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Rebuilding Balboa Park's Public Square

Rebuilding Balboa Park's Public Square

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.