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Halt To Plaza De Panama Revamp Frees Up $10 Million For Balboa Park

Pictured is the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park,...

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: Pictured is the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park, Jan. 15, 2015.

San Diego city leaders may have an extra $10 million to spend on upgrades to Balboa Park after news broke this week that high construction costs had halted a plan to revamp to the park's Plaza de Panama.

The project, which would have constructed an underground paid parking garage and a bypass bridge near the park's western entrance, was to be paid for with a mix of donations, city funds and bonds backed by parking fees. City Council members approved that funding, which included $10 million in taxpayer dollars, in November 2016.

Two lawsuits put the project on hold for nearly two years, however, forcing officials to delay a competitive bid process for construction. That followed earlier lawsuits that challenged the project's original approval in 2012.

Last month bids came in wildly over budget, leading philanthropic leaders to halt fundraising efforts. Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Wednesday that he respected their decision and would be "working with the community to make additional investments in Balboa Park."

Jim Kidrick, president and CEO of the San Diego Air and Space Museum and spokesman for the Plaza de Panama committee, declined to say how much in pledged donations the committee had raised so far. He said the committee was not abandoning the project, but merely taking more time to evaluate how to get it funded.

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"What we're hoping is it's just kind of a bump in the road," he said.

While the Plaza de Panama project is not entirely dead, the rising costs and uncertain funding sources mean the $10 million in city cash pledged to the project could soon be diverted to other needs. The city has already identified tens of millions of dollars in unfunded maintenance and capital improvements in the park, from erosion control to roof repair to bathroom improvements.

City Councilman Chris Ward, whose district includes Balboa Park, said he was not surprised by the cost overruns, and that he was glad the city would have some extra cash to put towards other needs in the park.

"There are neighborhood-serving facilities in Golden Hill and North Park and the west mesa that have long been ignored," he said. "I see this as a real decent inflection point where can start to work on an implementation plan for agreed-upon maintenance and infrastructure improvements that the park desperately needs today."

Since the start of the Plaza de Panama project, there have been disagreements over how to reach the goal of eliminating cars from the park's central mesa. Colin Parent, executive director and general counsel of the nonprofit Circulate San Diego, said the city should take a fresh look at their priorities for Balboa Park and whether it could afford the project's most expensive components — the bridge and parking garage.

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"There's I think a legitimate concern that the park creates a bunch of unnecessary conflicts between cars and pedestrians," he said. "But there's also a lot of relatively inexpensive things that they could do to try to address that and to make it a more friendly place."

Parent added that parking belonged on the edge of the park and that people would adjust to having to park their cars farther away.

"Balboa Park is a gem, and people are going to be willing to go there, even if they have to walk around a little bit in order to get to these great destinations," he added.

Kidrick said it was unrealistic to expect large numbers of visitors would choose to get to the park with anything but a car, and that a net increase of parking spots was crucial to the success of the park's attractions.

"We could use 4,000 parking spots tomorrow," he said. "We need to have good access and good parking available because people choose to come visit us that way."

Halt To Plaza De Panama Revamp Frees Up $10 Million For Balboa Park

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