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Business, civic groups pitch 'open streets' event on 163 freeway in Balboa Park

A coalition of business and civic groups is asking Caltrans for permission to hold a one-day "open streets" event on State Route 163 that would invite people to walk and bike in an otherwise off-limits section of Balboa Park.

"Park-Way for a Day" would be similar to CicloSDias, a regular San Diego event when streets are closed off to cars, opened for pedestrians and cyclists and activated with food vendors, art installations, music and activities.

The proposal has been endorsed by World Design Capital 2024, a yearlong series of events taking place in San Diego and Tijuana meant to highlight the region as a hub for design that fosters innovation and collaboration in public spaces.


Among the coalition partners are business groups such as the Downtown San Diego Partnership and the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association; policy-oriented nonprofits such as Circulate San Diego, Climate Action Campaign and BikeSD; and historic preservation groups such as Save Our Heritage Organisation and the Balboa Park Committee of 100.

"The support we've gotten from the community has been beyond expectations, and across all spectrums of urban advocacy," said Brer Marsh, an architect who sits on the event's organizing committee. "People who would normally be opposed to each other on certain issues support this event."

Betsy Brennan, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, said a stronger connection between downtown and Balboa Park — which have been separated by the I-5 freeway for more than 60 years — would improve the neighborhood's economy and quality of life.

"Programs like Park-Way for a Day that enhance the pedestrian and biking experiences through activations like art installations, music and entertainment are critical to further strengthening that connection," Brennan said.

San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, whose district includes Balboa Park, is so far the only elected official to support the event, calling it "a symbol of our commitment to creating spaces where everyone feels included and more connected to one another."


"Just like the iconic and memorable December Nights festival, Park-Way for a Day would be a rare chance for our residents to display civic pride and experience their community park from a fresh perspective," Whitburn said.

Opened to traffic in 1948, the section of SR-163 in Balboa Park is San Diego's oldest freeway. It was designated a historic landmark in 2002, in part to prevent Caltrans from widening it with more lanes.

Open streets events have taken place on freeways before. The northbound lanes of SR-163 in Balboa Park are closed to traffic every year for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. And last October, Los Angeles opened a section of the 110 freeway for ArroyoFest for walking and biking, attracting an estimated 45,000 attendees.

In March 2023, Caltrans briefly opened a section of SR-15 in Southeast San Diego to pedestrians and cyclists as part of the statewide CleanCA initiative.

Caltrans spokesperson Steve Welborn said the event coincided with maintenance work on the freeway and that Caltrans "would welcome the support of community and agency partners to continue building on our concept in another historically underserved community."

"These such events require an immense amount of planning and coordination to account for maintenance needs, traffic management, and the benefits and accessibility for communities," Welborn said.

Marsh acknowledged the event could be a temporary inconvenience for some drivers, but said the same is true for beloved civic events, such as San Diego Pride and December Nights.

"We want this to be collaborative — it's not just one person's idea," Marsh said. "We want all ideas to be brought to the table. And there's so much space (on the freeway), I think there's room for that."