March 28 2012 12:00 PM

Balboa Park and the battle for the ‘soul of San Diego'

John Ziebarth
Photo by John R. Lamb

“Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems.”

—Scott Adams

In 2008, the former San Diego Union-Tribune columnist extraordinaire Gerry Braun wrote of Balboa Park, the acclaimed “soul of San Diego”: “Ten million visitors a year. Half a billion dollars in necessary improvements. One roll of dimes in the treasury. Umpteen years of thumb-twiddling.”

Four years later, Braun finds himself riding shotgun alongside his boss, termed-out, legacy-hunting Mayor Jerry Sanders, and the mayor's sidekick, electricalengineer-turned-Qualcomm-billionaire Irwin Jacobs, in a high-stakes race to revamp the delicate park jewel into some sort of urban Cinderella before the park's 100th anniversary in 2015.

“A hell of a headache” is how Jacobs project coordinator Gordon Kovtun described the daunting task that he and Jacobs' well-heeled Plaza de Panama Committee have decided to bite off in time for a citywide celebration. Much is riding on this gambit at a cost that Kovtun said fast approaches $5 million.

About $2 million of that was sunk into producing the massive draft environmental-impact report (EIR) that some park lovers have been feverishly poring over in recent weeks. At community meetings, Braun has called the 4,000page brute the “most comprehensive” environmental document ever seen in San Diego history.

This battle over the future look and feel of Balboa Park resembles a political campaign, with boisterous enthusiasts and detractors engaged in debate over Jacobs' proposal to build a modern bridge off historic Cabrillo Bridge that would take motorists into a revamped parking lot behind the Alcazar Garden and along a winding, sunken road into a partially underground, 798-space paidparking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

The original goal seemed at tainable enough: Rid the park's central point of human convergence, known as the Plaza de Panama, of parked cars. The populace cheered. Then the goal changed: Rid the plaza of all cars, moving or otherwise. Don't want to see them. In fact, bury them!

Architect John Ziebarth hacked through a good portion of the draft EIR and concluded: “The whole concept of touring the park from the vehicle is devoid from this project,” he told Spin Cycle. “And it raises significant safety issues.”

Much of the discussion to date has focused on the plan's proposed Centennial Bridge, which would curve around the southwest corner of the park's western entrance and connect to the Alcazar parking lot, which would be converted to handle disabled parking and visitor and valet drop-offs. Opponents, including preservationists, believe the new bridge would forever scar the architectural integrity of the park entrance and jeopardize Balboa Park's historic standing.

But the changes proposed go far beyond the bridge, Ziebarth said, and the public needs to recognize that. Walking patterns will be forever altered. Additions, like retaining walls and reflective ponds, are proposed that were never contemplated by Balboa Park's original planners.

Ziebarth notes that plans long made for the park—well before Team Jacobs came on the scene— encourage reducing conflicts between vehicles and pedestrians in Balboa Park. But he believes project proponents have gone overboard in eliminating all such conflicts, whether they pose a danger or not, at the expense of accessibility.

Plan opponents continuously ask if there's been a recorded vehicle-vs.-pedestrian accident in the park's history—no one can point to one—and Team Jacobs is sensitive to that. During a monthly walking tour last weekend to promote the project, the team's historic consultant, David Marshall, noted that “opponents will ask if there's ever been a pedestrian death caused by a vehicle in the park. Well, we don't want to wait until we have a death to make the park safer for pedestrians.”

For Mike Stepner, the former city architect who teaches urban planning at Downtown's NewSchool of Architecture + Design, the Jacobs plan is “overkill.”

“Unfortunately, there's lots of money and lots of egos involved here,” Stepner lamented.

But it has generated a fascinating discussion about the park's future—and even how a city short on cash finances its big-picture projects. Mike Singleton, a traffic expert and member of the Balboa Park Committee that will deliberate on the project in early May, said the inclusion of a billionaire with deep philanthropic pockets in the mix complicates things.

“This has been so heavily weighted to show only the advantages of the project and all the money being put on that side,” Singleton said. “But to take the angle of, ‘It's my money. I think I know what's best here and the rest of you are just trying to stop me,' well he's not going to come off as the great philanthropist for something like that.”

With the public comment period on the draft EIR over, Team Jacobs now must seek answers to the raft of questions from a host of interested parties that cropped up in the 148 comment letters that were submitted by last week's deadline.

Even Rob Fitch, a traffic analyst for the Jacobs team, acknowledged that he looks forward to reviewing Ziebarth's comments. In his comments, Ziebarth included a discussion of his own proposal—one of 13 alternatives considered and rejected as inferior in the Jacobs EIR—to build a parking garage across Gold Gulch, the canyon just east of the Organ Pavilion parking lot. He believes his plan would produce more parking (up to 1,000 spaces), allow the park to function normally during construction (the Jacobs plan would be disruptive for two years), require two-thirds less excavation work and free up even more usable parkland.

Kovtun said Ziebarth's proposal is unworkable because it involves building on undisturbed canyon slopes, a contention that seems to contradict the current activity in Gold Gulch, where the former police-horse stables, a parking lot, construction material for the expanding Japanese Friendship Garden and a road dominate the landscape.

Ziebarth, conversely, said the Jacobs plan would create a bottleneck of cars and disabled pedestrians in the Alcazar parking lot (the Jacobs plan envisions raised walkways across traffic to ease crossing and slow down motorists) and a safety hazard down a serpentine, blind-cornered sunken road that leads to Presidents Way.

“They have a $40-million plan,” Ziebarth said, “but is their plan going to create all these other impacts that the public isn't prepared for?”

Bonus! Here's a sampling of the submitted comments on the EIR:

Save Our Heritage Organization

Zoological Society of San Diego
National Trust for Historical Preservation
League of Women Voters
The Committee of One Hundred

Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 (part 1)
Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 (part 2)
California Office of Historic Preservation
John Ziebarth

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