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The Plaza de Panama Project Is Officially Dead

Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The Plaza de Panama project is officially dead.

Philanthropists have formally backed away from the controversial plan to make over Balboa Park’s central mesa following a last-ditch scramble to revive it.

Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs, who has for years championed the Plaza de Panama project, said that the Plaza de Panama Committee notified the city on Thursday that it is ending its public-private agreement.

The committee’s decision to abandon its more than seven-year campaign to clear cars from the park’s center [1] comes a week after City Councilman Chris Ward told the group he wouldn’t support a scaled-back version of the project that Jacobs and others had cobbled to try to keep it alive.

“I’m sorry it’s not going to get done,” Jacobs said. “I think it would be a fantastic addition to the city and to the park.”

The Plaza de Panama Committee’s decision to halt its efforts follows a series of disappointments and setbacks and is likely to inspire discussions about the future of philanthropic investments in a crumbling park with a long list of needs [2].

Legal challenges for years stalled the Plaza de Panama project following the City Council’s initial approval of it in 2012. Then, after Jacobs and Mayor Kevin Faulconer pushed to revive [3] the project in 2016, another set of legal challenges [4] emerged over the project’s new financing and development plans.

But Faulconer and the Plaza de Panama Committee were bullish last fall as lawsuits played out in court. They took steps to proceed even amid the legal clouds, requesting bids from construction companies they thought might break ground this year.

When each construction bid for the project came in at least $20 million higher [5] than earlier estimates for the project, the Plaza de Panama Committee debated next steps. Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee ultimately decided in February to put their plans on hold [6] and halt fundraising efforts.

But philanthropists still quietly tried to make the project work. They explored a phased approach that included the controversial Cabrillo Bridge bypass bridge and parking garage but delayed some elements that would add to the price tag.

With those tweaks, Jacobs said, philanthropists thought the project could come in under the city’s roughly $80 million estimate, which included $60 million for construction.

“What we envisioned was having a public-private agreement to do what I’ll call stage one of the project, which is everything except for refinishing the roads and plazas and adding some of the final landscaping but you basically would end up with everything,” Jacobs said.

After doing that work, Jacobs said the committee decided it needed to gauge Ward’s commitment. They had gotten hints that he might not be supportive [7] – and they needed him.

Former District 3 City Councilman Todd Gloria was a crucial advocate for the Plaza de Panama project when it was first approved in 2012 and again when it was returned in 2016.

Now, with new faces on the City Council, the Plaza de Panama project would need Ward’s support to resurrect the Plaza de Panama project.

So Jacobs, Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick and Legler Benbough Foundation President Peter Ellsworth sat down with Ward last Tuesday at City Hall and pitched the scaled-back version of the project.

Ward wasn’t won over.

He predicted the updated project would require another lengthy environmental review process, another City Council vote and years of additional effort.

Ward, who represents the area and has hosted a series of public meetings about Balboa Park needs and priorities, feared the updated project could for years consume resources and discussions that he believed should instead be focused on more urgent infrastructure upgrades and repairs.

“It didn’t seem like that would be a fiscally responsible or appropriate way to go forward for public benefits we should be achieving for Balboa Park,” Ward told Voice of San Diego.

Instead, Ward said, he’d like the city to focus on a holistic plan for Balboa Park and its needs.

Ward’s reaction startled Jacobs.

“I was surprised,” Jacobs said. “I would have thought that somebody representing the park would have been very excited about this improvement going forward, which I believe would have encouraged other improvements also, but that wasn’t his approach. So be it.”

Ward said that while he appreciates the years of effort that philanthropists put into the Balboa Park overhaul, he couldn’t stand by the project.

“I think that given the state of how things have evolved over the last seven years, it no longer makes financial or logistical sense to be able to achieve that end,” Ward said.

The next day, Jacobs said, the Plaza de Panama Committee voted to end its agreement with the city. The group waited another day to see if anything might change. It didn’t.

A week later, the committee formally ended its agreement with the city, which included a pledge to raise at least $30 million for its share of the project.

Now Ward said he is hoping the city will focus on other Balboa Park projects and upgrades – and a broader plan for the park.

Indeed, Faulconer last year allocated $10 million [8] to the Plaza de Panama project that could instead be applied to other priorities.

Christina Chadwick, a spokeswoman for Faulconer, said Thursday the mayor plans to ensure those dollars are invested in the park.

“There are many parts of Balboa Park that need attention and investment,” Chadwick wrote in an email. “The mayor is committed to ensuring funds allocated for Balboa Park stay in Balboa Park.”

The mayor has previously said that he appreciates the Plaza de Panama Committee’s years-long effort to try to pursue the central mesa project.

It’s not clear whether Ward or other city leaders might seek philanthropic support for additional upgrades.

Former San Diego Foundation CEO Bob Kelly teamed with other community leaders years ago to push for the Balboa Park Conservancy [9], a group that community leaders had hoped could draw more donations to parkwide needs rather than individual institutions.

Kelly, who is a VOSD board member, questioned whether the Plaza de Panama Committee’s struggles could have a chilling effect on other philanthropic or public-private partnerships in Balboa Park.

“Why would anyone else want to work with the city, get an agreement, knowing that most of these projects take a long time and they are complicated, that at some point in time the rug will be pulled out from under them?” Kelly said.

Kelly saw the project as an opportunity for the city to engage philanthropists and local foundations, and to open the door to more major donations to the park.

Former Balboa Park Committee chair Vicki Granowitz, now a city planning commissioner who also rallied behind the conservancy early on, said the city and Balboa Park supporters can pave the way for more successful public-private partnerships and major park investments by taking Ward’s suggestion to establish a list of Balboa Park priorities.

“Philanthropists should have options to choose from that have already been vetted,” Granowitz said. “What happened to Irwin Jacobs should never happen again.”

Bruce Coons of Save Our Heritage Organisation, a preservation group that repeatedly fought the Plaza de Panama project in court, said he believes future fights with philanthropists could be avoided if needs in the park are better established and those projects get substantial public input early in the process.

“I think the future for Balboa Park –  as long as the public and users are engaged –  is great. Now this project that wasn’t needed is gone,” Coons said. “We can concentrate on what is needed for the park.”

For now, Jacobs said, he plans to focus his philanthropic efforts on Balboa Park institutions and other causes rather than the park itself. He’s weary after years of heated discussions and roadblocks on the Plaza de Panama project.

“We tried very hard,” Jacobs said.

(Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.)