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Don't Let the Plaza de Panama Revamp Bypass Good Design

The Cabrillo Bridge is a nationally significant structure and any bypass bridge that connects to it should be held to the same standard of design excellence set a century ago.

San Diego’s City Council has cleared the way for the Plaza de Panama project, including a bypass bridge leading to a new parking garage behind and Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

The design of the bridge as currently proposed lacks the dignity of the rest of the park. The Cabrillo Bridge is a nationally significant structure and any bypass bridge that connects to it should be held to the same standard of design excellence set a century ago.

The problem is that the bypass project looks like any other auto-oriented off-ramp, like one you might see leading into a parking any parking garage between Sabre Springs and Riverside. The design is an afterthought, and it breaks the flow of one of the best designed places found in San Diego.

It is poorly conceived because it is focused only on moving traffic. This will scar the core area built to host the Panama Exposition because every other building, street, plaza, park space and parking space in it was executed with tremendous design acumen over a century ago for our pleasure.

What value will this bypass bridge have 100-years from now? We are ignoring San Diego’s cultural heritage with a parking garage and bypass bridge that diverts people away from the park’s intended beauty and ceremonial procession into an enclosed parking lot.

The Panama Exposition grounds and Cabrillo Bridge that leads to them have shown us over the past century that great design generates economic value. The private sector profits from the imaging and branding that great civic design brings. The tourist experience is exalted, and word of mouth and return visitors bring dividends to San Diego’s quality of life and livability. These unique places are springboards for economic development that attracts and retains talent and investment. When we invest in ourselves, others see the value and are more willing to build on our collective investment. There are only a few places in San Diego where this is applicable, and this is one of those places.

Residents may not know it, but the Panama Exposition was designed around a big idea.
In Carleton Winslow’s “The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition,” master architect Bertram Goodhue clearly explains the brilliant metaphor he built into the design of the event grounds.

He intended to give visitors a virtual tour of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, represented by the Cabrillo Bridge. Then, he took them through the Panama Canal, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide, which was represented by the California Quadrangle and its California Tower as a beacon. They’d then ascend the Mexican Riviera coastline, as represented by the Spanish Arcades. Finally, they’d experience a majestic arrival at a new California Arcadia – The Plaza de Panama.

The bypass bridge fundamentally destroys this storytelling metaphor, and replaces it with nothing.

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Any new bypass bridge should carefully and thoughtfully add dignity, value and delight to visitors biking, walking and tramming to visit the Panama Exposition grounds.

The city should ask the best designers in the world to give their best ideas, and in doing be bold and transparent to San Diegans about the value of the place that we all love and care for.

I have never understood why a world-class design dialog has been avoided. From the beginning, this project has been handled in a “my-way-or-no-way” manner.

A design competition would take only four to five months, and would deliver a better product than what is proposed today. It would also provide goodwill assurances to the citizens of San Diego that the quality of our public space matters. The way the structure is presented today, we can only hope for the best, as we have zero assurances the best is being considered, a century after our forefathers delivered such for our benefit.

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