Plaza de Panama: How We Got Here - Voice of San Diego

Balboa Park UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Plaza de Panama: How We Got Here

Here’s a recap of the ongoing battle over plans to transform
Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama, and a look at what happens next.

 

The fight over Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama is playing out in increments — a council vote here, a press conference there, a lawsuit filed.

But those increments all narrate a larger story about competing visions for the park. We wanted to stitch those bits together to give you an idea of where things are and where they’re headed.

For more than two decades, city officials have had a vision for transforming the Plaza de Panama into an area for pedestrians instead of cars.

When Mayor Jerry Sanders made that a priority last year, it looked like it would finally happen. But because the city couldn’t afford it, he went to Irwin Jacobs, the Qualcomm co-founder who’s also a major local philanthropist, and asked him to help.

Jacobs agreed. And then things got ugly.

He didn’t like the city’s plan, so he proposed his own. The mayor loved it.

But preservationists were up in arms.

What Went Wrong?

Jacobs wants to remove all cars from the plaza, but the city’s original plan would only have removed some. We’ve broken down Jacobs’ proposal in illustrated posts that have shown how the project would build a new bridge to reroute cars away from the plaza and what a proposed underground parking garage with a rooftop park to replace an existing parking lot would look like.

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Preservationists were horrified because they believed the plan would destroy the park’s historic character. We’ve illustrated their main alternative and others that have emerged through the debate. Preservationists are fighting Jacobs’ plan. But as we’ve also reported, this fight is unlike the ones preservationists are used to engaging in.

They most often deal with developers hoping to turn a profit, and are able to use both economic incentives and lawsuits to forge compromise over the demolition or alteration of historic buildings. But Jacobs, already one of the county’s richest men, is not out to make money on the project.

That, along with the weight of the mayor behind him, has allowed him to forge ahead even in the face of a lawsuit filed by preservationists, acknowledging their demands but not ceding to them.

That has infuriated his opponents, and it has illuminated another dynamic at play throughout the saga, one that civic observers believe is just as important as the park plan itself.

A Prevailing Undercurrent

Faced with persistent budget shortfalls, the city of San Diego can no longer afford even basic services like keeping libraries open every day or trimming trees. More and more, it’s having to turn to private donors and citizens to perform functions the city has always done in the past, a trend our Scott Lewis opined was exemplified by Jacobs’ involvement with the Plaza de Panama.

Sanders said that without Jacobs’ commitment to raise money for the plaza’s transformation, it wouldn’t get done. So Jacobs has been able to drive what the plaza’s transformation will look like.

The Mayor’s Office has touted the project as a sterling example of what the cash-strapped city can accomplish through so-called public-private partnerships.

Opponents of the plan have criticized this approach, however, saying the mayor has put the future of one of the city’s most beloved places in the hands of one private citizen because he has the money to pay for its design, allowing the public to be shut out of the process.

The Battle Continues

In August, the preservationist group leading the opposition, the Save Our Heritage Organisation, sued the city. It’s challenging an agreement that the City Council approved with Jacobs in July promising to support him as he continues refining his proposal and studying its environmental impacts before bringing it to the City Council for a final vote.

SOHO’s lawsuit actually cited the same court case in claiming the council’s agreement was illegal as the city did in arguing the opposite. We examined the complex legalities of both sides’ arguments.

That case is expected to come before a judge in the coming months.

In the meantime, both the Mayor’s Office and opponents of Jacobs’ plan have stepped up public outreach to win over supporters to their side.

SOHO has held a rally, attended community planning group meetings and given walking tours in the park to try to convince people the changes would be destructive.

Proponents have also increased outreach. Earlier this month, the mayor recruited former NBA superstar Bill Walton to be a public spokesman for the project. Jacobs’ design team is hosting walking tours of its own, to try to convince visitors to the park that Jacobs’ project would vastly improve visitors’ experience.

Jacobs’ team is moving quickly, sorting out permit requirements and completing an environmental report it expects to release for public review by January, with the hope of getting the City Council to vote on the project by late spring.

Disclosure: Jacobs is a major supporter of voiceofsandiego.org.

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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