May 17 2011 11:34 AM

Balboa Park's future in the grand scheme of things


My life is about halfway over (halfway started, for those of you who like me), and I've spent most of it in San Diego.

I first visited here as a kid in 1974. The Vietnam War raged on, telephones were tethered to walls and San Diego was still a “sleepy little Navy town.” My parents thought it looked like a nice place to raise my sister and me, so they sunk what little they had into opening a small restaurant a block from SDSU and rented a one-story, ranch-style '50s bungalow in the College Area, and here I still am.

Sometimes when I drive or walk around the city looking at stuff, I summon with my mind's eye the way it used to look. Some of it's the same, but most is different. For example: Drive 10 minutes out of the heart of the city in any direction, and the unremarkable housing developments you see everywhere used to be wild hillsides and canyons.

When you're young, everything appears as if filmed in Omnimax: What you see fills your vision and the immediacy of the present over-determines what you can know or feel about a place. We are aware that things didn't fall into place out of the blue, that they were haggled over, funded, designed, built and then used, but all of that seems vague and complicated compared with the concrete fact and experience of a canyon, housing development, avenue, movie theater, library, office building, shopping mall or park.

But when you get older, you begin to understand the implications and possibilities of space. Even a cynic who has no idealism about the transformative powers of planning and architecture can surely feel the difference between a walk along the Balboa Park promenade and a walk along Balboa Avenue and wonder what it took historically for these two very different tributes to the 16th-century explorer to come into being.

And yet the other effect of figuring out that places matter—and that to make them more humane, beautiful, charming, civil or magical means effort, negotiation and sacrifice—is that our way of seeing changes, too. The Omnimax is replaced by an “iris-in”: that cinematic effect denoting transition or closure where blackness begins to fill up the screen, circling in from all sides until only a pinpoint of the image remains. When the universe reveals itself to be nothing more than a tiny star among billions and billions strewn against the vast emptiness, and every achievement and action, everything we see, no matter how great, is a chimera, what can anything matter?

A great movie that asks that question is Kurosawa's 1952 film, Ikiru (To Live). The protagonist is a bureaucratic functionary, going about his day by going through the motions. Citizens come to his office with problems and complaints, and he passes them on to someone else. Then he sees a doctor and finds out that he has only months to live. After a range of responses, including drinking and carousing, our hero decides he might try and do something to help a group of poor women get an inner-city back alley turned into a playground and perhaps give his life some meaning.

Which brings us back to Balboa Park. I'm sure you've heard about local philanthropist and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs' plan to invest in a park renovation that would remove cars from the Plaza De Panama in the heart of the park and divert traffic coming off of the Cabrillo Bridge toward other parking areas. And perhaps you've heard that some in the historical-preservation community oppose the bypass bridge because of how it will alter the look and feel of the park entrance.

The two parties in this controversy seem entrenched. Jacobs believes that his $40-million plan is best because it removes cars from the center of the park. Bruce Coons of Save Our Heritage Organisation supports a far cheaper, $1-million plan that would remove parking from the plaza but still allow cars to drive through the park without marring the historical entrance with a new bypass ramp.

But there is a third option, which is to ban cars from the bridge altogether and find another way to get people parked and into the park. Jacobs, in a panel on KPBS's These Days radio program, said he doubted the possibility of getting this third way accomplished, but he spoke favorably of it. So have preservationists. I'll bet this third way would have the most support from the public, too.

I like how Jacobs' plan clears cars from the plaza. And I like how SOHO's plan is inexpensive and preserves the entrance to the park. But the third way, making the bridge a pedestrian bridge, is the coolest of all. Everybody would win. If we need money to get additional parking and trams paid for to make it happen, we can indeed raise hotel-room taxes a tiny bit, as Coons has suggested. They're not that high as it is. It certainly won't hurt tourism. Hell, tourists won't even know. They're gonna come to San Diego regardless. And, also, Jacobs could kick in even more. For all the great things Jacobs has already done, he could be like Mister Watanabe, the hero in Ikiru, one last time: overcoming odds to make an unlikely but great thing happen.

I'd like to be walking across that bridge with my future grandchildren someday and turn to them and say, “Irwin Jacobs helped make this possible.”   

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