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Rebuilding Balboa Park’s Public Square

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Video published February 19, 2010 | Download MP4 | View transcript

Above: What's the motivation behind efforts to rebuild Balboa Park's public square? KPBS News reporter Sharon Heilbrunn tells us about the history of the public square, and updates us on the efforts to bring it back.

JOANNE FARYON (Host): Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park used to be a public square. But today, it's overtaken by cars instead of people. KPBS reporter Sharon Heilbrunn looks at the renewed effort to turn the parking lot into a place for pedestrians.

SHARON HEILBRUNN (KPBS Reporter): Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park used to be a public square. When it was built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition, it was a gathering spot for dignitaries and community events. That is, until it was turned into a parking lot in the 1940s. Now, there is a renewed effort to turn the plaza back into a place for pedestrians. It's an idea that San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders stands behind, says Rachel Laing, spokeswoman for the Mayor's office.

RACHEL LAING (Spokesperson, Mayor Jerry Sanders): It's something that's been talked about for probably decades. It's been an idea that people say: ‘Why is this a parking lot, when it used to be a grand ceremonial plaza?’ There is no space like it in San Diego, that gives you the opportunity to have a huge public gathering, permit free. If a politician comes to town, right now, they go to Horton Plaza or Fashion Valley Mall. This is a public space and it should be used for the public.

HEILBRUNN: The plan calls for the removal of more than 70 parking spaces -- 20 of which are for disabled persons -- and the surrounding asphalt. It would be replaced with an open plaza, to be used only by pedestrians. Now, even though the parking spaces would be gone, cars would still pass through this two-way road on the southwest corner of the plaza.

PAUL MEYER (Member, Balboa Park Trust): My hope for this project is that we will do more than simply remove cars. My hope is that we will add the accouterments of a public gathering place. I'd love to see tables put out around the plaza, and carts offering coffee and something to eat, and musicians strolling about. I would love to see tasteful lights- L-E-D lights, so that at night people gather here. This should be an intersection for people of all ages with interests of all kinds around the parks.

HEILBRUNN: The area is surrounded by several art museums and institutions, including the San Diego Museum of Art.

MEYER: Architecturally, this should be one of the most beautiful, uninterrupted, open vistas of any public park in the world. It really has that potential. My belief is that if we open this up as a visual mall for the city that our institutions will grow all the stronger. Many people do consider this the best collection of park-based institutions in the country, west of the Smithsonian.

HEILBRUNN: It's not known whether the parking spots would be removed or relocated. Currently, there are 6600 spaces in the park. It would cost between $5 and 6 million just to replace the parking spaces and asphalt with a pedestrian-friendly surface. The money would come from private donations, and not from the city's general fund. Right now, the City of San Diego is working with park organizations to raise $1 million, which would go toward evaluating the needs of the area.

LAING: The million dollars is to fund a study to find what we would do with the plaza, and how we would reduce any impacts to parking, what is it that we really want, engage the public. That million dollars is critical. Without that million dollars, without that study, we're not going to be able to go forward. The hope is that it's done by the park's Centennial Celebration, in 2015.

LAING: And this would be a wonderful thing to unveil for that huge celebration, which is going to bring thousands of thousands of more people to the park.

It's going to be marketed; it's going to be an enormous celebration, so we'd love to have it done by then.

HEILBRUNN: Nearly 10 million people visit Balboa Park each year. If this project moves forward, it's likely that improvements will be made to the park's tram system and maybe even requiring employees to shuttle in from outside lots so that more visitor spaces are available within the park. We want to know if you think Plaza de Panama should be turned into a public square. Log onto and leave us a comment. For KPBS, I'm Sharon Heilbrunn.

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Avatar for user 'fcastillo'

fcastillo | February 20, 2010 at 12:07 p.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

From the perspective of a long time San Diego native and Balboa Park employee at the San Diego Natural History Museum, the removal of the parking spaces in the Plaza Mayor would not affect the park in a negative way. There is plenty of parking throughout the park and the zoo. I feel it would be a great space to provide activities for families and visitors that would inevitably bring more people to the park and a site for Farmers Markets that would promote organic and healthy foods. The Cabrillo bridge would become a view point and experience for people rather than just a transition point for vehicles trying to enter the park. It's important to consider what the World's Fair in 1915 was designed to do for the San Diego economy and image. It should be a destination point for visitors and not simply another lot for more vehicles. This would also promote a green solution and would inspire patrons to walk to the park. The loss of a few parking spaces seems a small compromise for the possibilities it could present.

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Avatar for user 'Terin'

Terin | February 20, 2010 at 12:35 p.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

I agree. a plaza with tables, food, music is just right.

That said. I find the present situation in the park difficult. The following are badly needed as I'm sure you agree.

Easy public transportation going through the park.

More frequent trolly stops within the park

More parking.

Having lived in NYC and Paris, I now find access to the park activities too difficult. Parking next to impossible. Walking daunting for anyone of a certain age.

Most importantly, I feel for the working people of San Diego wanting to meet their family and friends on weekends when so many events occur. Even if they were to find a way into the park, few if any picnic tables while the restaurants are relatively expensive.

If San Digo wants to created a park as described in your program, it must be a park where the community can meet and wander easily.

Thank you. Terin Smith

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Avatar for user 'annew'

annew | February 21, 2010 at 5:43 a.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

Parking is horrid in the park. I'm at Spanish Village weekly and so often I end up parking at the zoo.

That said, the Plaza de Panama should become a public square again.

In addition to Terin's suggestions about the trolley and other public transportation we should consider double decking the flat or almost flat spaces - maybe the zoo, certainly along Park Blvd, the Organ Pavilion etc. and roofing them with solar power for the park. Could also make easy parking spaces for hybrid / electric vehicles not unlike we do for handicapped parking.

Yes, there's a cost, but the savings in solar should go a long way to defraying over time.

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Avatar for user 'maryellett'

maryellett | February 22, 2010 at 3:11 p.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

San Diego can have one of the most beautiful plazas in the world. It is sitting there waiting for us to haul off the paving and bring in a well designed and furnished public area. The beauty of the surrounding buildings, the plantings, and San Diego's friendly climate are assets we are not utilizing to their fullest when we have wall-to-wall cars. Because there are so few spaces to park, I would guess that most of the traffic is created from people simply cruising around trying to find parking. I think the value gained from the limited parking is far too high a price to pay for what we are sacrificing in beauty and ambience.

Committed people must surely be able to come up with solutions on hop-on-hop- off buses or trams or trollies to solve the problem. It needs to be a solution for the whole complex from Balboa Hospital parking lot to the zoo, designed for all the meetings (San Diego Youth Symphony - orchid shows - weddings, etc.) in the Prado area to the museums, arts, organ concerts, strollers who are there to see the plantings and enjoy the beauty - the list is extensive. It is a gift that few cities can equal. We need to protect it and maintain it. Getting cars out of the plaza would be welcome.

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