Balboa Park Parking Plan Draws Fire
Balboa Park is often referred to as San Diego's crown jewel. So, as you might imagine any proposal to tamper with the park will come under intense scrutiny. A plan to solve some of the problems with traffic in the park was announced last summer, with the support of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. It called for a privately funded renovation to remove parking spaces in the Plaza de Panama, and make the plaza a pedestrian-only space. At the time, the idea, spearheaded by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, received wide support, but as with many new ideas the devil is in the details.
Now, the actual proposed method of diverting traffic from the Plaza, by means of a bypass bridge is being criticized by a number of local organizations. In the forefront of that opposition is the Save our Heritage organization.
Guests: Irwin Jacobs, philanthropist and founder of Qualcomm
Bruce Coons, director, Save Our Heritage Organization
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: Balboa Park is often referred to as San Diego's crown jewel. So you might million any profile to tamper with the park will come under intense scrutiny. A plan to solve some of the problems with traffic in the park was announced last summer with the support of San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, it called for a privately funded renovation to remove parking spaces in the Plaza de Panama. And make the plaza a period only space. At the time, the idea spear headed by Qualcomm cofounder, Irwin Jacobs, received wide support. But as with many new idea, the devil is in the deal now the actual proposed method of diverting traffic through the plaza by means of a bypass bridge is being criticized by a number of local organizations, and in the the forefront of the opposition is the Save Our Heritage Organization. I'd like to introduce my guests, Bruce Coons is executive director of save our heritage organization, also known as SOHO. Bruce, welcome back to These Days
COONS: Good morning, Maureen. Happy to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Irwin Jacobs is here, he is cofounder of Qualcomm Incorporated, and Irwin, welcome to These Days.
JACOBS: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: In the interests of full disclosure, Irwin and Joan Jacobs are major funders of KPBS. Now, we invite our listeners to join this conversation what do you think about the amount of traffic in Balboa Park? Do you think new plans to build a new ramp off of Cabrillo Bridge, you can go to our website, KPBS.org these These Days, give us a call with your questions and your comments number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, starting with you, Irwin Jacobs issue as I said in the opening, Balboa Park is a beloved institution. It generates a lot of passion when people try to manipulate it in one way or another. Why did you decide to get involved in any kind of redesign for Balboa Park?
JACOBS: First of all, I probably should say that one of the reasons we moved to San Diego was Balboa Park. We were very impressed with it. A city that could do that, do that when it was still a very small city, and so indeed it is a jewel of the city, it's beautiful. Mayor Sanders came to see me one day asked whether I think the reason was to raise some money, but ask whether we'd get involved with a elimination of traffic through Balboa Park from the plaza de Balboa. The Plaza de Panama. I want to get myself straight here.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
JACOBS: And we looked at that, it involved -- the original plan did involve keeping cars driving through the plaza. And eliminating the parking. That would of course require parking elsewhere as well. But with a huge volume of cars coming through the plaza, that didn't seem to be a particularly good solution. It still would not be period friendly, we'd still need space for drop off and pick up, it would probably need space for valets. So I don't think that is a particularly good solution at all. And so as we looked at it, we saw that it was possible to bring traffic around the back of the -- the side and back of the museum of map, bring it into an existing parking hot, and then onto the space behind the organ pavilion. And so in looking at that further, walking the park, checking it out, we found, first of all, that the bypass does not come off the bridge. The bypass actually is east of the administration building for the Museum of Man. So there's already a building just to the north of where this by pas would be, and to the west of it, and so it has nothing to do with the bridge. It would be a turn off, it would be very short actually curve shape of bridge, relatively visible, I think from everywhere, certainly not from the freeway. Not visible from the freeway. We then needed additional space, and so -- for parking, and the spaces behind the organ pavilion were already set aside in plans for parking. And what we want to do was provide that parking but do it in a way that we also end up with increased park land. And so the current plan is to have, actually, three levels of parking, but with a roof over it, so that it appears to be park land, and in fact is level with the level of the organ pavilion. So when pedestrians came out, they can walk very carefully across that. So when you say parking garage, you have to be very careful. It's not something that you would see. What you would see rather than a surface parking lot that we have now is additional park land. And in fact, you would end up with ability for pedestrians to walk all the way back, if they wish, to the Plaza de Panama, and do that without encountering cars at all.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with doctor Irwin Jacobs, cofounder of Qualcomm incorporated. Bruce Coons executive director of Save Our Heritage foundation is also my guest. We're talking about a proposed renovation to Balboa park, to eliminate the parking spaces in the Plaza de Panama. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Before I go to Bruce and get his response and his critique about this particular plan, Irwin Jacobs, take us back. What is the problem with the way things are now? What is the perceived problem with the Plaza de Panama now?
JACOBS: Well, if you go there on any day of the week, you'll see that it's full of cars, cars driving around looking for spaces. It's really an ugly space. Of it's certainly not period friendly at all. If you look down the Prado to the east where the traffic has been removed, you'll find that that is full of people, full of people, performers, all kinds of liveliness. What we want to do is have the Plaza de Panama have that similar capability, and in fact, the Prado west, there will be no cars on the Prado west going to the museum of man, between the two arches, that also becomes very friendly to pedestrians, again, eliminate cars, it's not a question of parking, eliminating cars from these areas, returning them to the pedestrian use, letting them be full of life again.
CAVANAUGH: Element get your reaction, then Bruce. So would you agree that the Plaza de Panama should be parking free?
COONS: Well, we support very much the Plaza de Panama, and we have for years, being removed of cars and turned to period use, along with a lot of the other organizations. As you said, the devil's in the details. What our problem with this is this large concrete by pass bridge coming off the end of the Cabrillo Bridge and circling the Spanish colonial buildings. This is a national historic landmark. And it's a national historic landmark for one reason, the Spanish colonial architecture. The buildings were put there for a particular reason. There was a big fight then about where it was gonna be placed, in fact, Marston until later on was against having it put there, he wanted it in the southwest corner of the park. But the reason it was chosen, the site, they were trying to recreate a Spanish hill top village, and in this case, actually Toledo was the model. And with these foundations going five stories into the ground, and this whole vision of this fairy palace as they called it on top of the hill, this by pass bridge would encircle that. It would destroy that historic context. This museum of man annex is really where the chapel is. It was the whole area that was promoted for the Balboa park, and you look at the historic views where it was what you always saw, this beautiful bridge, you know, the most iconic thing I can think of in the City of San Diego. And the Spanish hill top village with the backside of it was designed to look like San Gabriel mission. Now, recently it's been hard to see because the trees haven't been trimmed. But it's really easy to recover that. It's essential that, you know, this national historic landmark district -- it's a very, very wrong place to put this. It's up front and center. It's not the backside. It's at the very entrance to this historic village. And this is it a massive construction, a very deep canyon that it goes through.
CAVANAUGH: So let me get -- make this very clear. You're saying that in the entrance along Cabrillo Bridge into the park, having this on-ramp to basically take traffic away from entering into the Plaza de Panama is going to ruin the initial view that you get going into the park? Is that it?
COONS: That's our contention. Plus, it would prevent restoring the historic views. Additionally, the way it's been described to me, you know, it's the proverbial devil's bargain. We solve one problem and give up the heart and soul of Balboa park.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, doctor Irwin Jacobs, what is your reaction to that criticism?
JACOBS: Well, I think that's a little bit of an over statement. First of all, there's been trees and shrubs blocking -- it's really the foundation that we're talking about, the rest of the building will be completely clear for view. But the rest of the building as well as the foundation has been blocked for something like 70 years, and nobody has noticed that enough to go cut some trees. So to claim that, taking those trees away and allowing the building to be seen again, and having not a massive concrete structure but a 40-foot Wide Road at the same level as the existing road, going to the south and around the buildings will be basically invisible as you come over that bridge. Because of the shrubbery that is there. And that that indeed will enhance the view coming as opposed to destroy it. Now, I agree that views, appearances, etc, are indeed in the eye of the beholder. But right now in the eye of the beholder what you see when you come over that bridge is traffic traffic traffic goes through the arches, hitting the Panama, being backed up because everybody's trying to drive around in the plaza to find spaces. It is right now unfortunately not very pretty view. This will retain all the views of the bell, the one thing that would be hidden is the foundation on which the building's built. And that's been hidden, as I say for 70 years now. Of I think, yes, there is always a trade off when you do anything. And one has to look at that very carefully. But I think this is a trade off that's very valuable, very worthwhile, returning period use to the plaza.
CAVANAUGH: We are inviting our listeners to join the conversation. Our number 1-888-895-5727. Zach is calling from normal heights. Good morning, Zach, and welcome to These Days.
JACOBS: Hi, good morning. I attended the December 2nd meeting at the Balboa park committee. And I was shocked. I -- what I'm hearing here does not 34567 with what I saw. I saw massive bridge projects coming off the Cabrillo Bridge going behind the garden. My question is, you know, the Cabrillo Bridge is one of only four structures designed to be permanent from 1915. Of how do you reconcile the fact that this appendage ramp, which to me looks like a Caltrans freeway ramp, can exist when the City of San Diego adopted a policy restricting new construction to be in the Spanish colonial revival style? Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call, Zach. And let me direct that call to you, doctor Jacobs.
JACOBS: Well, again, bypass is not coming off Cabrillo Bridge, it actually is east of an extension of the administration building. There's already bells on the other side of that street, and then the bridge it starts beyond those buildings. So it's not touching the bridge at all. Let's make that clear. The question of it being ugly or whatever, it's a very simple design. What you would see is a railing that looks like just like the railing that comes over the bridge and continues to the museum of man. In this case it'd be an opening and that railing would take a right turn and go around the back of the bridge as well. And so, no, it doesn't look like -- I think someone's mentioned shopping centers and all kinds of things. What it does is a very simple diversion to bring the traffic around the back of the museum of map, not to the main entrance of the park.
CAVANAUGH: And Bruce coons, just before we take our break, I'd like you to respond to that concept of this not conforming with the Spanish Colonial look of Balboa Park. Is there anything that they could do to change that ramp structure to bring it more in harmony with the architecture already there?
COONS: Probably not. And you know, the secretary of interior standards is very clear. And the very worst place to put a new construction is up front and center. And this is where this is. And it really is an abutment of the Cabrillo Bridge. It's all apart of the Cabrillo Bridge. If you go out and look at this site. You should go to our website and see the historic photos of this entrance and take a look at what is at stake. It's not just a foundation, it's a five story foundation. And this will be wrapping -- it's like taking the most beautiful woman in San Diego and putting a concrete veil up their eyeballs.
CAVANAUGH: That's quite an imagine, Bruce. Thank you. We'll have to leave it there for a moment. We're gonna return though and continue our conversation about these new plans for Balboa park. Our number, 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We're talking about a plan to renovate Balboa Park to remove traffic from the Plaza de Panama by means of a bypass bridge that comes up alongside Cabrillo Bridge, I don't want to say in any way that's gonna enflame either one of you, but sort of redirects traffic to a new garage structure behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. And there has been some criticism of it. We have a proponent and opponent of that plan. The opponent is Bruce Coons, the executive director of Save Our Heritage Foundation, and the supporter is doctor Irwin Jacobs, cofounder of Qualcomm incorporated. And we have been taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And again, if you want to look at some of the renderings of what this plan is, what we're talking about here, you can go to our website, KPBS.org/Thesedays to see those drawings. Now, let me start with you, Bruce, we basically -- we're in agreement that the Plaza de Panama should have less traffic, period only perhaps. I'm wondering how you would like to see that accomplished.
COONS: Well, in the current precise plan, the current plan is to remove the cars from the plaza and route the traffic around the southwest corner of the plaza. We think that's a good start. We agree with Irwin that eventually the traffic should be removed from the plaza completely. But that probably has to take place in steps. The current plan as proposed by doctor Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama committee is a plan for cars. I think we're planning the wrong thing of we're not planning it for pedestrians. You look at the plan, it's a very major plan to support the automobile and not return the park to its period roots. It is a motorist Disneyland, basically.
CAVANAUGH: But how do you reconcile so many people coming into the park? Something like 10, 15 million visitors per year, seeing Balboa Park, and how are they gonna get there?
COONS: Well, most city parks adopt bring the traffic and the parking structures to the very center of the park. We think a robust tram system today could shuttle people from the out lying parking spots that exist. And any spaces that are loft in the Plaza de Panama itself can be removed in the existing parking lots behind the museums. There's plenty of room back there. We have gone backed and looked, and we think there's probably 80 spaces we could recover, and there's less than 70 in the Plaza de Panama now. Of.
CAVANAUGH: Irwin Jacobs, have you studied or your designers, have they studied any plans that would eliminate traffic in the Plaza de Panama without having this ramp and this new garage?
JACOBS: Well, first of all, I don't think this ramp is a Disneyland for cars. And I think we indeed are providing considerably more space for pedestrians. Of a huge amount increase in park land accessible to pedestrians. And the cars will, in fact, now be off and out of sight. They're off to one side, they're going through actually a depression into a park, garage that's under ground. Of and so we're getting rid of this huge bustle of cars driving back and forth and everywhere. The solution, one solution that's been suggested, again, is letting cars enter the Plaza de Panama, trying to keep them to one side of the plaza and flowing through, taking away the parking spaces, providing, I assume again a drop off, pick up for those people that are going to need that, which is required. Probably still have valet issues, which exist today. By the time you're done with all that, you've still got a very busy plaza that is not friendly to pedestrians. Ask so we're trying to get away from that. Now, there is another solution, have been. Block Cabrillo Bridge. And if anybody is willing to convince all the interesting folks that there's no need for cars to go over Cabrillo Bridge, and it can be closed completely, that means, we'd be glad to forget the by pas because there's no need for a bypass. It's our feeling that that is not possible. It's not gonna be possible for years. Even we had thought at one time trying to make it one way, and we heard huge numbers of objections to that situation. And so, yes, we could stop all cars from entering the park. That would be great. By the way, the statement that all great parks don't have cars in them, but they're kept off to one side, central park certainly has cars going through it, go up to the San Francisco and golden gate park, and there are cars, there are garages there under ground. A very similar situation to what we're proposing here. Again, I think the main thing is to return large amounts of the park to pedestrians, take it away from the cars, and that is this a wonderful thing we can do for the centennial.
CAVANAUGH: Let's get our listeners more involved in this. 1-888-895-5727. David calling from San Diego. Good morning, David, welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thanks for taking my call. Upon my question is for doctor Jacobs. I want to thank you for all you do for San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: I tell you, David, your line is so terrible that we're going to have to stop you right here. But I do have an outline of what it is you want to ask. Of and he's concerned about accommodations for bicycles and trying to generate more interest in people getting around the park by using bikes. Just quickly, is that part of this plan at all?
JACOBS: Yeah, we very much encourage bicycles. The bypass is for cars only. Bikes would continue through the two arches, presuming, again, there aren't so many that it becomes dangerous for pedestrians. And so bicycles would be accommodated. Runners would be accommodated. Of pedestrians would go over the bridge and straight in as they do today, the one difference is that they would not have to contend with the cars, there are cars that are making a right turn just before the arch, there'll be a stop sign there, pedestrians that go along the south side of the bridge would have to cross the bypass. Those going across the north side of the bridge would have completely free period passage. To avoid problems with the cars, there will be a stop sign there to protect the pedestrians.
CAVANAUGH: Bruce, would you like to comment on that?
COONS: Well, just on that right turn, there's also a left turn coming out of that bypass, and we think it's a very dangerous situation at the end of the bridge to create this hard right and the stop sign would also back up traffic. Of the other traffic engineers and some of the other groups, a council of design professionals, have looked at that and think that's a very dangerous situation.
CAVANAUGH: You know, you made an interesting comment that I want to follow up on, doctor Jacobs, the fact that this renovation is supposed to be finished by the centennial, which is coming up in 2015. And in the back and forth that's go on between the critics and supporters of this plan, you make the point that unless something is agreed upon pretty quickly, that that's not gonna be able to be accomplished. Is that your feeling?
JACOBS: The effort is indeed to have the Plaza de Panama completely clear of cars by the centennial, beginning of the centennial year. That is doable. But of course, if we end up with many problem issues, that won't happen, and perhaps we'll just have to find perhaps the bicentennial to get this to happen. I think it's just such a great opportunity, and a lot of excitement about the park coming up to think about the possibility on the centennial to have that plaza wide up again and full of people and all kinds of exciting things happening. And so that's what drives me. I would just love to see that.
CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Venn cat is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Venkat, welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. One of your gusts briefly alluded to this, but I didn't really get a clear answer. My question is, we're talking about making this more period friendly. So why couldn't we have parking garages, say, 2, 3, miles away from the park or even a couple of miles away from the park? There are areas of the city close to the airport that seem to be drab these days. You know, there could be a nice parking structure that you could building there, and why couldn't we have with uses with natural gas and so on? To not only make the city more environmental friendly, but also more public transportation friendly, which, you know, the city generally needs to go in that direction?
CAVANAUGH: I understand. Venkat, thank you for that. And I'm gonna direct that to you, Bruce, because I know that one of the things that you've talked about is perhaps having more of a system of trams to get people in the park that way. Is that part of your idea?
COONS: Yeah, we think there should be a robust tram system that takes people from the parking lot accident are make at inspiration point, maybe a new parking lot at another site of six, as part of one of the residential develops. I know doctor Jacobs' plan does have a tram system, we think that could be one of the keys to solving this. Other people have written in about using the parking lots at Roosevelt, and the Zoo's and talked about the parking lot on the landfill, using all the existing, and actually providing a lot more mobility and entrance than doing the single parking lot and a bypass bridge, and really returning much more of the park to a passive, more period friendly use. And we agree with doctor Jacobs, the plaza removed of cars issue it's gonna be full of people like the closed in. Everywhere where we've seen it before where you've closed these areas off, there's usually like in Tombstone Arizona, one of the things I worked on, the businesses complain, say we're not gonna have much business. But we've always seen it increase. If you go to Old Town, one part of San Diego Avenue is closed, and the other part is open. The closed park has four times the traffic on it than the open park does. Pedestrian traffic.
CAVANAUGH: Just to be clear, though, are these two separate issues? The off-ramp, guiding traffic to the garage, this new garage, and then the garage behind the organ pavilion. Isn't the garage behind the organ pavilion park of Balboa Park's master plan?
COONS: It is part of the current presite plan. There has been a parking garage plan there. It is something that I think a lot of people would be acceptable if they could remove the parking from both the palisades and the Plaza de Panama. There are objections to putting more and quite strong objections, to bringing more traffic to the center of the park instead of putting it at the periphery. So there's quite a bit of discussion about that.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Dee is calling from North Park. Good morning, Dee, welcome to These Days. Of.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, I had a couple of questions, doctor Jacobs, about the routing of the traffic. If you take the traffic off of the Cabrillo Bridge and you provide essentially a faster route to Balboa Park, aren't you creating almost a freeway effect through the park? And I think these are some of the concerns I think we've heard about the traffic routing round the back of the Alcazar Garden would make it more noisy instead of more contemplative. And then also I had a question to you about the financing of the garage in the park. I've heard of a number of $36 million for all of this to happen. But recently, at some of our local planning committees, we heard a number of $36 million just for the retrofit of the Cabrillo Bridge for its seismic retrofit. And so I'm wondering how this is achievable for that amount of money. It doesn't seem to add up to me, and I'm wondering if you could answer this question.
JACOBS: Well, as far as the seismic retrofit of the bridge, that is not part of our project. I'm not aware of that nor the cost that it would take to do that. Of this bypass is not part of the bridge. It's north of the bridge. And it would be a fairly short span to bring them around to the back of the garden, the alcazar garden. We are concerned about noise in that whole region. I think there would be much less noise to people in general by having the cars around the back and into the parking garage than there is now. Coming out of that garage and coming out of that parking lot, and going to the new garage, it is at a lowered level. And so the other thing we've been concerned about, of course, is noise going into the organ pavilion. And so we have a -- the cars actually which currently travel there at the surface will now be going down lower and reducing the noise, if anything. And so I think over all, we get a significant improvement. Certainly for anybody in the Plaza de Panama, there won't be any noise, there'll just be a beautiful palisades looking toward the organ pavilion which is free of cars, which of course is not the case today. And not generating any noise at all.
CAVANAUGH: What about that $36 million price tag? Is that just for the bypass ramp or is it for the ramp and the garage?
JACOBS: The 36 million, and again, plus or minus dollars, we're not done with the design yet. But roughly 36 million. That includes the bypass bridge, it includes redoing the parking lot behind alcazar gardens to allow for drop offs, pick ups, valet, and largely for handicapped parking of so that would be a change of use. It includes the roads going over to the new parking garage, which is below ground level. I mean issue you're not gonna see this garage, you're gonna see park land where you now have the surface lot, includes that parking garage, it including redoing the Plaza de Panama. Now, with the plans for what that will look like is still open, that will go through lots of citizen reviews. But that includes that as well as the area in front of the museum of man. And so we try it go through the detail it is of all those changes and include them. Now, this question of freeway, this is use, I'm sure, by people of cars going through the park, transiting the park, where you're going to have a number of stop signs. There may be some speed bumps as well. So don't want it to become in any way a freeway. As far as cars backs up because of the stipulate sign, there currently is a stop sign at the entrance of the Plaza de Panama. So I don't see that being any different. And in fact, because people aren't contending with other cars searching for parking spaces, I think the flow of traffic actually will be much better around the back, and therefore not bothering pedestrians.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Jerry is calling from bankers hill. Good morning, Jerry, welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thanks for taking my call. Of this is the first time I've heard of the plan. So I need to know more about it. But I live in bankers hill and I walk across the Cabrillo Bridge almost every day. And the view of the back of those buildings to the right as you walk across the bridge, I've never found particularly picturesque. It looks like the backs of buildings, it doesn't look like it was really designed for presentation. So I don't think that I would miss that view being altered. Of and I wonder if the -- if the ramp could -- if ideally it could have arches that echoed the Cabrillo Bridge, that would -- something that could unify the design, that might be something to think of.
CAVANAUGH: Well, are Jerry, thank you, and I would imagine that what Jerry is saying here is gonna be part of this discussion. This public input. These workshops that you're gonna be having. So who is gonna be sponsoring about this new renovation. I'm just wondering, and I'm gonna have you to ask you both to be very brief about this. Any room for compromise on this? Do you think that you're gonna be able to reach a compromise?
COONS: Well, we have a series of meetings set up with the team and doctor Jacobs, and we hope to reach a compromise. Wee looking for a simpler, lighter, cheaper, faster way to accomplish this. Of I think it would be ironic to celebrate 2015 by desecrating the front -- San Diego's front porch.
CAVANAUGH: And doctor Jacobs?
JACOBS: Yeah, I always object to these words like desecrating, etc. I think the park has been desecrated by having all the cars there. Let's try to, void those kinds of words in the future 'cause otherwise we won't reach a compromise. We'll either do it or won't do it. But it won't be a compromise. I don't view a compromise as having the cars in Plaza de Panama. One could close the bridge. I again think that if you can get the community to agree on that, that's a wonderful solution. I myself doubt that that will be able to be achieved.
CAVANAUGH: We're out of time, sir. Thank you so much. . Doctor Irwin Jacobs and Bruce coons. I want to let everyone know that a discussion and workshop on the proposed Balboa Park renovation will be held at the Balboa Park club park building from nine to noon, that's this Saturday. And if you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Of coming up, what do libraries want? That topic as These Days continues on KPBS.