Jan. 12 2011 10:38 AM

Will the philanthropist walk if his Balboa Park plaza plan is altered?

A diagram showing Irwin Jacobs' bypass

“Gifts have ribbons, not strings.” —Vanna Bonta

It's not easy looking a gift horse in the mouth and exclaiming, “Whoa there!” But that's what's happening with the offer from Qualcomm billionaire Irwin Jacobs to help bankroll renovations to Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama in time for the 2015 centennial celebration.

Criticism is mounting over the mega-philanthropist's proposal to wrap a modern bypass bridge around the south wing of the Museum of Man that would connect to the small parking lot south of Alcazar Garden and a proposed park-topped, below-ground parking structure behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

While near-unanimous public support appears clear for plans to rid the Plaza de Panama of parked cars and return it to its original use as a pedestrian gathering place, there's a growing chorus of concern over Jacobs' estimated $39-million plan to get there.

“While Irwin should be commended for addressing a decades-long issue, I think the solution is a little more than necessary to solve the problem,” former city architect Mike Stepner told Spin Cycle this week. “It will have more impact than the problem it solves.”

Howard Blackson, an outspoken local urban designer, was more blunt: “Why screw up the Cabrillo Bridge in order to fix the plaza?”

Indeed, the most reviled portion of Jacobs' plan involves the bypass bridge that would be built off the eastern end of the historic Cabrillo Bridge. Bruce Coons, executive director of San Diego preservationist group Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), noted that “it would be ironic to celebrate 2015 by desecrating San Diego's front porch.”

It's word like “desecrate” that has Jacobs threatening to walk away from the plan.

In an interview on KPBS radio last week pitting Coons against the billionaire, Jacobs admonished the preservationist. “Let's try to avoid those words in the future because, otherwise, we won't reach a compromise,” Jacobs said. “We'll either do it or won't do it. But it won't be a compromise.”

As Coons told Spin Cycle later, “I'm certain Dr. Jacobs didn't get to where he is today without being single-minded. But it just seems he's not willing to listen to the concerns.”

Last Saturday, the city's Balboa Park Committee held what was promoted as a workshop to discuss Jacobs' proposal. Easels with large maps straddled both sides of the 150 or so people who attended. But public testimony—mostly critical—ran so long that the workshop portion was scrapped.

Employees of Mayor Jerry Sanders, a strong backer of Jacobs' proposal, sat quietly in the back of the room while a handful of supporters spoke. But the seats were empty when opponents testified.

Diane Coombs, executive director of the civic group Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, compared the plan to “shooting a mouse with a cannon.” Just days earlier, the group had voted to oppose the bypass bridge.

Mark Johnson, head of the Denver-based design firm Civitas that was hired by Jacobs for the project, took notes on his Blackberry as the criticism unfolded. “There definitely will be alternatives,” Johnson told the audience. But with the no-compromise tack taken by Jacobs, many wondered if the public would be heard in the end.

Laurie Black, a local political institution now serving as a member of the Centre City Development Corp. board, said she was initially hired by Jacobs to channel the plan through the public process but later quit when she was told to cancel events during which the plan could be discussed.

Although the plan has been in the works, some say, since early last year, proponents initially seemed interested in holding “invitation-only” gatherings that limited public input. “I was told they were only doing meetings that were for the entitlement process,” Black said. “They said they didn't need the opinion of anybody else.”

It certainly didn't start this way for Jacobs. When the mayor and Jacobs formally announced the proposal in late August, The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board fawned over the Qualcomm co-founder as “the savior of Balboa Park.”

“There is still much to be done before it is reality,” the U-T panted. “But if anyone can make it happen it is Irwin Jacobs.”

On the surface, all seemed copacetic until December, when leaders of the Zoological Society of San Diego—operators of the San Diego Zoo—fired off a six-page letter to Jacobs and the mayor detailing its long-sought solution to its own parking woes that has city backing but lacks the resources to carry out.

Society board chairman Fred Frye and executive director Doug Myers wrote that even a smaller version of its so-called Park Boulevard Promenade could lead to a net gain of 1,850 parking spaces and 14 acres of park land.

“We question the wisdom of spending $39 million for a net gain of only 272 parking spaces in a location that does not solve the park's overall parking problem,” the men wrote.

In a responding letter he made public, Jacobs told zoo officials that “our project is not proposed as a complete solution for the entire park” and that the zoo proposal does nothing to alleviate the car confluence in Plaza de Panama.

“We thus have competing visions for the restoration of the Plaza de Panama and its surrounding promenades to a car-free state by the beginning of the centennial year,” Jacobs wrote, although he added, “we remain open to further helpful suggestions.”

Balboa Park aficionados—all of whom requested anonymity for this story for fear of antagonizing the billionaire philanthropist— are puzzled why such a sharp businessman and generous benefactor would be reacting so defensively to criticism of a plan that would not only change the entrance of San Diego's crown jewel permanently, potentially risking its national historic status, but also alter the muchbeloved Palm Canyon (behind the Alcazar Garden) that would likely lose trees to make way for valet service and other motorized activities.

Said one long-time Balboa Park activist: “There are more than a few people who would rather have no project than this project. Look, I don't blame Jacobs. The process is ass-backwards. There should be a discussion about what activities everybody would like to see in that space. Then the design will come easy.”

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com.


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