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Complications Persist For Plaza De Panama Project

Plaza de Panama Debate
Plaza de Panama Project Complicated by Letter From National Park Service
GuestsWelton Jones, member, Balboa park Committee of 100 David Marshall, the city of San Diego's preservation consultant for the Plaza de Panama project

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Thursday, May 17th. Our top story on Midday Edition, opponents of the proposed renovation to Balboa Park, known as the plaza de Panama project got a boost to their cause last week. Officials at the national park service apparently took a look at the plan, including the proposed alteration to Cabrillo bridge, and said the project could jeopardize Balboa Park's historic designation. The supporters of the project call this scare tactics. Meanwhile, a last-minute alternate plan is being pitched to Irwin Jacobs and the committee. In the interests of full disclosure, Jacobs is a major contributor to KPBS. And joining me to talk about the controversy over the Balboa Park renovation are my guests, Welton Jones, a member of the committee of 100, that organization is opposed to the Plaza de Panama Project. Welcome to the program. JONES: Thank you. And of course I don't represent the committee 100 here. I'm just an independent sore head kind of. CAVANAUGH: We'll make a note of that. And David Marshall joins us, the City of San Diego's preservation consultant for the Plaza de Panama Project project. Welcome to the program. MARSHALL: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Welton, what reasons did the national park service give for warning against the Plaza de Panama Project? JONES: Reasons for warning against is because they feel it's not the right project and that it might definitely endanger the status of the park as a national historic landmark. CAVANAUGH: Just to be clear, Balboa Park is a historical landmark for quite a while. JONES: It has been for quite a while. If it lost it, it might just be an ego thing for us all. But it's a major point of pride for the whole area, and it's something that separates us from most communities around the country. CAVANAUGH: That we have a national landmark in the midst of our city. JONES: Absolutely, virtually in tact for 100 years later. CAVANAUGH: I believe it's supposed to open the way for us to apply for grant, and we're on tourist brochures as having a national landmark, all of those sort of things might be in jeopardy. JONES: Exactly. Could be. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, when the letter was issued -- JONES: And of course the overriding thing is just the esthetics of it. The reason it was designated as in danger in this project, in my opinion. CAVANAUGH: Now, when the letter was issued, I think one of the major things that it talked about was the Plaza de Panama Project's idea of altering Cabrillo bridge with the traffic ramp. Is that how you read that, that that was their major concern? JONES: Yeah. I have to confess, I didn't study the letter. But the letter expressed reservations and many others on local, state, and federal level have already said. And essentially, yes, it would indeed alter the ceremonial approach to the park, at least I certainly feel that way. And it would tear out historic fabric and replace it with something that might or might not be esthetically pleasing or even practical. CAVANAUGH: Let me go to you, David Marshall. Again, the City of San Diego's preservation consultant for the Plaza de Panama Project. Now, this was a bona fide letter from the national park service expressing concern about this plan. Why would you characterize it as a scare tactic? MARSHALL: Well, I'm not characterizing the letter as a scare tactic. I'm characterizing the use of the letter and the interpretation of the letter by the opponents in an incorrect way. Welton I guess has not seen the letter. I know Soho has, and other opponents to the project, save our heritage organization. But the reality is the letter doesn't say the park's historic status is at risk. The city's historic preservation contact communicated with the national park service as recent as yesterday to confirm that that was not the case, and they felt that was not a realistic scenario, and they said if they felt it was an issue or a concern, it would have been in the letter. It was intentionally not in the letter. So my problem with the scare tactics is it's the gap between the reality of the letter and how the opponents are using the letter and interpreting the letter for their benefit. CAVANAUGH: The letter was highly critical of this plan though. You would agree with me. MARSHALL: It was critical of basically one aspect of the project, which is the centennial bridge, which connects to the end of the Cabrillo bridge, and I'd be happy to talk in detail about that. That's something that we've known about for a while, it's been addressed in the environmental impact report. It is in fact the only impact of the project over the 6-plus acres of the restoration of the plaza and getting cars out of the center of the park of the it's basically the aspect of the project that allows all those president benefits to happen. CAVANAUGH: And this letter from the national park service even questions the motive of getting cars out of the Plaza de Panama. They're saying it wasn't necessary because it wasn't part of the historical plan for the park not to have any cars in it to begin with. MARSHALL: Well, we don't agree with that opinion. And I don't think most San Diegans agree with the opinion that we should allow cars to continue and drive through and park in the plazas and through the elPrado. What the letter says is the only time traffic was not allowed through the park was during the 1916 expo, as well as the 1936 exposition. That is correct, but I don't think anybody could stand in the Plaza de Panama today and feel that's a park experience having those cars circle endlessly in what should be a public space. CAVANAUGH: If you could, give us a snapshot of how the Plaza de Panama Project would change the layout of Balboa Park just so everybody -- we have a picture of it on our website of the we've talked about this on several occasions. But just for the sake of conversation, if you could, layout the major changes that it would make. MARSHALL: I'd be happy to. The more we tell people about the realities of the project, the more they support it. We've been hosting monthly tours to walk people through the various areas. The key component, and this all started with the Plaza de Panama. That was built in 1915 as a public gathering space, as a public square, city square, and it hasn't been used as that other than the expos. So it would be completely removing not only parked cars but seven thousand cars a day driving through it. We don't think that's a viable park experience either. We also have the plaza de California which is the plaza directly in front of the museum of man, enclosed by the California building. That's a beautiful plaza that is completely destroyed by cars driving through it continuously. They have had to build fence barriers to keep people from walking under the traffic lanes. We're removing cars from the west elprobable causo. In 1973, the city removed traffic from the east elprobable causo, and that's right near -- onto the natural history museum and science center. That's been very successful. It's the most populated part of the park. In addition to those areas that are all going to be car-free, we -- the esplanade area which is where they put the Santa every year during the holidays, it connects to the organ pavilion, that will be pedestrianized, as well as the road between the international cottages and what is now a parking lot behind the organ pavilion, which is going to be a parking structure with a 2-acre park on top. We have 360 acres in the heart of Balboa Park that is being converted from, paing and driving lanes into public use. We think those benefits are a good reason to have this centennial road to bring cars outside of those areas. CAVANAUGH: And tell us, because that's the major sticking point, the centennial road, and the centennial bridge, this traffic ramp that goes from Cabrillo. MARSHALL: Cabrillo bridge is about 1,500 feet long. If you count from 6th avenue into the park. Everybody knows the arch as you pass under as you go by the museum of man. The bridge and the abutments are that entire area. We are connecting to the southeast corner of the Cabrillo bridge wa-I free-standing new bridge, which is about 400 feet long, curves around the backside of the museum of man and connects to the existing alcazar parking lot. We've looked at every viable alternative. There were 13 studied about various scenarios. Of and the only way to maintain access from the west, not closing the Cabrillo bridge, and to get cars out of the areas we're talking about is a bridge in that location. The good news for us is that location is currently a very thick grove of eucalyptus trees that have been there since 1915 and basically obscured that area since the 1920s. So not only does it work from a physical standpoint, but we feel that with the existing trees as well as new plannings that we're proposing that that will not be a visible area. And we think wee reduced that as much as possible. CAVANAUGH: Let me go to Welton Jones. I know there are several organizations, including save our heritage organization and the comity of 100, who are not eager, not supportive of this Plaza de Panama Project. What would you like to see instead of what is proposed on this -- about this centennial bridge and the alteration of Cabrillo bridge? JONES: Well, there's some confusion about the so-called opposition. Of the opposition, I can assure you is very unorganized. And there are several organizations, a couple of which you mentioned, that have their own visions, and they don't necessarily agree. What we do agree on is that the plan we have now is inadequate, imperfect, and ultimately is going to be a negative impact on the park. I would never get into a contest of details about David Marshall. But I do like to deal in generalities and concepts. The concept of enshrining vehicular traffic through the middle of the park is just one that ain't going to fly forever. It seems obvious to me, to the most neutral observers, that eventually all cars will be gone in some way. So probably the best thing we could do is to go to work on the alternate transportation system that would make this possible. CAVANAUGH: Now, let me ask you though, the very fact that this is not a designated alternative plan to the Plaza de Panama Project, doesn't that sort of weaken the stance of the opponents? I mean this plan has got an environmental impact report out now, I mean, it is moving down the track: JONES: It's amazing what money'll do for you. The so-called opposition, again, has various plans, none of which we have enough funds and so forth to support. And we can't all agree on them. The committee of 100 wants to close Cabrillo bridge to of course tra, period. And deal with it. Sohohas a plan which is -- it's rightly labelled a temporary plan that would bring the traffic through the -- the southwestern corner until we can get a better plan in place. The recent plan of digging the parking under the plaza and feeding it from four corners from a circular road around the park has great possibilities. CAVANAUGH: And that's the one that was just -- that was the alternative. JONES: That's the one presented by Mr. Lewis. CAVANAUGH: Right. JONES: Just a citizen who came in off the street and said I'd like to help. CAVANAUGH: Let me take a call. Alana coons from Soho is on the line. Welcome to the show. NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I just wanted to -- there's so many things, but I'll keep this brief. I'd like to respond to Mr. Marshall's comments about taking cars out of the park. The opposition, the plaza de Panama proposed plan keeping telling everyone that their plan takes cars out of the park. That is patently untrue. I wish they would stop saying it. What it does is it removes 54 parking spaces from the plaza de Panama. It does remove the traffic from going through the plaza de Panama, but it puts all that traffic is brings more directly into the heart and core of the park. It just recycles the traffic. It funnels it in, and it makes it easier to come through the park for more cars. In fact, it is a man to bring more cars in the park. That's what it is. CAVANAUGH: Let me get a reaction from David. But Alana could you stay on the line for just a moment? I have a followup question to ask you. Dave, what's your reaction to the idea that you're misrepresenting this and saying it's going to take cars out of the park when it's really going to redirect them? MARSHALL: I would say nothing more than look at the plan. We have drawings, you have them I believe linked to your website, we have them on the plaza de We are clearly removing cars from the core of elPrado in the park. We are providing a secondary route from the west that enables cars to still service and access the institutions. I need to mention that virtually every institution, in fact, I think only the Marston house that Soho operates is opposing the project. Every institution, the museum of man, museum of art, is supporting the project. They love the park as much as quarterback anybody. Maybe more than some. They understand that this is the best approach. There is not a perfect plan. There never has been. That's the reason this has been an issue for 50-plus years. We're getting cars out of the heart of the park where people walk and where people access the institutions. CAVANAUGH: Alana, let me ask you, you're from Soho, the save our heritage organization. How are you going to be using is this national park service letter to promote your cause against the Plaza de Panama Project? NEW SPEAKER: Well, other I mean the letter is very clear ins it opposition to the plan in that it will -- it uses the words, I don't have it in front of me, but it says it will destroy the architectural historic integrity of the park. It uses that word, which we've used before and have been told we're using hyperbole. But the national park service used it as well. We're just using it, are we think it's common sense, anyone who reads it understands that the Department of the Interior does not just write letters like this every day. They're taking it very seriously. I would like to know exactly who David Marshall spoke to at MTS who said that this was not threatening the -- national park service's opinion. They also keep saying that all of the institutions in the park support that. That is not true. I understand there are 44 institutions, groups, in the park, and I think it's 25 of them who make up the cultural -- who have said they support the Jacobs plan, all who receive funding from Mr. Jacobs. And there's 25 more, other organizations, who have either not voted or who are against it. And the house of Pacific relations with six thousand members just voted four nights ago, and David is aware of this, against the Jacobs plan. Of CAVANAUGH: We have to stop here. Thank you. Let me give you a chance to answer that question. Who did you speak to at the national park service who told you not to worry about this story? MARSHALL: The city's historic resources staff who spoke to the San Francisco office of the national park service yesterday to clarify they contributed to that letter that came out of Washington DC and said they did not feel it was a legitimate risk of losing designation. They said if they felt that way, they would have included it in the letter. And I find it convenient the caller does not have access to that quote they are claiming is in there, because the risk of losing designation for the entire Balboa Park district based on one alteration to the Cabrillo bridge is not realistic. CAVANAUGH: Welton, let me give you a chance to close on this. The City Council is expected to vote on this project this July. And I'm wondering if you think that there is enough organization in the opposition to put up any credible opposition to this plan. JONES: Well, the opposition is very credible. All you have to do is go to a hearing, and you'll watch the parade, not of every institution in the park, not even of the 25 that we've heard mentioned here. It's more like about a handful that are always there, always testifying, and I don't think they all get money from the Jacobs family. But I think they wouldn't turn money down. I think this is an attempt on the part of large institutions in the park to keep the sluices open from the money standpoint, and I think it's a dreadful result of a well-meaning plan that we are going to buy something that is of course less than perfect, but we're going to -- it's not even on the road to perfection the way it's going now. CAVANAUGH: We have to end it. JONES: We're going to buy something for money. CAVANAUGH: We are out of time.

Letter from National Park Service
Letter from the National Park Service to City Councilman Kevin Faulconer.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.
Response to National Park Service Letter
A letter from Plaza de Panama project preservation consultant David Marshall in response to the National Park Service.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

A letter to the city of San Diego from the National Park Service says the plan to remove cars from the center of Balboa Park could put the park's designation as a national historical landmark at risk. But supporters of the Plaza de Panama plan say the letter is nothing more than a scare tactic.

David Marshall, the city's preservation consultant for the project, told KPBS the National Park Service's letter does not directly say the park could lose its historic landmark status. He added the city confirmed with the National Parks that this scenario was not realistic.


"The said they felt if it was an issue or a concern, it would have been in the letter," he said. "It was intentionally not in the letter. So my problem with the scare tactics is it's the gap between the reality of the letter and how the opponents are using the letter and interpreting the letter for their benefit."

The plan calls for closing the Cabrillo Bridge to cars and instead diverting traffic around the back of the Museum of Man on a to-be-constructed bridge. The plan would also build an underground parking lot in the middle of the park.

Welton Jones, a member of the Committee of 100, one of the groups that oppose the plan, said the car-traffic bridge and parking lot "commit you to allowing cars to continue to come in."

He said the better solution is to add more public transportation to bring visitors into the park from parking areas outside.

"That's the plan that needs to be pursued, not taking on roads here and digging underground parking there, because, in my opinion, those things are going to be obsolete almost immediately when we have to get all the cars out of the park," he said.


Loss of national historic landmark status would mean the park would no longer be included in certain tourist brochures and would would not be eligible for some grants.

Qualcomm founder and billionaire philanthropist Irwin Jacobs originally proposed plans to make over Balboa Park for its 2015 centennial celebration. Mayor Jerry Sanders backs the plan and an Environmental Impact Report on the project has been released.

But a local preservationist group has sued to stop the project. San Diego's Superior Court concurred with the Save Our Heritage Organisation that an agreement the city signed with Jacobs was illegal.

SOHO director Bruce Coons told KPBS in February that the park losing its historic landmark status would be a huge blow to tourism and the park's ability to garner federal, state and local grants.

But Mark Johnson, the founder of Civitas, Inc., and the designer for the Plaza de Panama project, said then that he is not worried about losing the park's historic status.

"We think the improvements we are making are a great benefit, on balance and an extremely positive thing for the park that will enhance the historic district," he said.

Corrected: May 20, 2024 at 5:59 AM PDT
Full disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major contributor to KPBS.