April 29 2013 02:36 PM

Will the mayor's quicker, cheaper plan for Balboa Park's core fly?

photo (6)
Photo shows a portion of the lot looking southwest toward Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
Photo by John Lamb

After Mayor Bob Filner had finished unveiling his proposal to rid Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama of parked cars by Memorial Day, one stunned local resident queried: "Are you talking about all of this happening this Memorial Day, or 2014?"

"Next month!" Filner boomed from his seat. Some Balboa Park Committee members, who'd called the special meeting last Wednesday to hear the mayor's much-anticipated plan, squirmed in their folding chairs.

About 100 folks showed up at the Balboa Park Club for the quip-filled unveiling. And save for one glaring absence, the evening seemed to bolster hopes in the crowd that significant improvements benefiting park pedestrians—albeit temporary, Filner stressed time and again—may be close at hand.

Even the no-show of City Council President Todd Gloria—arguably the most vociferous defender of the previously proposed (and presumed dead) $45-million concretization plan proffered by local billionaire Irwin Jacobs—seemed insignificant in a room set abuzz by the will-do spirit of Mayor Everywhere.

The Filner plan will be familiar to long-time Balboa Park aficionados of city-approved plans dating back 25 years. Balboa Park Committee Chairman David Kinney introduced it as "the mayor's temporary traffic-management plan for Plaza de Panama," but that sounds so bureaucratically maudlin.

In a nutshell, Filner proposes a two-prong approach to his dream of a vibrant, tree-lined, pedestrian-only Plaza de Panama—one prong for weekdays, another for weekends and major holidays.

On weekends, the Cabrillo Bridge would be closed to automobile traffic. From Sixth Avenue, cars would be able to travel east as far as Balboa Drive, but, otherwise, the mayor's talking about a car-free zone on weekends from the bridge to the Plaza de Panama. From the park's east-side entrance off Park Boulevard, cars would continue to flow in—but they'd have to turn around at the El Cid statue on the plaza's south side.

The idea reminded Filner of the 20 years he spent in Washington, enjoying car-free weekends at popular Rock Creek Park. "People are walking, biking, skateboarding, talking to each other—without the cars," he recalled. "You just feel a whole sense of liberation in that incredible park."

On weekdays, normal traffic across Cabrillo Bridge would resume, but barriers would channel cars through the southwestern quadrant of the plaza, leaving roughly three-quarters of the plaza free for pedestrian use. A new tram stop with benches north of El Cid would also be added. (The mayor noted that three new "Disneyland"-like trams—previously ordered by the Jacobs folks—arrive this week.)

Filner proposes 20 to 30 parking spaces for disabled people in the Alcazar Garden lot to the west and more in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion lot to make up for—and exceed—those lost in the Plaza de Panama revamp.

Valet parking would be shifted to a little-known lot a short walk to the east behind Casa de Balboa, where museums dedicated to photography and model trains reside. Filner deputy Allen Jones drew a laugh when he feigned "second thoughts" about this aspect of the mayor's plan.

"If there's one place you could frequently find a [parking] space, it's here," Jones said, adding, "Well, probably no longer."

What the mayor expects to accomplish by the end of May is merely conjecture at this point, although closing the Cabrillo Bridge to cars on weekends and adding disabled parking in the Organ Pavilion lot seem the easiest and least costly steps.

But Filner knows that the City Council, which embraced the Jacobs Plan, will want to weigh in—his budget requests $300,000, which the council will have to approve—and a statement issued to CityBeat by Gloria's office hints of the grilling ahead:

"I appreciate the Mayor's proposal of a temporary solution to remove parking from the Plaza de Panama. I am anxious to learn more details about the proposal and the public review process that the Mayor intends to pursue, as well as how some of the potential impacts might be mitigated. I am hopeful that any changes to the Plaza de Panama will be in keeping with Balboa Park's stature as the crown jewel of our City."

When asked what specific impacts Gloria was referring to, his office did not respond. (As to his absence from Filner's unveiling, Gloria had "two previously scheduled engagements," a spokesperson said. A Gloria representative, however, did attend.)

However this plays out, the council should prepare for a spirited mayoral pitch. And, as Filner pointed out, the Cabrillo Bridge will be closed to cars beginning in January, anyway, for a major Caltrans seismic-retrofit project. "We have to do this anyway," he said, "so we may as well do it now."

Over concerns from one committee member that the proposed valet parking lot "isn't very pretty," Filner challenged the panel to "be creative here. You say the back of that… is ugly, well, let's make it beautiful!"

When an official with the Museum of Man fretted that a weekend car ban would leave it "isolated on a cul-de-sac," the mayor pointed to the NewSchool of Architecture + Design students in the audience and urged a collaboration to convert the Plaza de California out front—"the ugliest spot in the park," Filner said—into a "really beautiful" gathering place.

One resident suggested adding a wine bar there, prompting Filner to leap from his seat toward a projection screen, proclaiming, "I'm going to put it in right now!"

"We need all your ideas," the mayor told the crowd. "We're not going to fool around with a lot of consultants…. But we'd like to do it in a way that brings these benefits very quickly."

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