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Traffic Always A Part Of Balboa Park


Plans are underway to turn the Plaza de Panama in the center of Balboa Park from a traffic circle into a public square. But how did the plaza became a parking lot in the first place? And what do people think about kicking the cars out?

— Plans are underway to turn the Plaza de Panama in the center of Balboa Park from a traffic circle into a public square. But how did the plaza became a parking lot in the first place? And what do people think about kicking the cars out?

A stroll through Balboa Park on a sunny afternoon offers up many pleasant diversions. You can stand near the iconic fountain on the park’s eastern edge and listen to a man playing the saxophone. You can wander west down the Park’s main drag and watch a one-man band that consists of bells and a didgeridoo. Or there always seems to be a magic show in progress.

But as you get closer to the Plaza do Panama near the San Diego Museum of Art, the atmosphere begins to change. Yes there’s some nice Spanish guitar music floating across the plaza. But there’s also something else: traffic. A steady stream of cars, trolleys, buses and trucks makes its way through the park, past the organ pavilion, and through the traffic circle near the plaza. Some are just passing through while others are hoping to snag a rare parking spot.

Iris Engstrand is a history professor at the University of San Diego.

“Historically plazas are open, plazas are not parking lots,” she says. Engstrand sits on a bench near the plaza while the clock tower bells ring out an afternoon concert behind her. “But in 1915, there weren't very many cars, so I don’t think that ever entered into their planning stage.”

The park began to take on the shape that most San Diegans recognize today in 1915. The plaza and many of the surrounding buildings were created for the Panama-California Exposition. Engstrand says the plaza was occasionally used for parking throughout World War I and much of the 1920s and '30s.

But she said parking became the dominate use for the plaza after World War II.

“Without a real plan they started using the plaza for parking because it’s convenient,” she said.

Today the plaza looks even more like a parking lot, complete with 67 spaces marked by lines on the asphalt and signs saying who can park where and for how long.

But there’s a plan in the works to change that. Qualcomm Founder Irwin Jacobs is spearheading a $33 million effort to get the cars out and bring the people back in to the Plaza. Architect David Marshall is consulting on the project. He said there’s always been traffic in the park, but not like today.

“Traffic has gotten worse in the park because the park through its own success has brought more people,” he said. “So when we have events like December nights it pushed the limits of what we can accommodate.”

Marshall says about 3 million to 3.5 million people visited Balboa Park during the Exposition in 1915 and 1916. Today between 10 million and 15 million people visit every year. Part of the renovations would include building a parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion to make room for all those people. Overall the project would add about 250 parking spaces.

And it’s a project that several people visiting the park seem to look forward to, including Vesta Garcia, who was standing nearby with her bicycle.

“I think it’s great because I like to go running here and ride my bike and I hate competing with the cars,” she said. “If you want to drive you can go around the block; it’s not that much harder. But I really like the idea of making it all pedestrian.”

In an alcove near the plaza, April Bird sat on a bench with her friend. She says the traffic circle doesn’t fit with the ambiance of the park.

“It kind of takes away because it’s so quaint and peaceful and then you have all these cars kind of zigzagging throughout,” she said.

San Diegan Jeffrey Davis and his family stopped by the plaza on a walk through the park. He envisioned what it might look like once the cars are gone. “Oh look, I see jugglers over, and I see, oh a little coffee stand over there and people laying on the grass over here. And look, there’s a Frisbee game over there.”

But not everyone is completely sold on the idea. Paulette Forester and her friend had just left their car with the valet service. She said being able drive further into the park is nice for disabled people.

“It would make it a little more difficult for people with handicaps of some sort to be able to enjoy the park. I think that it might sort of close it off for them. It might be more of an effort to come,” she said

Project planners stress that there will be a drop-off area and additional parking for the disabled in the nearby Alcazar parking lot.

Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in about two years. The goal is to have the renovation complete by 2015, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition.

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