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Preservationists Fear Changes Would Jeopardize Balboa Park’s Historic Status

Evening Edition

Mark Johnson, the designer for the Plaza de Panama project, and Bruce Coons, founder of Save Our Heritage Organisation, air their disagreements about the plan to remove cars from the center of Balboa Park.

Aired 2/8/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.


Adrian Florido, KPBS Reporter

Mark Johnson, Founder, Civitas Inc. is the designer for the Plaza de Panama project

Bruce Coons, Director, Save Our Heritage Organisation


Qualcomm founder and billionaire philanthropist Irwin Jacobs wants to make over Balboa Park for its 2015 centennial celebration.

Mayor Jerry Sanders backs the plan the plan to remove cars from Plaza de Panama at the center of Balboa Park.

But a local preservationist group has sued to stop the project. San Diego's Superior Court concurred with the Save Our Heritage Organisation that an agreement the city signed with Jacobs was illegal.

Now a state preservation official has said major changes to the park will cause it to lose its Historic Landmark Designation and possibly future funding opportunities.

Mark Johnson, the founder of Civitas, Inc., is the designer for the Plaza de Panama project. He told KPBS Television's "Evening Edition" the plan to remove cars from the park will take it back to what it once was, a pedestrian park in 1915.

But SOHO director Bruce Coons said he also supports removing parking from the park, and added that Balboa Park was built for cars.

"The only time it didn't have cars was for about a year and a half in 1915, 1916," he said.

Coons said the park losing its Historic Landmark status would be a huge blow to tourism and the park's ability to garner federal, state and local grants.

However, Johnson said he is not worried about losing the park's historic status.

"We think the improvements we are making are a great benefit, on balance and an extremely positive thing for the park that will enhance the historic district," he said.

Coons disagreed.

"We believe the park would be unrecognizable to present park lovers if this project was put in," he said.

"It would look more like a business park in North County, rather than the park we all love," he added.

Johnson disagreed with Coons' concerns and said if the plan proceeds, the park will retain its historic value.

Full disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major contributor to KPBS.

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Avatar for user 'donridgway'

donridgway | February 8, 2012 at 12:28 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

Balboa Park is very, very special. It's ridiculous to mess with it in such a ham-fisted way. This project looks like the effort of a very rich man to impose his legacy on San Diego's treasure, with the support of a rich friend/mayor who never saw a development he didn't like, if it made his rich friends richer.

The traffic in the plaza can be reduced in much less-intrusive ways. This project is a terrible idea. Please, San Diegans, don't be quiet about this. (I live 150 feet from the San Diego city line, but I am a San Diegan.)

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Avatar for user 'Melovechocolate'

Melovechocolate | February 8, 2012 at 1:38 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

" History is important because WE ARE the past: we are the sum of all the events--good, bad, and indifferent--that have happened to us. This sum product guides our actions in the present." WHY is the Irwin's project even being considered, if there is the threat that our precious Balboa Park may FOREVER lose its historic designation? There is HISTORY here--among the very few historic sites that have not been torn down or completely refurbished to a state completely unrecognizable from the original..Is there a stronger surge coming from developers? There are ABSOLUTELY alternatives--why are the proponents so adamant and inflexible? The 40 million dollars can buy not only materials and labor, but many pockets as well.. I hope San Diegans make their voice heard against this proposed plan..

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | February 8, 2012 at 4:48 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

This should not be a contentious issue - everyone I know wants the cars out of the plaza by the time of the 2015 celebration - the debate is just about *how* to do this.

I have a ton of respect for Mr. Jacob's, he has made a lot of important things in this town happen. He is a patron of the arts and he was instrumental in getting the downtown library off of a the ground, a project I have been anticipating for years and years.

But he needs to show a little flexibility here.

Many San Diegans take Balboa Park personally, more so than other areas of the city.

It is ours.

It doesn't belong to one person, it doesn't belong to the politicans, it is not up for sale to the highest bidder. To the contrary, it belongs to each and every one of us who resides in San Diego city equally. It is our jewel, our source of pride, and each one of us has equal ownership of it.

I think I speak for many when I say we welcome Jacob's participation and help, but it does not change the fact that the park is still the people's. Jacobs needs to be flexible to listen to the people, and the pushback clearly indicates the people don't want to do anything that could detract from the historical integrity of *our* park.

It seems to me counterproductive to build a road in an attempt to remove cars.

There are parking garages and parking spaces throughout our city.

Keep Balboa Park put and true to itself and don't put roads or parking structures within.

I will only support plans that make use of public transit and parking garages *outside* of the park. We can have shuttles that drop people off at 6th and Laurel, or alternately at Park and Presidents Way on the other side and people can walk to the interior.

Absolutely NO cars and NO parking.

Of course we would need to use of a shuttle for the handicapped and elderly only.

In the meantime, will SOMEONE, ANYONE of influence in the mass-transit backwards cow town PLEASE start a trolley line that goes from downtown up to the park/zoo/Hillcrest area? It's idiotic that the trolley goes to the border and out to east county but can't even connect our convention/financial/hotel center to our cultural heart just a little way up the hill. What kind of backwards Neanderthal Yetis are Driving the mass transit decisions in this ineptly run city????????

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | February 8, 2012 at 5:12 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

By the way, was not impressed with Mr. Johnson at all in this interview.

Mr. Coons brought up valid concerns that Mr. Johnson brushed aside and I dismissed without providing ny reasoning.

I am especially concerned over the landscaping issue. It sounds like the new plan will be introducing business park-type landscaping in Balboa Park.

**Kate Sessions must be turning over in her grave at the thought of what these thieves want to do to our park!**

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Avatar for user 'Oceanside'

Oceanside | February 8, 2012 at 9:10 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

There doesn’t seem to be much additional road to be built in the proposed bypass, just a small bridge around the back side of a building, over an area that isn’t being used, to connect the “West Gate” with the existing Alcazar parking lot. From there, roads already exist to continue to the parking areas behind the organ pavilion. That certainly seems doable without undue disturbance.

On the other hand, while there will be some loss of parking spaces in the plaza, that’s relatively limited and doesn’t seem to justify the construction of an ugly multistory parking structure.

PDSD, a trolley to take people up the hill to Balboa Park from downtown/convention center would seem to be an obvious need. What happened there?

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Avatar for user 'bix'

bix | February 13, 2012 at 9:48 a.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

"We think the improvements we are making are a great benefit, on balance and an extremely positive thing for the park that will enhance the historic district,"

If you look at the aerial, the bypass is completely out of place. It does not balance the park and you might as well raze the whole park if you're going to put an ugly bottleneck at the forefront of the park.

It's obvious Johnson and Jacobs have alternative interests in this bridge that have NOTHING to do with what the citizens of SD want, and what the best atmosphere for the park is. None of that is a surprise for SD, given the rampant history smashing that goes on daily here; but can we stop pretending either of these guys care about the park?

All historic issues aside, who wants to walk through a park with heavy congestion at the end of a bridge? Who is going to bring their children to a park full of traffic? Have Jacobs or Johnson ever even walked on that bridge as it already is, congested and full of irritable motorists? It's an interesting dynamic in San Diego, where people would rather create traffic in a beautiful park just so they can retain their right to drive their car right up into that park, rather than retain history and "suffer" a mild interaction with other denizens on a shuttle or -- imagine it, a restored trolley. ("public transit? not in my backyard!" I know, I know. )

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