The Jewel of the City in the Middle of a Power Struggle The 2015 Celebration Isn’t Looking Good

| June 30, 2012 | 5 Comments

In the July 2011 issue of the “Presidio Sentinel,” we introduced the proposed restoration of Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park with a pedestrian friendly environment. The initial plan was to “polish” the jewel of San Diego for the 2015 Centennial of the Pacific-Panama Exposition.

In response to the park beautification initiative, upward of 20 organizations stepped up to offer their ideas for the park, including the elimination of parking in the plaza. However a more serious option was proposed, it has been referred to as the Jacobs/Sanders’ redevelopment plan.

Now a year later it’s obvious that something is very unhealthy about the entire process. This past month I met with two very dedicated volunteers, Vicki Granowitz and Judy Swink. On June 3, 2012, they submitted their resignations to the board of directors of the Balboa Park Conservancy.

Granowitz explained the resignation by saying, “The gulf between our experience, views and beliefs and the rest of the Conservancy Board became insurmountable” particularly within the context of occurrences over recent months culminating in the Conservancy Board’s June 1, 2012 decision to support and actively lobby for the Plaza de Panama project,” which has been motivated by certain people who have made it their responsibility to decide the future of Balboa Park.

Both Granowitz and Swink, who have extensive experience in coalition building and have committed considerable time and resources to the Balboa Park Conservancy, stated that the Plaza de Panama project has become divisive and controversial. They strongly feel that the recent decision and actions of the board will reinforce public fears that the Conservancy will not, in fact, be independent of political considerations or the desires of individuals with power and means. They stated that during the public process that lead to the creation of the Balboa Park Conservancy, this was the concern most often expressed by the public.

What I have learned is that there are donors and philanthropists who are not willing to contribute to the park (I am not referring to the museums or institutions), because they are concerned with how the funds will be used. The Balboa Park Conservancy board was to remain neutral and not be involved in decisions, such as the Plaza de Panama project. Unfortunately, Mayor Jerry Sanders decided that would change, and encouraged the board to support “the project,” even though they had no role in the process.

After learning this, I sat back and asked, “What is wrong with this scenario?”

Balboa Park’s Botanical Building

We have an incredible park. Why can’t we be sensible and work with what we have? We can enhance it without destroying Balboa Park’s integrity, history and character.

Even the State Historic Preservation Officer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Caltrans have all written letters opposing the proposed project, in addition to 26 community groups. What the mayor refers to as “concrete railing” the National Historic Landmark (NHL) designation identifies as an integral part of the Cabrillo bridge. The Cabrillo Bridge, its approaches, and guardhouses are specifically called out in the designation as significant contributors to the Historic District. Demolishing the southeast wall not only destroys historic fabric, but it jarringly interrupts the bridge’s compelling contiguous line, which visually draws visitors into the historic core.

Even “the project’s” Environmental Impact Report (EIR) presents some alarming concerns with the modifications that are proposed:

The Centennial Bridge component of the project would require the demolition of 70 linear feet of the south balustrade of Cabrillo Bridge and the construction of new abutments and a curvilinear concrete bridge over Cabrillo Canyon, located southwest of the California Quadrangle. The work would also require regrading a portion of this canyon.

The new Centennial Bridge would introduce a modern architectural element in a historical setting, thereby, resulting in a significant impact on both Cabrillo Bridge and the California Quadrangle, including a permanent visual impact on an iconic view of the two structures from the West Mesa and from the floor of Cabrillo Canyon. Impacts associated with incompatible architectural style would be significant for this project component.

Additionally, California State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) Milford Wayne Donaldson has written a letter warning of the loss of Balboa Park’s national landmark designation status, Donaldson’s remarks were piercing, stating, “This massive project composed of unnecessary, intrusive, and incompatible new construction severely impairs the public’s ability to appreciate and understand the National Historic Landmark. Millions of visitors annually visit Balboa Park. Their experience and understanding of a remarkable historic setting would be impaired.”

I can’t believe this is where we are because of a Centennial Celebration of the Pacific-Panama Exposition. My Great-grandfather Ralph Roth is probably turning in his grave. Why do I mention him? He was one of the people who helped construct the museums in Balboa Park for the Pacific-Panama Exposition.

As my Great-grandfather would say, “Let’s not reinvent the wheel. All we need to do is make it work better.”

We already know there are several other options that don’t require massive amounts of money and won’t create unnecessary construction issues that will harm the integrity of Balboa Park. We don’t have to go back to the drawing board. We just need to be realistic and seriously review the plans that allow us to have a great celebration to honor, not demolish, Balboa Park.

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  1. avatar Dionne Carlson says:

    Isn’t it ironic that, in order to celebrate Balboa Park’s centennial, we are about to destroy some of the very features that make it a National Historic Landmark district in the first place?

    And for what? A decades-out-of-date $45M automobile-centric plan that directs even more traffic through the heart of park; a plan that creates an unsafe traffic and pedestrian nightmare in the Alcazar Garden parking lot; a plan that forever alters the historic landforms of the park by cutting a deep and unsafe roadway canyon through the middle of it; a plan that demolishes existing and already-paid-for infrastructure (2 separate restroom buildings and +-550 free parking spaces) and replaces them with +-760 space Pay-to-Park structure that will take a $14M taxpayer guaranteed bond to finance, with little chance of achieving the occupancy levels required to pay its own operations costs and bond debt according to the City’s Independent Budget Analyst; a plan that ignores current best practices in park design and the City’s own General Plan by completely failing to connect to transit on either the east or the west sides of the park… I could go on for pages.

    So don’t be that person who sat by and did nothing… and then wonders “How did this happen and why did No-one stop it?”

    Here’s how you can help:

    1) Call and write to the Mayor and City Council and let them know how you feel. This is a link to their contacts: http://sohosandiego.org/main/citycouncil.htm

    2) Sign this petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/san-diego-mayor-reject-the-plaza-de-panama-project-as-currently-designed

    3) Show up at City Council chambers on Monday, July 9th at 2pm (this is decision day for the City Council on this project) and speak your mind or cede your time to other speakers who could certainly use your support.

  2. avatar Richard W Amero says:

    the Pacific Panama Exposition?

  3. avatar Rrichardscot says:

    This is one of the best commentarys I have read on this issue.

  4. avatar Alana says:

    Just to share this new video too ,thanks to a professional film maker, Jake, who lives close to Balboa Park, and understands all to well the threat to this jewel of our city. He couldn’t stand by and watch this fiasco of a plan happening without stepping in and helping out with this film that nails it on the head about this project, with a focus on the paid parking and garage.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CqmQsRgCy0&list=UUeZ57g2k1fsudSvM2LpssRw&index=1&feature=plcp

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