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Sizing Up the Effects of Balboa Park's Big Redo

Where things stand and what might come next for the park, the Plaza de Panama and the nearby Cabrillo Bridge.

After years of intense drama, the battle royale over Balboa Park’s future ended this summer — at least for now — with a promenade of sorts.

The Plaza de Panama, the swath of land between the art museum and the organ pavilion, is no longer a jungle of cars and pedestrians trying to avoid one another. The parking is gone and vehicles banished to one side. Tables, chairs and umbrellas have appeared and there’s plenty of strolling, lollygagging and constitutional-taking.

It’s nice. Not as nice, however, as the park’s institutions had hoped. They were banking on a grand plan to build a bypass bridge, clear the plaza of cars entirely and dig an underground parking garage. But their hopes fell victim to a court challenge. Then Mayor Bob Filner, who hated the plan, stepped in to make part of it reality in June.

He’s gone now, but his vision remains. So how are things going? Great (for a tiny museum that’s literally having the time of its life), OK (for museums as a whole) and not too well (for the disabled in particular).

Here’s a quick look at where things stand and what might come next for the park, the plaza and the nearby Cabrillo Bridge.

How’s the redesign working out for the big museums?

Remember that museum officials wanted to rid the Plaza de Panama of cars. They expected it would be a boon for the park as a whole and for their own institutions. But they didn’t get their wishes, at least not completely, and they’re not raving about the Filner redesign. They’re not bashing it, either.

Several of the park’s biggest museums — the Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Man and the Mingei International Museum — tell VOSD that they haven’t seen any noticeable change in attendance.

“We prefer to look at multiple years of attendance data before generalizing audience trends, and right now we have only been living with the new plaza renovation for a few months,” said Mingei spokeswoman Jessica Hanson York. “We can report that since the renovation our attendance is on track with last year’s numbers.”

The Museum of Art says its Sculpture Garden cafe is getting more traffic due to higher visibility, thanks to the plaza’s renovation.

What about the small museum that’s doing great?

The Timken Museum of Art has suddenly become, as they say in the movies, kind of a big deal. The museum, whose treasures include masterpieces by Rembrandt and Rubens, had more visitors in July — 22,000 — than in any other month in its 48-year history.

The museum, which is free, sits on the edge of the Plaza de Panama next to the Museum of Art. It may be getting noticed by the plaza’s new pedestrians, but Executive Director John Wilson isn’t sure what happened. “We’re just kind of scratching our heads,” he said, especially considering that the museum doesn’t have a new exhibit. It has, however, revamped its website, logo and gallery guide.

The museum also had record attendance for the month of August.

What’s up with the parking situation?

Some are concerned about the 60 or so parking spaces that were lost when the city converted the Plaza de Panama to serve pedestrians and drivers on their way somewhere else. Several spaces in the plaza were reserved for the disabled, giving them close access to the Museum of Art and The Old Globe Theatre.

“Patrons with mobility concerns are discouraged that what few spaces that were available to them in the Plaza de Panama are gone, thereby making their park experience that much more difficult,” said Michael G. Murphy, the managing director of the Old Globe. “Some patrons are unable to walk the distance from the Organ Pavilion parking lot to the Globe or the museums on the west side. Short distances can be difficult to maneuver for some individuals, and we want to provide easy access for everyone.”

But wasn’t the plaza’s parking lot — now gone — pretty small?

There weren’t many spaces in the plaza, and few were available outside of the early morning and late evening. Wilson, the Timken’s executive director, said it didn’t help that the city failed to enforce the 3-hour parking limit for the spaces.

What are they going to do about the parking problem?

Council President Todd Gloria, who’s serving as interim mayor, has said he’s working with city park officials to create more disabled parking spots in the Alcazar Garden parking lot, one of the park’s most obscure parking areas.

So where’s the Alcazar lot? You may recognize the Alcazar Garden, No. 33 on this park map, as the site of many photos of the California Tower. The parking lot is behind the garden.

Weren’t there hints of complaints just a few weeks ago?

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf aired some concerns reported by U-T San Diego, including, she said, the fact that “institutions and restaurants have experienced an immediate drop in revenue because of this, up to 20 percent.” She didn’t identify the institutions, however, and a spokeswoman told the paper that “they kind of fear retribution from the mayor’s office if they were critical of his plan.”

Now, the mayor at the time — Filner — is out of office. The councilwoman’s office later confirmed that only the Old Globe and the Prado, an upscale restaurant, had complained. And Murphy, the Old Globe official, told the paper that the theater hadn’t lost sales.

What about the new parking trams?

Parking at Balboa Park remains a challenge on busy days, although spaces are almost always available somewhere.

Yes, there’s public transportation to the park. But, like public transit as a whole in the region, it’s limited and often inconvenient. “Until adequate public transportation is a reality, we should provide easy access to the park in other ways for San Diegans and visitors,” the Old Globe’s Murphy said.

The park does offer a tram service during most daylight hours, but its stops are limited. (You can see a map of where the tram goes here.)

Filner pushed for the city to buy three large trams that can carry up to 100 people and can be used more easily by the disabled.

But Gloria’s office said the ex-mayor’s staff failed to provide the necessary fuel tanks. Gloria now expects the new trams to begin operating by mid-October.

What’s up with the Cabrillo Bridge? Will it be closed?

The Cabrillo Bridge, one of the icons of Balboa Park, links the west side of the park to its core, including the Plaza de Panama. There’s been talk about banning cars from the bridge temporarily or permanently in order to turn it over entirely to pedestrians and cyclists.

But the park’s institutions worry fewer drivers from the west will translate into fewer patrons, and they’ve opposed closing the bridge. An official with the Museum of Man, which is the closest institution to the bridge, even worried that eliminating cars would leave it “isolated on a cul-de-sac.”

Filner wanted to close the bridge this year on weekends and holidays but that plan fell apart. The bridge will be closed to cars for the first four months of 2014 for repairs. We’ll see then if the closure affects park attendance.

What else happens next?

There’s no sign that the plan that got shot down in court will come back to life, although museum bosses clearly wouldn’t mind if it returned in some form. For now, however, the plaza’s future must wait for San Diego’s next mayor to determine what he or she wants to do — and whether the other people in power will go along.

Correction: Due to incorrect information on the Balboa Park website, an earlier version of this post said parking trams don’t serve the west side of the park. They do. The city says the new trams, however, will not serve the west side of the park since their purpose is largely to serve those who park on the east side. 

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