by Lucas O’Connor / Two Cathedrals / May 16-17, 2011
The importance of preserving history is rooted in the conversations that we’re able to have as a result: who we are, where we came from, how it helps point us into the future. It’s an extremely difficult balance, and usually the forces of indifferent change-for-profit are much better equipped, leaving defenders of our shared history little choice but to throw themselves fully into every check in the process. That process — of storytelling, of sparking conversation, of bringing the community together to continue the process of growth — must constantly evolve to remain both relevant and effective. But often, the forest can be missed for the trees, and the most fundamental elements are lost.
As wrangling continues over proposed changes to Balboa Park, the most basic aspiration — of a grand public space for San Diegans and visitors to play and learn, and of a catalyst for the appreciation and ongoing creation of San Diego culture — is increasingly lost in the struggle over control of the decision-making process and the long-term ramifications of opening up the park to changes. Rather, the starting point must be that the park has been fundamentally compromised in its mission for decades by giving over so much space and planning primacy to cars. From through traffic to surface lots to stunning failure to integrate into surrounding neighborhoods or public transportation, the park has functioned as a driving destination first and a community asset only after.
It’s easy to focus on the reclamation of Plaza de Panama from cars as a bold step to remedying this situation (and it is), it doesn’t fundamentally wrestle with the broader, long-term course of Balboa Park, the conversations it should inspire, and the ways in which the space can drive San Diego’s evolution. In the same ways that park programming has adjusted to the changes of the community it reflects, serves and shapes, consideration of the long-term outward appearance and function must involve a much more comprehensive review of how San Diego can and should interact with the park. This means considering how to make it more accessible, more compelling, more closely tied to the threads of innovation and progress already winding through San Diego’s many neighborhoods. And more specifically to hte historical preservation challenges, how to help root the constand re-invention of San Diego in all that has let us to this point.
When park preservationists mount strenuous objections to the proposed bypass extension of Cabrillo Bridge, their arguments (thus far) largely fail to address the underlying goal of speaking to our collective history and experience. The historic views of Cabrillo Bridge are largely inaccessible, and many of the building fronts have long been shielded from view. A pedestrian-only western approach to the park changes the ways in which surrounding neighborhoods interact with the park, and must be considered within the limited access from the northwest and southwest. At a time when the general momentum to do something provides a unique opportunity to do a great many things, this is needlessly restrictive of opportunities to better connect the park to Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, Downtown, and Little Italy. The opportunity to greatly improve the physical and functional accessibility of Balboa Park is also an opportunity to greatly expand the park’s ability to connect visitors with its heritage and wide range of cultural opportunities — presumably the highest ideal of having Balboa Park in the first place.
Outside conservative preservationists have warned that altering Cabrillo Bridge could risk federal support for the park as a whole, which may or may not be true but absolutely warrants careful examination. Likewise, any other proposed changes that would threaten the legal or financial footing of the park must be given particularly careful scrutiny. Ultimately though, the ideal lies both between both of these perspectives and stretches well beyond. It means that accepting that a bypass added to Cabrillo Bridge does not inherently detract from anyone’s understanding of, appreciation for, or conversations about our shared San Diego history. That preservation exclusively for its own sake purposely ignores the inescapable dynamism of living — especially together.
Ultimately, the two primary sides of this debate lay bare the unconventional lines that define the issue of development and community. On the one hand, preservationists occupy the most hyper-conservative (with a small c) ground, insisting on sameness for the sake of sameness. In the same doesn’t want a major boost in customers, apparently preferring its vacancies), and shunting all eastbound Park traffic either through downtown or Hillcrest — both of which are already gridlocked for hours a day. The aspiration to draw park patrons via public transportation is an admirable one, but there’s no suggestion of how this would be accomplished., preservationists espouse a pro-public transit de-emphasizing of cars in the function of Balboa Park, then turn around and lobby for the continuation of free parking. Of course people would prefer that free things remain free, but this is essentially an argument in favor of perpetuating a car-centric transportation model. Calls to make Cabrillo Bridge pedestrian-only doesn’t account for the ancillary problems with such a limited approach: no parking capacity increase in Bankers Hill (for some reason, Bankers Hill
This incomplete solution extends to the existing Jacobs plan. Like preservationists, the Jacobs plan struggles to reconcile the demands of the current car-centric reality of San Diego and the aspiration to integrate non-car spaces and access. It would be both unrealistic and inappropriate to expect plans to update the park to include larger plans to improve and expand public transportation access and integration into the surrounding neighborhoods, but that doesn’t mean the update plans shouldn’t take these issues into consideration. More than an isolated one-off project, the Jacobs-driven project could serve as a catalyst to drive other regional improvements if it more consciously designed to do so.
This means understanding that maintaining a flow of cars through the park does not solve the essential failing of the current design but rather maintains Balboa Park as a car-centric destination. Cabrillo Bridge could absolutely be closed off to be pedestrian-only, but it only fulfills its promise if it’s coupled with spurred investment in Bankers Hill- both in terms of access and commercial offerings. It means that whatever comes of the bridge, any change to the western approach to the park should be made with an eye towards creating a more accessible shot from the waterfront, Old Town, and Mission Bay.
It means that if significant public money is going to be invested in revamping and expanding parking on the south side of the park, it should be designed overtly with an eye towards a major eventual extension of public transportation up the Park Blvd corridor. It means that trams are fantastic, particularly if they run not just between parking lots and the center of the park, but also into Hillcrest, North Park, Golden Hill, South Park, and Downtown to mitigate the lack of direct connections between those communities and the park. Not only does it bring residents closer to the park, it brings tourists closer to the businesses around the park.
The realities of what there is money and political will to create cannot be overlooked, and will eventually do more than anything to shape the final outcome. But skipping past the fundamental goals and eventual aspirations is the easiest way to lose track altogether of why everyone came together in the first place. To connect, to remember, to inspire; to contextualize, to inform, to enjoy. We won’t get there piecemeal.