Filner to Balboa Park:
Ban the cars, keep (some) traffic
$500,000 plan would replace $45m plan advocated by
Written by Roger Showley
4/24/13 - San Diego Union Tribune - Original article
The fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama is currently a mere traffic circle in front of the San Diego Museum of Art. The plaza would be closed to parking under a plan by Mayor Bob Filner. (2010 photo) - Eduardo Contreras
Mayor Bob Filner proposed Wednesday to ban cars from Balboa Park's central Plaza de Panama but to allow traffic to continue on weekdays. The changes, described as temporary, would go into effect May 25-27, Memorial Day weekend.
"We think this will work," Filner told a special meeting of the Balboa Park Committee. "We think it will provide a much more enhanced experience."
The plan, previously pegged at a cost of $500,000, would replace the much more ambitious and now-abandoned plan, costing $45 million, advocated by Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs.
The key difference in plans? Filner would not include a bypass off the Cabrillo Bridge at the park's west entrance, which Jacobs had included as a way to turn the entire El Prado area into a pedestrian-only zone.
Instead, the mayor would allow traffic on the bridge on weekdays but not on weekends -- a time when park roads and parking lots are the busiest. A court ruled earlier this year that Jacobs' plan violated city historic preservation ordinance and the City Council took no action to change the law.
Committee Chairman David Kinney, who also is executive director of Balboa Park Central at the House of Hospitality, welcomed the mayor's proposal.
"I think it's great," he said. "I think he recognizes the passion we all have for getting cars out of the Plaza de Panama and wanting to do something," Kinney said.
Peter Comiskey, executive director of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership of park museums and institutions, said his group hopes the mayor's plan will include a way to monitor its effectiveness and make adjustments as needed.
"We very much look forward to stand ready and fine-tune the plan so we can ensure the Balboa Park guest experience is truly and continually improving," Comiskey said.
The Filner plan would:
- Remove parking spaces, signs and striping in the Plaza de Panama as of Memorial Day and later in the year, resurface the plaza, now paved in asphalt.
- Relocate handicap parking spaces from the plaza to the lot south of Alcazar Garden, which is south of the Old Globe Theatre and House of Charm; it would later be regraded to make it less steep.
- Designate valet parking spaces, now at the southeast corner of the plaza, in the lot south of the Casa de Balboa, home to the San Diego History Center, Museum of Photographic Arts and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Many valet users currently use the service when they dine at the Prado Restaurant in the House of Hospitality. David Cohn, whose restaurant group operates the restaurant and was at the meeting, said he was concerned about the convenience to diners of that valet location and its rather back-of-the-house utilitarian appearance.
- Permit two-way traffic on the Cabrillo Bridge Monday through Friday but restrict movement to along the southwestern edge of the plaza, "separated by barriers to protect pedestrians."
- Ban traffic on the bridge on weekends and holidays. Filner said the schedule could be adjusted if the ban causes problems for Old Globe Theatre patrons at night.
Mayor Bob Filner greets architecture students attending the Balboa Park Committee meeting to hear his plan for parking and traffic in the park. - Roger Showley
Micah Parzen, CEO of the San Diego Museum of Man, welcomed the weekend bridge closing as a way for his institution to activate the Plaza de California outside its front door. But he worried that lack of car traffic would "leave us isolated on a cul-de-sac at one end of the park."
Filner, while remaining open to tweaking his plan in response to visitor reaction, called the plaza "the uggliest spot in the park" because of the cars and its weekend closure would "really make it beautiful."
"Let's put the architecture students to work on that," the mayor said. "You're worried about a cul-de-sac? I think it will be a gathering point, one the kids can work on. It's going to be a pedestrian mall."
Comments ranged from "terrific" to "common sense" and "a great first step."
However, one speaker, Sharon Gehl, stood up for the Jacobs plan and predicted it would eventually have to be adopted.
"Even if you don't do it this year, next year or the year after that, you will need it as the number of people going to the park increases," Gehl said.
Gordon Kovtun, a consultant to Jacobs who attended the meeting, did not speak but said afterward that environmental analysis on an alternative similar to Filner's concluded that closing the bridge would cause traffic problems on the west where about 40 percent of visitors enter the park, and on the east where the shifted traffic would lead to traffic jams.
However, Gerry Braun, former Mayor Jerry Sanders' aide who was present as a consultant to the committee planning the 2015 centennial of the park's Panama-California Exposition, said the Filner plan would work fine in accommodating the year-long schedule of special events.
Mayor's plan for Balboa Park and Plaza de Panama (Download pdf)
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