Virtual Mayoral Forum – Part 2: Looking Back on the Plaza de Panama Controversy

by on October 25, 2013 · 0 comments

in Election, Environment, History, Politics, San Diego

new-plaza-overlayWelcome to Day 2 of the Virtual Mayoral Forum put together by editors at San Diego Free Press. (See Day 1, Asking about managed competition here. )

With input from our many contributors, editors put together a series of eight questions we felt were unique, not too opened ended and not trite. We’re publishing one response from the candidates per day (Monday-Friday) so readers can see the verbatim responses side by side.

We emailed the questions to the addresses listed with the City Clerk’s office as contact points, knowing most of the minor candidates wouldn’t respond. What we didn’t count on were two of the big names (Fletcher & Faulconer) refusing to participate. We can only assume–and, believe me we’ve tried to get them involved– their non-response sends a message about their openness to the citizens in this city. You can decide what that message is. (We’ll still be glad to add responses and delete this paragraph. It’s not too late!)

The complete questionnaire can be found here.

Today’s topic is about the Plaza de Panama controversy. SDFP editor Anna Daniels put together an introduction to the issue so readers can see our thinking behind asking the question.


sdfp save balboa park signOne of San Diego’s most contentious civic debates has been over the Balboa Park renovation plan put forward by the Irwin Jacobs sponsored Plaza de Panama Committee. The debate was rooted in the straightforward goal of eliminating vehicular travel and parking in the Plaza de Panama. Mayor Jerry Sanders tapped Dr. Irwin Jacobs to develop the plan, circumventing park organizations and stakeholders who had been involved in a transparent, community driven planning process in anticipation of Balboa Park’s centennial in 2015. It also ignored the city’s own Balboa Park Precise Plan that was developed twenty years prior but never acted upon.

The Jacobs Plan did indeed remove vehicular travel and parking altogether from the Central Mesa of Balboa Park, but it did so by building the Centennial Bridge, circumventing the museums around to the south as an offshoot of the historic Cabrillo Bridge, and building a three story paid parking structure to the south of the Organ Pavilion. The project would have cost a projected $45 million, with $25 million being donated by Dr. Jacobs himself. The city of San Diego would be required to raise $16.5 million in tax exempt bonds to fund building the $14 million parking garage, with no guarantee that general funds would not be tapped if park goers weren’t willing to pay to park.

Members of the Balboa Park Conservancy quit in protest. San Diego’s Historical Resources Board and the Park and Recreation Board voted against the Plaza de Panama project. SOHO and other preservationist groups raised the issue of a legal challenge. In July of 2012 the San Diego City Council spent seven hours in a packed chamber hearing public testimony and then voted to approve the Jacobs-Sanders plan, with only Councilwoman Sherri Lightner dissenting and Councilman Tony Young absent.

Then mayoral candidate Bob Filner came out against the Jacobs plan at the City Council meeting, calling them irresponsible for turning over funding of a public asset to a private group, no matter how well revered that group may be and potentially putting taxpayers on the hook for budget shortfalls.

SOHO did mount a legal challenge and in early 2013 Judge Timothy Taylor ruled that the proposed Jacobs plan violated city law and could not move forward. Dr. Jacobs withdrew his support. Shortly after the ruling, Council President Todd Gloria “sent a memo to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith asking for advice on legal and legislative options San Diego might use to revive the project. Those could include granting a municipal code exemption to the plan.”

Bob Filner, who had recently been elected mayor, proceeded with his own plan to remove vehicular traffic and parking from the Plaza de Panama, at a cost of $300,000.

Will the city continue implementing Filner’s Plaza de Panama Plan, which includes new trams and additional handicapped parking behind Alcazar Garden? Interim Mayor and Council President Todd Gloria recently said that he has no intentions at this time of revisiting the municipal code issue. For the moment, Balboa Park remains a stunning, meaningful public asset.

2. Plaza de Panama Balboa Park

A Superior Court judge ruled that the Jacobs Plan, which promoted a parking and traffic makeover in Balboa Park, was in violation of the City’s municipal code.

Are you in favor or opposed to revising the municipal code to accommodate the Jacobs Plan and why?

Mike Aguirre___________________________

SDFP Aguirre  LogoThe Court ruling that determined that the City violated it’s own laws was a finding by the court that the City had, in order to pursue the “Jacobs Plan,” made an unsupportable decision that Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park with or without parking rendered it without a beneficial use. It is ludicrous to argue that either Plaza de Panama or Balboa Park is not a “beneficial use” of dedicated parkland.

The loss of Plaza de Parking meant the loss of 67 of the park’s approximately 8,400 spaces. Only 24 of those plaza spaces were for the car-driving public and they were available for three hours only. The remaining spaces were reserved for disabled parking, motorcycles, 15-minute parking, loading-and-unloading zones and taxis.

As the San Diego Zoo proceeds with it’s $200 million plan to build a 4,800-space underground parking garage to relieve the persistent parking problem in Balboa Park will provide some relief, as some spaces will be available to guests at the park. The zoo will spend $4 million on the Park Boulevard Promenade Plan and other improvements, including:

• Replacing the zoo’s lot with a four-level, 4,800-space underground garage stretching from Zoo Place to the Natural History Museum
• Building a pedestrian mall on top of the garage that directly links the zoo to the museums along El Prado
• Expanding the zoo onto its parking lot with $100 million or more in new animal exhibits and attractions.

The Balboa Park Conservancy (a non-profit 501(c)3 organization responsible for raising funds, developing public-private partnerships and managing and controlling the projects it undertakes in the Park) will lead a coalition of institutions, civic organizations and philanthropists to back its list of needed projects and then work out the details. However things work out, there are alternatives that will provide additional parking spaces without destroying the integrity of the park.

David Alvarez___________________________

SDFP Alvarez  LogoThe Plaza de Panama project was something I supported when it came before the City Council in 2012. The public discussion on the project was a healthy one – with much debate over many public hearings, which I found to be a valuable tool in determining how I would vote on the proposal. However, it was still a tough decision because I thought both proponents and opponents had valid points to their arguments.

I had major reservations about the optimistic revenue projections for the proposed parking garage, but also believed that the overall investment in Balboa Park that the project would have achieved was beneficial to San Diegans. Ultimately, that project is no longer moving forward and, under my administration, will not be resurrected. Instead, I am pleased with the changes the city has made to the flow of traffic through the plaza, which have resulted in a more pedestrian friendly experience for all who visit the park.

Hud Collins____________________________

SDFP Collins  LogoIn favor of revising old MC. But, not to accommodate Jacobs Plan. That would be de facto and inappropriate. Parking structure & financial plan a real problem.





Kevin Faulconer_________________________

SDFP Faulconer Logo


SDFP Chair


Nathan Fletcher_________________________

SDFP Fletcher Logo


SDFP Chair

Part Three of our Virtual Forum will appear tomorrow (Oct 25) and will allow the candidates to voice their views on the permitting process for construction projects in San Diego.

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