San Diego’s City Council has cleared the way for the Plaza de Panama project, including a bypass bridge leading to a new parking garage behind and Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

The design of the bridge as currently proposed lacks the dignity of the rest of the park. The Cabrillo Bridge is a nationally significant structure and any bypass bridge that connects to it should be held to the same standard of design excellence set a century ago.

The problem is that the bypass project looks like any other auto-oriented off-ramp, like one you might see leading into a parking any parking garage between Sabre Springs and Riverside. The design is an afterthought, and it breaks the flow of one of the best designed places found in San Diego.

It is poorly conceived because it is focused only on moving traffic. This will scar the core area built to host the Panama Exposition because every other building, street, plaza, park space and parking space in it was executed with tremendous design acumen over a century ago for our pleasure.

What value will this bypass bridge have 100-years from now? We are ignoring San Diego’s cultural heritage with a parking garage and bypass bridge that diverts people away from the park’s intended beauty and ceremonial procession into an enclosed parking lot.

The Panama Exposition grounds and Cabrillo Bridge that leads to them have shown us over the past century that great design generates economic value. The private sector profits from the imaging and branding that great civic design brings. The tourist experience is exalted, and word of mouth and return visitors bring dividends to San Diego’s quality of life and livability. These unique places are springboards for economic development that attracts and retains talent and investment. When we invest in ourselves, others see the value and are more willing to build on our collective investment. There are only a few places in San Diego where this is applicable, and this is one of those places.

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

Residents may not know it, but the Panama Exposition was designed around a big idea.
In Carleton Winslow’s “The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition,” master architect Bertram Goodhue clearly explains the brilliant metaphor he built into the design of the event grounds.

He intended to give visitors a virtual tour of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, represented by the Cabrillo Bridge. Then, he took them through the Panama Canal, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide, which was represented by the California Quadrangle and its California Tower as a beacon. They’d then ascend the Mexican Riviera coastline, as represented by the Spanish Arcades. Finally, they’d experience a majestic arrival at a new California Arcadia – The Plaza de Panama.

The bypass bridge fundamentally destroys this storytelling metaphor, and replaces it with nothing.


Any new bypass bridge should carefully and thoughtfully add dignity, value and delight to visitors biking, walking and tramming to visit the Panama Exposition grounds.

The city should ask the best designers in the world to give their best ideas, and in doing be bold and transparent to San Diegans about the value of the place that we all love and care for.

I have never understood why a world-class design dialog has been avoided. From the beginning, this project has been handled in a “my-way-or-no-way” manner.

A design competition would take only four to five months, and would deliver a better product than what is proposed today. It would also provide goodwill assurances to the citizens of San Diego that the quality of our public space matters. The way the structure is presented today, we can only hope for the best, as we have zero assurances the best is being considered, a century after our forefathers delivered such for our benefit.

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Opinion

    Written by Howard Blackson

    Howard Blackson is urban design director at Michael Baker International, an engineering and consulting firm, and a former employee of San Diego's Civic Innovation Lab.

    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross subscribermember

    Once again SOHO will have to sue the city to prevent the destruction of the historical entryway to Balboa Park. By the way is Mayor Faulconer going to pay for the future maintenance of the unneeded bypass bridge out of his pension?

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    To this author, no design that accommodates automobiles is acceptable. He wants everyone to have to take the bus. Hopefully electric vehicles will become more prevalent soon, so the illustrious planners who think they know where and how everyone should live have to stop using environmental excuses for restricting automobile usage, which he considers to be, "undignified."

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Sean M What would Balboa Park look like with a level playing field among all forms of transportation? Would personal vehicle storage still be subsidized by taxpayers?

    Howard Blackson
    Howard Blackson subscribermember

    Actually, I disagree with your assumption as I believe cars are necessary to deliver more people to the heart of the plaza as it is isolated on a mesa and not surrounded by a city like most european plazas. The plaza needs everyone to be delivered there every day as every night it is completely emptied of people who are not unfortunately homeless. However, the point of my opinion here is the level of design exceptionalism for the proposed by-pass bridge that has never been discussed.

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    Well, what do you know?  I had no idea that when I entered Balboa Park from the 6th Avenue side, that I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, encountering the Panama Canal locks, or being anywhere near the Mexican Riviera.  Look, I'm all for a nicely designed entry way into the heart of the park, and I can appreciate the architecture that exists there now, but please, when I hear "architect talk" regarding the images a certain structure is supposed to convey you lose me.  My feeble imagination sees a bridge crossing a canyon with a freeway, and a nice sculpture at the entrance by the Museum of Man and California Tower.  I don't see fairy dust or other imaginary things.  Maybe that's my bad.

    Remember how the "sails" at the top of the convention center was supposed to let our imaginations soar about the wonderful outdoor and aquatic lifestyle of the city.  They just look like an ugly roof to me.

    Mr. Blackson is worried that the current design of the bypass bridge "is focused only on moving traffic."  Yes, it probably does.  But when the original buildings were constructed auto traffic was nil. Most people coming to the park come by car.  It's a reality that has to be dealt with.  If a prettier design than what is currently proposed can be found, I'm all in, but lets make sure "function" isn't forgotten either.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    Did the staff report explain how the city will pay for the long-term maintenance of this new infrastructure? 

    Bridges need constant inspection, maintenance and upkeep- will the private funding cover any of these long term costs?

    sddialedin subscriber

    what a brave opinion to have after the council proceedings.

    Howard Blackson
    Howard Blackson subscribermember

    Almost as brave as posting anonymous comments online...

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    It is heart-breaking but they really don't care.  This design was done at the behest of Jacobs and it is going to be shoved down our throats.  They don't care about the historic value of the bridge; they don't care about defacing it. They don't care that it is damaging in the park itself.  They don't care that the parking problem could be solved in cheaper and more elegant ways.  We are simply the gnats that they swat away as they do what they want because of their power and money.