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The Other Plan to Turn a Balboa Park Parking Lot Into a Public Plaza

City leaders still haven’t broken ground on a controversial revamp of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama, but park activists are now pushing a different plan to turn a parking lot into a pedestrian plaza.

The parking lot in the Palisades area of Balboa Park.

The parking lot in the Palisades area of Balboa Park / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

City leaders still haven’t broken ground on a controversial revamp of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama, but park activists are now pushing a different plan to turn a parking lot into a pedestrian plaza.

In 1935, the large stretch of potholed asphalt that starts at the future Comic-Con Museum and ends at the San Diego Air & Space Museum was a popular plaza. Not long after, it was paved over and turned into a parking lot.

A group of Balboa Park boosters say it’s time to implement a longstanding plan to restore the pedestrian plaza, with a large musical fountain with speakers that play melodies controlling the rise and fall of the water as its centerpiece.

The plaza is the biggest piece of a larger revitalization project in Balboa Park’s Palisades area on the southwest side of the park. Many of the city-owned buildings there, including the shuttered Starlight Bowl amphitheater, are in need of renovation and repair.

Five years ago, former Mayor Bob Filner ordered city employees to quickly pave over another parking lot in front of the San Diego Museum of Art to create a new pedestrian plaza. People now fill an open space once dominated by parked cars.

The small group of Balboa Park boosters want to see the same kind of thing happen to the Palisades parking lot. They recently held a meeting with the mayor’s office and they’re meeting with other civic groups to drum up private funding and support.

“There are no definitive plans to do that work in the Palisades lot at this time,” city spokesman Tim Graham said in an email.

The city, though, already approved the Palisades Plaza project decades ago when it adopted its master plan for Balboa Park. Vicki Estrada, the landscape architect who wrote that 1989 plan and one of the main proponents of the Palisades Plaza project, said now it’s time for the city to move.

“The way it is now with the huge parking lot, it looks like a shopping mall, not San Diego’s greatest park,” Estrada said.

A preliminary rendering by Robert Thiele Architect depicts a restored Palisades Plaza. / Rendering courtesy of Estrada Land Planning

Michael Kelly runs the Balboa Park advocacy group The Committee of One Hundred, which he says is on board with the proposal and will start focusing on it once the committee finishes funding a mural restoration project on the front of the San Diego Automotive Museum.

“We think it’s time it happens,” Kelly said. “There seems to be momentum for it. The Palisades is the worst-looking part of the central mesa. The city has barely maintained it, so it’s time to do something there.”

But not everyone is so gung-ho for the Palisades Plaza.

Jim Kidrick, president of the Air & Space Museum, said everyone should focus on the city’s much bigger plan to remodel the Plaza de Panama.

The repaved plaza that’s there today was a quick-and-dirty version of the comprehensive Plaza de Panama project, a controversial plan to create more public space by building a parking garage that people could access via a bridge that would route traffic around the park’s central mesa. That plan is moving forward despite legal challenges.

“The Palisades plaza is premature,” Kidrick said. “It’s not a like or dislike – everyone likes fountains and flowers – but the bottom line is now is not the time. I think the worst thing you can do is to start piecemealing these little projects. This should be part of a bigger, more comprehensive approach.”

Kidrick said the park needs a new master plan that is focused on adding more parking – beyond the new parking added by the parking garage in the Plaza de Panama project.

“People don’t like to walk,” he said, “People like to park 16 inches away from where they’re going. We’re trying to encourage people to come here, and ease of access is critical.”

Peter Comiskey, executive director of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership nonprofit that works somewhat like a business association for the park’s institutions, said he also wants the Plaza de Panama project to be the priority.

But the leader of the Balboa Park Conservancy and even Save Our Heritage Organisation, a historic preservation group that’s sued the city over the Plaza de Panama project, support the Palisades plan.

“We’ve been in favor of it for some time,” said SOHO executive director Bruce Coons.  “The use as a parking lot is not a very good use.”

Michael Stepner, an architecture professor who worked in city planning from 1971 to 1997, said the city should not ignore smaller revitalization projects like the Palisades Plaza while it’s waiting on the Plaza de Panama project.

“You could do the projects at the same time,” Stepner said. “The idea of returning the Palisades Plaza is long overdue. And I would not wait for a parking garage, which may be a long time off if it ever gets done.”

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