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The Plaza Is Back In Play

— Next Tuesday, the roiling cauldron of intrigue that is Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama goes before the San Diego City Council. Councilmembers are getting hundreds of emails as they decide whether to endorse a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would turn the park’s central plaza into a pedestrian-only zone.

The Laurel Street bridge is the western entrance to San Diego's Balboa Park.
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Above: The Laurel Street bridge is the western entrance to San Diego's Balboa Park.

This past Tuesday, Mayor Jerry Sanders tweeted a list of “myths vs. facts” about the plan to renovate the plaza, create a new access road and a paid parking structure in the park.

What’s myth and what’s fact depends on your point of view, of course. The plaza project, in concept, sounds like something all park lovers should love. Remove the parking spaces and the traffic from the Plaza de Panama, which abuts the San Diego Museum of Art, and turn it into a pedestrian plaza. There, people could hang out, absorb the precious atmosphere of Balboa Park and not be worried about being hit by a car.

But the devil’s in the details, which caused a City Council committee about a month ago to refuse to endorse the MOU.

One detail was how to accommodate the disabled, once their parking spaces were removed from the plaza. The bigger issue has been the plan to divert approaching traffic on the Cabrillo Bridge to the right, so it would enter the park south of the plaza and be routed toward a newly built parking garage.

Among the “facts” presented by the mayor’s office is that the project will not harm the Cabrillo Bridge or views of it.

“The ‘iconic view’ that project opponents claim would be violated… has been blocked by trees for more than 75 years,” said the mayor’s statement.

Sanders’ facts were followed the next day by an opposing set of facts presented by the Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO), which has led the opposition to the plaza project.

SOHO writes, “In fact, the impact is of such great magnitude to the bridge that the State Historic Preservation Officer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Caltrans have all written letters opposing the proposed project… It jarringly interrupts the bridge's compelling contiguous line, which visually draws visitors into the historic core.”

Click on the highlights above to get a better idea of where both sides are coming from. They do go on. And so they should since Balboa Park is so important to the city.

Voice of San Diego presented an article that included an architect’s preliminary drawings and digital photo renditions. Give it a look to get a better idea of what changes we’re talking about. But keep in mind that this article was also tweeted by the mayor, so its illustrations of the Panama project are what the mayor wants you to see.

One thing that’s at stake here is a very large contribution to create a pedestrian-only plaza. Irwin Jacobs is a San Diego philanthropist who said he’d give $25 million to the Plaza de Panama project. But he told the Union Tribune he would “suspend” his work on it, after the City Council committee decided not to endorse the MOU.

Money. History. A cherished park. It’s all coming before the City Council on Tuesday. Stay tuned!

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