July 13 2011 10:37 AM

City Council should invite Jacobs back to the drawing board on Balboa Park

Photo by David Rolland

On Tuesday, July 19, the San Diego City Council will be asked to weigh in on a proposal to reroute cars away from Balboa Park's central plaza by way of a new ramp off the east end of the Cabrillo Bridge that leads to a new parking garage just south of Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

The proposal comes from philanthropist and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, who'd finance part of the project. The City Council isn't being asked to approve the project; it's being asked to sign a memorandum of understanding that essentially says the city and a nonprofit committee led by Jacobs love the idea and will work hard to make it happen.

The City Council should thank Jacobs for being willing to spend so much of his money on a worthwhile goal, and then it should reject the memorandum of understanding and ask Jacobs to—pretty please—entertain alternatives.

Everyone wants to get cars out of the Plaza de Panama—the area surrounded by the San Diego Museum of Art, the Mingei Museum and The Prado restaurant—but fewer people want a parking garage next to the organ pavilion, and fewer people still want a raised bypass ramp built off the south side of the historic Cabrillo Bridge.

Removing the 70 or so parking spaces from the plaza and routing traffic around the edge of it can be done right now, without an expensive, invasive new ramp and roadway, and work to restore the plaza for pedestrian use before the planned 2015 centennial celebration of the Panama-California Exposition can begin. The only impact would be the added pressure on other parking lots.

Still, count us among those who're thinking bigger. We'd like to also close the Cabrillo Bridge to vehicles, which is not envisioned under Jacobs' plan. The bridge, built for the exposition and completed in 1914, was initially meant as a pedestrian bridge, although the public was allowed to drive on it within a few short years. Imagine how nice it would be to turn it into a landscaped linear strolling park, perhaps also allowing for tram access into Balboa Park.

Yes, that would create big traffic concerns, mostly for Park Boulevard, as all access to the park would be from the east. It would also cause parking impacts in Bankers Hill, because some people would elect to walk to the park from the west, across the bridge. But we should be dreaming big. Let's at least study the feasibility. Interestingly, Caltrans plans to close the bridge to vehicles for six months or more in 2012 and 2013 for a major retrofit project. Looks like we'll learn the impacts of permanent closure whether we like it or not. [Please see clarification below.]

As for Jacobs' parking structure, in 2004, the City Council approved amendments to the Balboa Park Master Plan allowing for a new underground parking garage off Park Boulevard. That makes a ton more sense than building a structure in the park's historic interior; circulation and parking should be pushed to the park's perimeter, and the interior should be redesigned for passive pedestrian enjoyment.

Jacobs to date hasn't appeared willing to listen to alternatives. That's a shame. His generosity could have lasting positive impacts on one of the country's most beloved urban parks. The mayor and City Council shouldn't go with Jacobs' plan simply because he's willing to pay for it (the plaza and bypass ramp, but not the parking structure—that would be bond-financed and paid for by parking fees).

The problem with Jacobs' plan is that while it would take cars out of the Plaza de Panama, ironically, it would increase auto traffic inside the park. Again, the goal should be parking to the east, discouragement of private vehicle access and encouragement of public transit. We're hearing very little from city officials about transit amid the debate over Jacobs' plan.

Mayor Jerry Sanders seemed too eager to jump aboard whatever bandwagon Jacobs happened to be driving. The City Council needs to politely raise the stop sign before the bandwagon gets too far down the (proposed) road. Then, with Councilmember Todd Gloria at the helm—his district includes Balboa Park—the council needs to launch a more inclusive process that encourages creativity. If Jacobs wants to take his money and go home, so be it.

[Correction: Our information about the retrofit project came from a May 20, 2011, letter from a Caltrans official. We've since received clarification that the bridge is scheduled to be closed to cars between January and April 2014.]

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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