Institutions in the heart of Balboa Park are lobbying for the controversial project that would dramatically overhaul the space they call home.

When it comes to the Plaza de Panama plan, even many of its supporters see some downsides. They just believe the downsides are worth the trade-off. Yet the institutions within the park are one group that is getting virtually everything they want from the plan.

If the project goes forward, there will be more open space for park visitors and more centralized parking without sacrificing the western Cabrillo Bridge entrance that museums believe is crucial for their audiences. While some support the plan simply because it provides more access to the plazas for pedestrians, the museums believe all elements – clearing the plazas, increasing parking in the park’s core and maintaining the bridge entrance – are vital.

That’s led to broad support among park institutions despite the significant criticism the project’s drawn over the last five years.

“We have a wonderful, wonderful project that is intended to be a first step in the future of improving the access in and out of this park,” said Jim Kidrick, CEO of the Air & Space Museum.

Kidrick chairs Balboa Park United, an informal group of more than a dozen nonprofits and park institutions rallying behind the project.

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

Kidrick and the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a Balboa Park United member that represents 29 park institutions, wouldn’t provide a list or a count of the individual groups backing the project. Instead, they highlighted support shown in a number of Cultural Partnership board votes on the Plaza de Panama project over the years.

“We’re coming together and we’re coming out and saying we’re united in our belief that this project is worthy of completion,” Kidrick said.

The group may have played a behind-the-scenes role in reviving the project.

Kidrick and a handful of others met with philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, a longtime champion of the project, to assess his interest in moving forward weeks after the state Supreme Court declined to weigh in on the legal case that had for years put the park makeover on hold.

Jacobs told Voice of San Diego that the institutions’ interest, coupled with Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s support, supplied the “final push” necessary to put the project back on the table.

Faulconer and his staffers also met with Kidrick and other park leaders to discuss the project before the June 30 announcement that the Plaza de Panama project was back on.

That day, Faulconer said Balboa Park United and Jacobs would lead fundraising efforts for the project.

Kidrick, who later spoke on behalf of park institutions, declared the day of the announcement “the finest day for our park since 1935.” (That was the year of the California Pacific International Exposition, a major event in park history.)

Nearly a dozen park institutions hailed the improved access, increased parking and reclaimed pedestrian space in statements to VOSD.

“The plaza’s ambience and beauty are ruined by automobiles – by their noise, their smell and their incongruousness with the historic architecture,” Museum of Man CEO Micah Parzen wrote in a statement. “Diverting cars around the California Quadrangle would restore the quality of the experience in the museum’s front yard.”

Mingei Executive Director Rob Sidner said his museum, which is working on its own restoration plan that includes public space on the museum’s ground floor, is also excited about the possibilities associated with a car-less Plaza de Panama and El Prado West.

Other museum leaders, including Old Globe Managing Director Michael Murphy, emphasized the importance of the nearly 800-car garage that’s part of the Plaza de Panama plan.

“Every day and evening, park guests make it clear to us that they are frustrated by the severe shortage of parking, repeatedly proving that access, convenience and safety are important to their experience of the glories of the park,” Murphy wrote. “Lack of parking is the biggest threat to Balboa Park.”

Kidrick and Reuben H. Fleet Science Center CEO Steven Snyder both mentioned the need to hold onto multiple entry points in the park, including the western Cabrillo Bridge.

Jacobs, who etched out the overarching vision for the Plaza de Panama project, has said he decided the bypass bridge was essential because it will allow the city to boot cars from park’s central plazas while still welcoming cars in that end of the park.

Kidrick pointed to a 2011 traffic study that found about 42 percent of cars arriving and leaving the park’s central mesa drove over the Cabrillo Bridge.

“Maintaining that access has been absolutely a key element to go forward,” Kidrick said.

That’s not to say all Balboa Park institutions are on board with the Plaza de Panama plan.

Leaders of the Spreckels Organ Society, the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages and the Committee of 100 – all of which opposed the project in 2012 – said they learned of official plans to proceed with the Plaza de Panama project the day of Faulconer’s announcement.

Melvin Weekley, a House of Pacific Relations board member, said the groups that collectively manage the international-themed houses near the Organ Pavilion will decide whether to take a stance on the project at an upcoming meeting. He said the nonprofit’s concerned about access to the international cottages during and after construction, particularly given the significant number of seniors involved with the organization.

Ross Porter, executive director of the Spreckels Organ Society, said his group is most focused on impacts of construction, which could interfere with the society’s performances if not properly timed, and wants to learn more about potential noise impacts associated with cars driving to the parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion.

Porter said he hopes to talk to city staffers and others working on the project more in coming months to ensure planners consider the Organ Society’s concerns.

“We collectively, I think, believe that this plan is going forward, no matter what our opinion is,” Porter said.

Mike Kelly, president of the preservation group Committee of 100, said his group will also decide soon whether to take a stance on the project. It previously supported the push to clear the plazas of cars but opposed the bypass bridge.

“We fought the battle and lost,” Kelly said.

Yet Kidrick said the lion’s share of institutions in the park and park visitors can count on a win and he’d like to add to the coalition supporting the project.

“We’re not done creating this united effort,” he said.

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.

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    #FaulconersFolly The Biggest Threat to Balboa Park is The City Council and Mayor, who as Trustees for The Public are ready to immortalize The Automobile in direct conflict with The City's Limate Action Plan.

    Because they are unwilling to hear alternatives such as a Parking Garage (or garages) along Park Boulevard next to The Natural History Museum, The Reuben H Fleet, the Zoo Parking Lot or Inspiration Point, they will build a Bridge and trencher roadway that will cut into The Heart of Balboa Park.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    The guy from the Globe thinks that parking is the biggest threat. I guess he forgot the two theatres they lost in arson fires. And I imagine he forgot how much worse parking was when Starlight was running shows on the same nights that the Globe had three theatres going. The problem is the park needs more frequent shuttles going to more different lots, at more different times. Then the Park workers won't have to monopolize all the best parking spots all day. Each employee taking a good spot keeps 3-4 different users from having a turn at the spot. And I say this as a former park employee.

    Harry subscribermember

    It is truly depressing to read the comments on this article. Two drift off into discussions of Free Tuesday. One profanely professes to know what the "peop;e of SD" want. Others slander everyone involved as being bribed.

    I like the plan. Yes, it will modify the bridge, but not substantially. In exchange, the historic character of three plazas will be recovered and a wonderful pedestrian space created. Finally, an ugly parking lot will be turned into a large grassy park.

    Judge the plan on it's merits and demerits. Don't get caught up in unsubstantiated charges and mysterious conspiracies.

    kkmrnn subscriber

    It seems that the Old Globe's managing director is only interested in what is good for the Old Globe. That may be true for other museums and cultural institutions as well. Balboa Park has many needs. I am a volunteer at two of the museums and usually go to the park twice a week. Among other things some of the buildings have persistent plumbing and HVAC problems. Some of the plumbing problems have resulted in flooding in the San Diego History Center. In my opinion, the problems with some of the buildings are a more serious problem than parking. 

    I'm one of the people who really dislikes Free Tuesdays. In part because the park is much noisier and more crowded than other days of the weeks. In addition, I would like people to value the museums by paying an admission. By the way, the Museum of Photographic Arts has a pay what you wish policy that is in effect all days of the week. 

    I don't know what I think of the Jacobs' plan. I do support the idea of charging people for parking in a parking structure. If the parking structure is actually built I would hope that the city also charges for on parking on Park Boulevard, 6th Avenue and the other lots in the park.

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    The museums constantly make a point of how little they receive from ticket sales and how they depend on big donors to operate. Why not show a table of revenues and sources for them over the past 10 years along with their rents and major expenses?

    They really hate the Free Tuesday for Residents - when the Parking Lots are most impacted. What is the attendance rate for the Museums? What are the Parking Studies used to support this plan?

    The Mayor and City Council have zero practical knowledge of Park Planning. Have they even read the 2008 Legler-Benbough funded study on Balboa Park - the Soul of San Diego? Has Jacobs and the other supporters?

    How are they justifying their actions in creating this uncalled for and unneeded change to the very fabric of Balboa Park? Are they stating that they know better than the Experts?

    Nothing like $$$$ to make them "Experts who know what is best for the masses/sheep."

    Stella Grimswald
    Stella Grimswald subscriber

    Who gives a F*** what the F****** museums want!  THE PEOPLE of San Diego DO NOT want a F****** freeway off-ramp on the historic Cabrillo Bridge.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    In 2009, Kidrick tried to get the Atlas missile that used to be out on Kearney Mesa (Missile Park), and is now at Gillespie Field, approved in Balboa Park between the Aerospace Museum and the Automobile Museum. On parkland not in either leasehold.

    Not only is that inappropriate for Balboa Park but his reasoning was that the museum would mock it up to look like the Atlas rocket used in Project Mercury then put the museum's space capsule (may or may not be a replica, don't know) on top. 

    The Atlas rocket at Gillespie Field is a Model 2E, upgraded from the Atlas D, and it never left SD. It was tested in Sycamore Canyon then retired. It was designed specifically for use as a nuclear ICBM to be launched from underground "coffin" facilities.

    The Atlas D was decommissioned as an ICBM in 1964 and extensively remodeled for use in the space program (but was not the only type of rocket used).

    So, Kidrick wanted to pass off an Atlas E ICBM which never saw the Space Program as an Atlas D as used in Project Mercury. Ran into a lot of opposition outside of the museum and soon learned, at a cost to the museum's bottom line, how much more it would have cost to carry the proposal through to an amendment to the Balboa Park Master Plan, with no guarantee that the proposal would be approved.

    Nicole Larson
    Nicole Larson subscribermember

    What they like is Jacobs' money. This is bribery pure and simple. A new parking garage could easily be built without destroying the Cabrillo Bridge.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Every day and evening, park guests make it clear to us that they are frustrated by the severe shortage of parking...Lack of parking is the biggest threat to Balboa Park.

    How often does the Presidents Way parking lot get completely full? I think it's time for a Fact Check.

    charloub subscribermember

    Why don't you do a report on how much money Qualcomm or the Jacob's family have given to the various museums in Balboa Park over the last few years.  That will tell you why they are all supporting the plan.  No support = no money.