visitors throughout the Central Mesa.

    "Faulconer's Folly" creates more problems for the Public Park while catering to the "haves" desire for Valet Parking.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    The FY-2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report documents that the City of San Diego has $1,747,256,000 = $1.7 Billion in Cash Reserve Fund Balances (see Pages 174-175). With approximately +$700 million available for CIP Infrastructure project according to the Independent Budget Analyst (IBA) and Financial Management.  The +$700 million available and Unencumbered could pay for ALL Regional Park needs. Mayor Faulconer has been hoarding this Cash since 2013.  Cash in the Bank through Cash Reserve Fund Balances  exists to build the unneeded Jacobs Bridge to Nowhere.

    The City of San Diego Cash Reserve Fund Balances increased dramatically due to the liquidation of $500 million =  $0.5 BILLION  in Successor Agency (SA) to the former Redevelopment Agency (RDA) Assets and ongoing Revenue.  All outside the normal Budget process.  

    City staff state the reason why no shovel-ready projects exist is Either Due to a lack of funding or Staffing.  There has never been a lack of Infrastructure CIP Funding, only a lack of Staffing by Mayor Faulconer.  

    The City of San Diego created this massive non-well-known Pot of Gold, including adding an additional $273,506,000 = $273.5 million Cash between FY-2014 and FY-2015.  With no plans to spend until FY-2019 at the earliest. 

    Please investigate the available funding siting in the bank for the unwanted Balboa Park Centennial Bridge, or any Neighborhood Infrastructure project.

    Even though the City of San Diego has cash in the Bank, they are still taking on New Bond Debt and Bank Fees. Please analyze these Shady practices. 

    justagirl1 subscriber

    How about a parking structure built in the parking lot east of Park Blvd, where the Old Navy Hospital used to be?  Or a parking structure in the parking lot on the west side of Park Blvd, before you get to the gym?  I don't think the Laurel Street Bridge should be modified.

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    @justagirl1 Think "Transportation Hub" that includes parking, Bus or Shuttle Service from Downtown (e.g. Trolley Stop at Smart Corner and hotels), and an Automated Electric Shuttle System that accesses the Central Mesa through a tunnel underneath Park Boulevard. Using a "Wheel & Spoke System" there could be smaller automated electric vehicles at various stops throughout the Park for physically challenged to be taken to their final destinations.

    Balboa Park could be a model for Sustainability, instead of being a model in worship of the car...