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Balboa Park Renovation Plan Goes Before City Council

An artist's rendering of the future, pedestrian-only Plaza de Panama.

Above: An artist's rendering of the future, pedestrian-only Plaza de Panama.

A controversial plan to re-route traffic through San Diego's historic Balboa Park goes before the city council today. We'll break down the renovation plans and explain the renovation plans and have both sides of the debate.

A controversial plan to re-route traffic through San Diego's historic Balboa Park goes before the city council today - and it's a big deal even though the council will vote on a non-biding agreement. If the Council gives the OK, it means a plan, proposed by Qualcomm founder Dr Irwin Jacobs to redirect traffic from Park's main plaza by means of a new traffic ramp, will move forward. If the council says no, the traffic ramp idea will probably not happen.

One concern is that a new ramp will block the view of Balboa Park, but Dr. Jacobs tells Midday Edition, that's not the case. “One of the issues was that it changes the appearance as you drive over the bridge. In fact the walls of the Museum of Man, the south and west wall, have not been visible since 1920 or earlier, because there were eucalyptus trees planted there as part of the original plan and in fact by 1920 those eucalyptus trees had grown very high and were going over that first archway. So that area was invisible,” Jacobs said.

Bruce Coons, president of Save Our Heritage disagrees and tells Midday Edition, this project is about more than a bridge. “This is not just the bypass bridge and a parking project, it it’s a huge, huge project that actually transforms the land-form of the central mesa into something that none of us will recognize and takes out most of the trees,” Coons said.


Dr. Irwin Jacobs, proposed renovation plan for Balboa Park, founder of Qualcomm.

Bruce Coons, Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO)

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The Balboa Park traffic renovation plan gets a major hearing today before the San Diego City Council. And a back to school donation drive in full swing here in San Diego. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Tuesday, July 19th. Our series on ocean health continues today with an over view of the threats revealed by new scientific studies. And we'll tell you how you can help a homeless student get new supplies for a brand-new school here here in San Diego. But first, the Balboa Park renovation plan goes before the San Diego City Council today. And it's a big deal even though the council will vote only on a nonbinding agreement. If the council gives the okay, it means a plan proposed by Qualcom founder, doctor Erwin Jacobs, will move forward. The plan would redirect traffic from the park's main plaza by means of a new traffic ramp off the Cabrillo bridge. If the council says no, the traffic ramp idea will probably not happen. Joining us today, both the supporter and critic of the plan, first we welcome supporter doctor Erwin Jacobs. Doctor Jacobs, hello.

JACOBS: Hi, Maureen. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Quite well. Thank you for joining us.

JACOBS: Surely.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we have pictures of your proposal for a ramp off the Cabrillo bridge into the park on our website,, if people would like to look what we're talking about. Do you find people are having a hard time visualizing this idea?

JACOBS: Well, there's certainly a lot of confusion, some of that intentional, I'm afraid, in what we now call the centennial bridge. And that bridge will give you a right-hand turn just before you reach the first arch of the museum of man and take you around approximately 400 feet to the parking lot that is existing behind the alcazar garden. And then on to a parking garage three levels under ground with a park on top. Over all, this would provide about 6.3 new acres of new park land as well as taking the cars and parking out of just the plaza de Panama, but also the California plaza, the west el prado, and the area heading in toward the organ pavilion, the esplanade.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Doctor Jacobs, I assume you're going to be at the City Council meeting today at two: 00. What are you going to be presenting to the council?

JACOBS: Just review the plan with them, show some of the pictures before and after if this plan does go ahead, and talk about the over all goals of the plan. And hopefully get support from the council.

CAVANAUGH: What are the goals of the plan? How do you see this plan for the centennial bridge as you call it, how will that affect visitors to Balboa Park?

JACOBS: Well, I think first of all, that they'll have this much additional, much greater pedestrian area. They have won't have the conflicts between cars and people in each of the areas I just named. And those will be landscaped and very much returned to the appearance of the original 1915 expo, although updated obviously to handle some additional shading, etc. The actual work on each of the plazas, and the esplanade, that's still will benefit from further input from the public as people have different ideas how best that should be done. So we've been getting a be in of those ideas. We'll get additional ones. On this question that you raise on the bridge, one of the issues was that it changes the appearance as you drive over the bridge. In fact, the walls of the museum of man, the south and the west wall, have not been visible since 1920 or a little earlier because there were eucalyptus trees planted there as part of the original plan. And in fact, by 1920, those eucalyptus trees had grown very high and were going over that first arch way. So that area was invisible. The centennial bridge, although I think it's going to be a beautiful bridge off to the right, in fact probably will not be visible except as you enter it. And there are right now, probably some missing eucalyptus trees from the original plantings, which we have pictures of. So we'll try to restore that as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what is the projected cost of this project, doctor Jacobs? It's reported you've committed to raise 25 million toward this project.

JACOBS: Right now, the estimated cost is about $40 million. That obviously is gonna change a little bit as we get into more details and get through the results of the EIR, changes that might need to be made.

CAVANAUGH: And that's the environmental impact report.

JACOBS: Oh, thank you. Right. The under ground parking with the park on top is probably the largest chunk of that money. It's about 26 to twenty-seven million. We expect that we will raise 14 or 15 million -- the city will raise, from a bond issue. We'll have to cover the additional amounts. When I mentioned 40 million, that could change also. We made some changes to the bridge as a result of public input. And that probably has added a little bit of cost to it. But I think it also will be an improvement.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Jacobs, I'm going to ask you to stay on the line as I introduce my next guest, he's a critic of the project. Bruce Coons of save our heritage, also known as Soho. Bruce, hello.

COONS: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: What are your major concerns?

COONS: This is not just a bypass bridge, and not just a parking project. It's a huge, huge project that actually transforms the land form of the central mesa into something that none of us will recognize. It takes out most of the trees and creates a big ditch across the central mesa and, a paid parking structure that is level with the base of the columns and the organ pavilion. This trees issue that doctor Jacobs keeps bringing up is a red herring issue because their project takes out most of those trees they're talking about, plus they were not planted as part of good hews plan. He planted fuchsia and lantana. He wanted a flowered entrance to the plaza, and the park plan is to remove all those trees anyhow because of the threat from the eucalyptus. And I probably shouldn't talk about that anymore, because it is simply a red herring issue. The cacophony of events that's going to go on in the alcazar garden parking lot, with the freight drop off, the passenger drop off, the ADA drop off, and the valet drop off, it just moves the traffic conflicts to there. All of that has to cross these two lanes of traffic that'll be fully visible from one of the most beautiful spots in the alcazar garden. Plus there's a building three size of palm cappion on the slope on the eastern side, and having to locate all of those trees in that area, and the Charley brown Christmas tree, and the trees behind the organ pavilion will go as part of that project. It'll only yield a hundred and 60 new spots.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Bruce, I know that you and doctor Jacobs sort of agree on the fundamental idea to clear out traffic in the plaza de Panama; is that right?

COONS: I think we agree on removing the parking space, and I think most San Diegans agree on that. What is not agreed on is the method to do that. The consensus is supporting the precise plan, which routes the traffic on the right-hand side of the plaza and allows for managed traffic -- we can have it closed when we want and open it when we want. It is a much less expensive plan that went through nine and a half years of vetting. This plan they're trying to run true in a couple of months, and this MOU does indeed bind the city to the project. That's why doctor Jacobs wants to see this happen.

CAVANAUGH: And that's the nonbinding agreement of understanding.

COONS: It's absolutely not nonbinding.

CAVANAUGH: That's what I read. That it was nonbinding on the city.

COONS: It says that at the beginning, but the second half of the agreement binds the city to the project, and the financial obligations of the city to this project, to this structure, to the great big ditch, and to the regrading of the central mesa and the retaining wall.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to give doctor Jacobs a chance to respond to some of the issues that you brought up. But we do have a caller on the line -- yes?

JACOBS: I would like -- because I think just about everything he said today is incorrect. And probably intentionally incorrect.

CAVANAUGH: Can I get a caller in doctor Jacobs first? Hi carol, welcome to Midday Edition.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. My question was for doctor Jacobs. I think the proposed changes to make the park free are long overdue. And I was wondering is the construction of the bypass bridge the only way to get the cars out of the park entirely?

CAVANAUGH: There's a question for you, doctor Jacobs and you can also have your time for response now.

JACOBS: There seem to be two ways to remove cars and the parking from each of these areas I mentioned, in particular the plaza de Panama. And that's to close the bridge, Cabrillo bridge, and not allow any traffic in, or to build this centennial bridge bypass. The closing the bridge, and there has been some support for that -- there are people looking into it more carefully. We've spoken to most of the institutions in the park, in the core of the park, and they feel that it will be a major disaster for them, for their people to be able to reach the institutions if that privilege is closed. People have also talked about elderly, about the need for additional spaces, of course making them come that much longer distance on an infrequent tram will be a major problem. And so we provided for that in the alternate plan of providing the centennial bridge. But I don't see any -- although people keep saying there are 10 or 20 other possibilities, I don't think there are any other possibilities that are reasonable that can be done to eliminate cars entirely from the plaza de Panama.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Jacobs, if the council approves the memorandum of understanding that Bruce coons is saying is binding, several of the reports I've read says it's nonbinding. What is next for this plan? What will you do next in moving forward with the idea of the centennial bridge and the parking structure?

JACOBS: The MOU is nonbinding. That's quite clear in all of the wording, not just the first half. However, if there is a significant council approval of the MOU, that is encouragement for us to move forward. We'll then move ahead with the preparation of the environmental impact report, which looks not only into this plan but also details a number of the alternatives that have been provided to us by the development services department. And each of those will be to evaluate the positives, the negatives, and then present it for citizen review, and then review by a number of committees.

CAVANAUGH: Bruce, the future of Balboa Park is a very personal issue for a lot of people in San Diego. Do you think that's helping or hurting this discussion?

COONS: I -- it always helps the discussion. Balboa Park is one of our favorite icons, and these issues are very large issues about the -- have paid parking or have nonpaid parking, to have this big transportational project put in or not. It's hard to do things in Balboa Park. It should be because it's too important to our future and what people really love about Balboa Park. And we need to take our time and do this right. There should probably be a design competition. And it probably should go to the vote of the people.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to leave it there. I know that you two are going to be busy at the San Diego City Council this afternoon. I've been speaking with doctor Erwin Jacobs and Bruce coons about a vote on the Balboa Park renovation today at the San Diego City Council. I want to thank you both.

JACOBS: Thank you.

COONS: Thank you, Maureen.

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