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Balboa Park could soon see major investments if a vision Mayor Kevin Faulconer set on Thursday comes to fruition.
None of what he’s laid out for the crown jewel with an estimated $300 million needs list, however, is guaranteed.
Faulconer announced Thursday he’s giving the go-ahead to the controversial plan to build a bypass bridge and parking garage to keep cars out of the center of the park and proposing a November ballot measure to extend a city proposition that’s now throwing minimal cash at Balboa Park.
If the measure is approved, Faulconer said, the City Council could approve a bond that could draw millions of additional dollars for Balboa Park and a handful of other regional parks in the city.
“I think we’re gonna have the dollars now to do some fantastic, overdue help in this park and that’s the good news,” the mayor said Thursday, standing in front of the Balboa Park Botanical Building.
But that new money will rely on voter approval, and details of the Plaza de Panama project also still need to be hashed out.
Here’s a look at the questions that still remain about the plans Faulconer announced Thursday.
When the project was approved in 2012, Plaza de Panama supporters estimated it would cost $45 million to clear the plaza, build the three-level parking structure and the bypass bridge that would divert cars from the historic Cabrillo Bridge.
At the time, Qualcomm founder-turned-philanthropist Irwin Jacobs promised he and other donors would bankroll most of the project. The City Council voted to borrow $14 million for the parking structure and said it would rely on parking revenues to pay that back.
On Thursday, Faulconer said the city will need to update its cost estimate for the project and reassess its financing strategy. He pledged that the new ballot measure would not fund the Plaza de Panama project but did say parking revenues will remain a part of the financing mix.
Faulconer said the new financing plan will go to the City Council in coming months.
While Faulconer’s team works on that plan, Jacobs and the newly created Balboa Park Alliance will be out trying to raise cash.
The Balboa Park Alliance consists of the Cultural Partnership and the 29 park institutions who belong to it, plus the Balboa Park Conservancy, the Friends of Balboa Park and the Balboa Park Trust.
After the press conference, Jacobs told me the group will probably need to raise $20 million to make the project happen.
Jacobs said he’s confident that’s possible now that the project has cleared court hurdles and Faulconer and others have shown their commitment to it.
That brings more certainty that the project didn’t have before and thus makes fundraising easier, Jacobs said. “Until now, we never knew whether it was going to go forward.”
Faulconer was flanked by many Balboa Park and city leaders when he announced his plans on Thursday but the Plaza de Panama project has always been controversial.
The Save Our Heritage Organisation, the preservationist group that sued the city over the project in 2012, vowed shortly after the press conference that it would be watching closely to see how the city would finance the project – and whether it did so legally.
Bruce Coons, SOHO’s executive director, said the group will decide whether to sue again once it gets more information.
“We have to wait for their next action before we seek to counter it,” Coons said.
An appellate court judge knocked down SOHO’s earlier challenge last year but another lawsuit could stall the project.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said Thursday he’s confident that won’t happen.
“The fight is over. The project’s been approved. The courts have blessed it,” Goldsmith said.
One key Balboa Park stakeholder was absent and offered only a a tepid statement following the press conference.
That was Councilman Todd Gloria, an early champion of the original Plaza de Panama push alongside Jacobs. Gloria represents the area on the City Council.
A spokesman for Gloria said the councilman was traveling Thursday. He said Gloria supported the mayor’s efforts to bring more funding to the park but made it clear he wants more information.
“I look forward to hearing the details of this proposal to make sure it makes sense for all regional stakeholders who care about Balboa Park,” Gloria said.
Chris Ward, who’s set to take over the Council seat now held by Gloria in December, also wasn’t at the press conference though he was listed on press releases touting the announcement. Faulconer was joined for the announcement by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and City Council members Mark Kersey and Lorie Zapf.
A spokeswoman for Ward initially told me he missed the announcement because of a doctor’s appointment.
But spokeswoman Molly Chase later wrote in an email that Ward ” decided to take time to analyze (including committee discussion today) and talk to stakeholders important to District 3 about the announcement. He hopes to be included in future discussions should these proposals move forward.”
Ward previously criticized the Jacobs plan.
It’s unclear how much sway the City Council member who represents Balboa Park will have over other Council members’ decisions or whether Gloria or Ward would oppose a financing plan. But if either did oppose it, it would potentially cripple the project or the mayor’s ability to fast-track it.
Another potential complication: City Council President Sherri Lightner, who is now responsible for setting the agenda for the Council, was the only Council member to oppose the Plaza de Panama plan when it went up for a vote in 2012.
Almost a decade ago, Faulconer co-authored a ballot measure that ensured more cash from city leases at Mission Bay Park would flow to projects at Mission Bay Park.
That measure also pledged additional cash for regional parks including Balboa Park, Mission Trails Regional Park and several others. Historically, it hasn’t brought significant cash to Balboa Park.
Now Faulconer’s asking the City Council to place a measure on the November ballot that would extend and rework some aspects of the Mission Bay Park ordinance, known at the time as Prop. C. One tweak would likely bring an additional $1 million to regional parks annually. It would increase the share of Mission Bay Park money going to other regional parks and reduce the amount going to Mission Bay Park.
That alone wouldn’t be a significant game-changer for Balboa Park, which would only receive a piece of the pie.
But another piece Faulconer’s proposing could be more meaningful. He wants the city to seek a 30-year bond that his staff believes could be leveraged by Mission Bay lease revenues and used to borrow $44 million. Katherine Johnston, the mayor’s director of infrastructure and budget policy, said Thursday the city estimates some of Balboa Park’s historic structures need $60 million in upgrades.
Johnston said the mayor wants Balboa Park projects to take priority early on if the ballot measure and the bond move forward.
“The intent is to have very strong focus on Balboa Park,” Johnston said. “We would like transformative change there.”
But there’s still much to be hashed out and it’s not clear how much Balboa Park could benefit over the long haul.
Then there’s the fact this change will require voter approval, which is likely but not certain.
After all, that November ballot is getting increasingly crowded.
There was much blowback when the Plaza de Panama project was proposed years ago. Opponents argued the project destroyed the park’s historic character and brought more cars into the center of the park, even if it diverted cars from the Plaza de Panama.
Many also said the park didn’t actually need the 797 underground spots from the new garage.
But the mayor’s office said the plan is to move forward with the same general plan and that its interest is more about reclaiming six acres now covered in asphalt and turning them into public spaces – permanently.
“This is reclaiming the heart of the park to improve the visitor experience,” Johnston said.
That’s not to say there may not be minor tweaks. For instance, Jacobs said, a water feature initially planned for the plaza may not make sense given the drought.
Generally, though, backers said the plan should go forward as is since it’s already been approved.
Yet there have been changes since that Plaza de Panama plan first emerged. There’s a new parking lot for San Diego Zoo employees and more visitors are getting to the park through alternate modes of transportation. The plaza’s already been mostly cleared of cars.
Gloria has previously suggested the city spend time analyzing whether it still made sense.
“Given the numerous changes in Balboa Park over the past three years and the current focus on celebrating the centennial, it would be appropriate to examine the project in the current context to ensure its continued viability at this time,” Gloria said last May after the appellate court ruling.
But Peter Comiskey, who leads the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, said the bypass bridge and parking garage address an issue institutions who belong to his group remain all too familiar with: Visitors often slowly crawl the park looking for parking and on busy days, they don’t always find it.
Comiskey believes the Plaza de Panama plan will collectively tackle all those issues – and turn the dilapidated asphalt lot behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion into parkland at the same time.
“The plan is the best thought out plan that exists on the books, period,” he said.
Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee and longtime opponent of the Plaza de Panama plan, believes the city should’ve at least studied current parking needs at the park before recommitting.
Some review is likely in coming months before the project goes to a City Council vote but no major fact-finding efforts are planned.
“There has been no analysis that I’ve heard of that takes into account the impact of the zoo employee parking structure on how many spots that’s created for the general public and tourists,” Granowitz said. “The parking structure does not meet best practices for parks.”
Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.