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Plaza De Panama Plan Passes City Council

An aerial view of the proposed Plaza de Panama project slated to begin this year and be completed by the 2015 Centennial of Balboa Park.
Joe Cordelle, Animate Digital Studios
An aerial view of the proposed Plaza de Panama project slated to begin this year and be completed by the 2015 Centennial of Balboa Park.
Todd Gloria, Plaza de Panama
We take a look at the plan to remove cars from the center of Balboa Park approved by the city council Monday.
GUESTS:Todd Gloria, San Diego City Councilmember (District 3)Mark Johnson, founder, Civitas Inc., Lead Designer for Plaza de Panama project Katie Orr, KPBS Metro report
Plaza De Panama Plan Goes To Vote Today
It’s going to be a big day at the San Diego City Council. The council will vote today on whether to move forward with plans to make over Balboa Park.

Tweets about the City Council meeting on the Balboa Park Plaza de Panama plan.

The San Diego City Council voted 6-1 to approve the Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park, one of the options to get cars out of the center of the park.

Plaza de Panama Project

City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner voted against the plan and City Councilman Tony Young was absent from the meeting. The remaining six councilmembers voted for it.


The Plaza de Panama plan was the clear front runner among the plans for Balboa Park. Backed by Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, it calls for building a bypass road off of the Cabrillo Bridge around the Museum of Man and building an underground parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

"It's challenged us to dream bigger than what we originally thought," said City Councilman Todd Gloria, who voted to approve the plan. "Rather than reclaiming only a portion of the plaza, but to really reclaiming all of it. Plus the west prado, plus the Plaza de California, plus the Esplanade, plus the roof-top park behind the organ pavilion—6.3 acres of reclaimed space taken away from cars and given back to the people. That's something I can support."

Lightner said she could not support a plan that eliminates free parking in Balboa Park.

"Free parking is a great equalizer," she said. "It means that any San Diego family, regardless of income or background, has the same opportunity to come and enjoy the park free of charge. A paid parking lot in the center of one of the jewels of our region sends the wrong message."

The council meeting on the plans spanned more than seven hours, including more than five hours of public testimony. The time allotted each speaker was cut from the traditional three minutes to just 30 seconds by the end of the meeting. The crowd was vocal throughout, booing and hissing at speakers, including Sanders and Jacobs.


Sanders called out opponents of the plan for vilifying Jacobs, who is backing the $45 million plan. The city would pay for $14 million for the parking garage and Jacobs and his Plaza de Panama Committee said they’d raise money to cover the rest.

"The opposition has argued for and against putting paid parking in the core of Balboa Park," Sanders said. "It's argued for and against letting traffic continue through the Plaza de Panama. It's argued for and against a bypass bridge off the Cabrillo Bridge, declaring a right turn bridge to be sacrilegious, while a left turn bridge is brilliant. Moreover, their latest plan would desecrate Balboa Park by carving out cavernous tunnels near the Plaza de Panama and building high walls and elevated roadways in the Cabrillo Canyon and Palm Canyon areas."

Jacobs told the council Balboa Park is not just a historical site, but a place people use every day and a place that has evolved. He stressed the fact that this is, in his opinion, a good plan, not just a plan that has financial backing.

"I ask for your support today for the Plaza de Panama Project, not simply because we have resources or because the centennial is almost upon us, but because it is a well designed project that will successfully balance the needs of the many users of Balboa Park," he told the council. "It will provide a truly wonderful park experience for years to come."

But preservationists said the plan would ruin the historic nature of the park.

Bruce Coons, the executive director of the Save Our Heritage Origination, which was the lead opposition to Jacobs' plan, said San Diego treats the park horribly.

"Lot of bad things have happened to the park," he said. "We've strangled her with freeways, we've covered her with landfills. We've put a Naval hospital in there. We've destroyed most of her monuments and buildings so there are no original buildings from 1915 around the Plaza de Panama or the Esplanade. We've done a lot of bad things to this thing. This is the final desecration."

Corrected: May 17, 2024 at 6:10 PM PDT
Full disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major contributor to KPBS.