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Return of the Plaza de Panama

Return of the Plaza de Panama

Like a Comic-Con zombie staggering back to life, the Irwin Jacobs Plaza de Panama Autotopia has returned to Balboa Park.  Despite Jacobs walking away after his defeat in court a few years back, the intrusive project has been resurrected by fact-challenged Park institutions determined to squeeze every last car into the Park.  No matter that Balboa Park is one of the few large public green spaces in all of Uptown and downtown, or that a 650-space parking garage for zoo employees was recently added, or that parking lots at the south end of the park are under-utilized.

I biked through the park on 4th of July weekend and found the Inspiration Point lots across Park Boulevard empty. A 2012 parking study found the lots and their 1100+ spaces, served by a tram, are indeed usually empty on weekends:


Back inside the park, the southernmost lots on the west side of Park also had hundreds of spaces open.  In fact, the same study shows that on any given day there are 1200-1800 parking spaces available at Balboa Park, mostly in these lots.

Given that there’s a tram running directly from these lots to the institutions demanding more parking, I assumed there had to be signage up to direct drivers there.  Surely the city would do this before spending $50 million on another parking garage and bridge?  But this is the only sign as you head south from the always-full Organ Pavilion parking lot, and it’s not about parking:


Adding some way-finding signs to the parking lots and tram seems like a low-cost way to maximize existing parking resources.  But given some of the bizarre, parking-entitled arguments for the new garage (“my elderly mother isn’t going to wait for a tram to the Old Globe” – despite a brand new drop-off area on Globe Way for Globe patrons), why start using common sense now?

— Remember when Hillcrest residents opposed the Mr. Robinson project on Park because parking?  Well we visited its new ground-floor restaurant, Trust, a couple weeks back for brunch and had no problem finding any.   It seems other patrons didn’t either (perhaps some of them Ubered, walked or biked) – because the place was full.  I liked the interior design, especially the wall behind the bar, along with the space’s big windows to the street and ample patio outside:




San Diego Magazine has a much better review of Trust’s food than anything I can write, but my fried chicken sandwich was pretty amazing – the spicy ssam sauce, chili and pickles really brought it to another level.

— The Uptown Gateway Council has put up a video showing their vision for 4th to 6th Aves in Hillcrest south of University, including the long-vacant Pernicano’s restaurant:

One component of the Uptown Gateway may be a hotel, and on a trip to Palm Springs last month the Virgin Hotel going up there reminded me of how Hillcrest could use a modern boutique hotel:


The hotel is part of a multi-block downtown revitalization project that replaces a dead shopping mall, and includes this nearly-completed building:


Like Hillcrest, building heights have been a sticking point, and the Virgin hotel’s height was reduced to no more than 69 feet.  This is still taller than the 50/65′ heights specified in the Uptown interim height ordinance (which turns 8 years old this month).  It seems odd that Palm Springs, a city of less than 50,000 people, has a greater height limit than an urban neighborhood near downtown in a city of 1.3 million.  But Uptown Planners and the city planning department are still wrangling over the final building heights for the blocks in the Uptown Gateway area. Much of the debate centers over whether density should be added near Uptown’s extensive public transit, but at a recent Uptown Planners meeting, one caring resident declared that young people shouldn’t be able to live there – unless they can save up the money to afford a house like she did all those years ago.

— The Port of San Diego has selected the winning project to redevelop Seaport Village – the Seaport project from Protea Waterfront Development:

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Contrary to many residents, I’m not a big fan of the current Seaport Village.  It’s largely geared to tourists (including some awful restaurants), has half its prime land devoted to surface parking, requires bicyclists to dismount when riding its bayfront, and sports Cape Cod-style architecture that’s totally out of place in southern California.  With the city encouraging more people to live and work downtown for a variety of reasons, shouldn’t our bayfront serve both tourists and residents?

The Protea proposal is a mixed bag of ideas, some with more potential for the above than others, but at least it doesn’t include an 18,000 seat indoor arena like a competing proposal did.  Why would you put a giant, enclosed arena where the bay view is the main attraction?  The tower ride (and aquarium) is a reminder that tourism will still be a big driver, but at least it’s not another ferris wheel.  I like the terraced green space built into the tower base, actually:

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Here’s an overview of the project:

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I think the above map is the only one which shows the pedestrian bridge (bottom right) planned to connect Embarcadero Marina Park North and South, which is a neat idea.  (Still waiting for someone to implement my infeasible idea of a retractible pedestrian/bike bridge connecting Marina Park to Coronado.)  It also shows the Market Street pedestrian/market area – similar to Pike’s Place – connecting to the G Street Pier.  Here’s a zoomed-in view of the heart of the project, followed by a rendering of Market Street:

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Pacific Place, a pedestrian plaza at the southwestern edge of the project, looks out on a giant floating screen in this rendering.  Yes that is a picture of a whale jumping out of the water of a screen on the bay:
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A wide promenade is planned for the entire bayfront (as far as I can tell) that will allow bicyclists to actually ride through without dismounting, along with additional space for pedestrians.  A boardwalk for pedestrians will extend beyond that:

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I also like the “beach” shown here:

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I’m hardly an expert on these types of projects, just giving my initial thoughts here, but the SD Environment and Design Council’s recommended guidelines for the development of Seaport Village are probably worth reading if you’re interested in the future of this area.

war and peace

war and peace

Another chapter was added to the epic Plaza de Panama saga last week with Mayor Filner’s new proposal to close Cabrillo Bridge on weekends and restrict weekday traffic to the southwest corner of the plaza. The plan, detailed here, would free up the majority of the plaza as a gathering place for pedestrians, complete with landscaping, movable chairs/tables, and access to the fountain there. The bridge closure is set for late next month; handicapped spaces will move to the Alcazar Garden lot and valet parking will retreat to the “secret” lot behind Casa de Balboa.

Rather than rehash the details of a plan already discussed elsewhere, it’s worth noting the improbability of this scenario. Who would have thought that Irwin Jacobs’ plan for Plaza de Panama, which involved substantial sums of donated money, concrete, and chutzpah, would be rejected? Certainly not the city council that voted for it; the city attorney and council president that sought to re-write the city charter to nullify the plan’s loss in court; the Republican mayoral candidate funded by Democrat Jacobs after Democratic mayoral candidate Filner opposed it; the wealthy newspaper owner who repeatedly editorialized for it; the former mayor who helped hatch it; nor the park institutions who put their own financial interests over the citizens of San Diego who partly maintain the park with their tax dollars. With the Jacobs plan finally out of the way, Mayor Filner stepped in with a modified version of the Stepner-Blackson plan and 1989 Master Plan, one that emphasizes flexibility and testing. It’s an amazing contrast to the my-way-or-the-highway approach from Jacobs, who seemed oblivious to the damage his auto-focused plan inflicted on the park.

Reaction to the mayor’s plan by the Balboa Park Committee and the audience in attendance last week was largely positive. One notable exception was committee member Michael Hager, head of the Natural History Museum and author of a particularly misleading Voice of San Diego op-ed supporting the Jacobs plan, which included this gem:

Yet this exciting opportunity has been marred by the opposition of a small group of people who would derail any public improvement that doesn’t meet its narrow definition of purity.

Reacting to Filner’s proposal, Hager bemoaned the move of valet parking from its current prime location to the “not very pretty” lot behind Casa de Balboa. It was a revealing moment – Hager’s more concerned about the scenic backdrop for wealthy visitors’ valet service than the quality of the park experience for the rest of us.

In response, Mayor Filner suggested marketing the museums to pedestrians and cyclists in addition to drivers. Here’s one marketing idea: museum discounts for anyone who rides the park tram (new trams ordered for the Jacobs plan arrived this week). That could bring in visitors who weren’t otherwise aware of the variety of institutions in the park.

Another complaint cites increased traffic and parking in Bankers Hill on weekends due to the bridge closure. As others have said, both Golden Gate and Central Park close on the weekends, so why should San Diego be any different? Do the rights of Bankers Hill residents to find easy street parking outweigh those of all the visitors to the Park? From VOSD:

Bankers Hill residents have long feared that shuttering the Cabrillo Bridge would crowd their neighborhoods with cars. William Hamilton , who commented on Facebook, is one of them:
For those of us who live immediately west of the park in Bankers Hill, I can’t say I’m delighted by the idea of closing the bridge to traffic. It will make parking in our neighborhood horrific on the weekends …

Bankers Hill is located between the vibrant neighborhoods of downtown and uptown, next to the “nation’s largest urban cultural park”. Why would residents expect street parking to be plentiful? If you want the amenities of a large city, one sacrifice is often cheap parking. There are plenty of quiet suburbs in San Diego featuring vast free on-street parking; perhaps Mr. Hamilton would be happier there.

Besides, there are parking options on the west side of the park. Re-stripe the western streets/lots in the park for more parking. Reduce 6th Avenue to one lane in each direction with angled parking. Place signage on the west side of the park with directions to Park Blvd lots and park access. Put QR codes on the signs so folks can import the directions to their smart phone mapping apps. Long-term, build a parking garage at Inspiration Point with tram service.

Speaking of costly projects, it wouldn’t hurt to consider alternate sources of funding for the mayor’s plan. Remember, Todd Gloria rejected Filner’s prior request for funds to study this plan, and on this and other issues he’s favored his own political advancement via campaign contributions over his constituents. So, how about a fundraiser to do the landscaping right in the plaza (and across from the Museum of Man while we’re at it)? Sell engraved bricks/pavers in the plaza, or start a civic crowdfunding project.

As someone who pouted over the city’s approval of the Jacobs plan for months I understand how emotions can run high over the city’s crown jewel. Let’s hope the mayor’s plan proceeds successfully while remaining flexible to suggestions and change.

– Linkage:

stop the jacobs balboa park plan

stop the jacobs balboa park plan

Image from SOHO San Diego website

The San Diego City Council votes Monday on the Irwin Jacobs bypass bridge and parking garage proposal for Balboa Park. The $45 million dollar plan brings vehicles into the heart of the park via an unnecessary bridge and throws in some 30 foot retaining walls in Palm Canyon for good measure.  In an era where cities around the world are devoting more space to cyclists, pedestrians and public transit, it’s 1960 all over again in San Diego.

Do you really think this plan would fly in Central Park, where they simply close the roads to autos on weekends?  Or in Golden Gate Park?  I’ve just returned from Portland where this would be called out for the abomination that it is. Yet we’re less than 48 hours away from a likely City Council approval of a plan that could cause the park to lose its National Landmark status granted by the National Park Service.  I say “likely” because Council members know better than to cross Jacobs and his money/clout in San Diego.  One has to wonder just what our elected and appointed representatives wouldn’t allow rich folks to do on public land in this town – after all, the Port District’s overrode the objections of their own art commission to approve the permanent Kissing Sailor/Nurse statue on the harbor front downtown, once wealthy backers came up with the funds.

When I think of Jacobs’ car-first plan for Balboa Park (a new road right through the heart of the park – really?), I keep coming back to Robert Moses and what his highways did to New York City during the 1950’s and 60’s.  Like Jacobs, he refused to make any compromises to his road plans, which proceeded to divide and destroy established neighborhoods.  As described in the excellent public transit book Straphanger, it wasn’t until Moses tried to build a parking lot on Central Park’s Tavern-on-the-Green, and build a four-lane road through Washington Square Park, that community protests led by Jane Jacobs resulted in public pushback against his plans.  And just as Jacobs’s supporters would have you believe the Balboa Park plan opposition is nothing but a fringe bunch of preservationists, Moses complained of his protesters: “There is nobody against this, nobody, nobody, nobody, but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers” (the Tavern protest was a line of women with baby carriages facing down a bulldozer).

Don’t forget that a big part of Jacbos’ plan is an extensive valet parking service for the wealthy patrons of the Old Globe Theater.  Just as Moses made the overpasses on freeways a foot too low for buses and their low-income riders to reach Jones Beach on Long Island, it’s clear who’s going to benefit most from this plan.

If and when the bridge and garage are constructed, future generations will ask why we allowed wealthy private interests to do such damage to a San Diego public treasure, and the precedent we set for the rest of our civic institutions. Simply closing Cabrillo Bridge on weekends and for special events, and instituting shuttle service to exterior parking lots would achieve the plan’s main goal: removing cars from the Plaza de Panama.

The City Council will vote this Monday, July 9th at 2 PM.  A protest, led by SOHO San Diego, is set for noon that day, which you can sign up for on Facebook via the preceding link.


at (w)its end

at (w)its end

wit’s end in hillcrest is closing after a rent increase at their space on robinson. look for them to resurface elsewhere within the next six months, but until then it was a cozy spot to grab a beer and check out the nfl ticket package games in the neighborhood. just wish our first visit had come earlier… a few doors down, au revior has opened in the old la vache space.

urbn coal fired pizza, recently opened in north park, was packing in the dinner crowd early on a rainy saturday evening this weekend – even while several other nearby spots were largely empty. the interior is fairly industrial, with steel beams creating their own spaces, tables on locked wheels and lots of room to mingle in the front bar area. menu-wise, it’s not a big departure from bar basic downtown, but the wider selection of salads and pizzas is a welcome touch. throw in some salty salumi options, wings, and cocktails like the gin-infused “corpse reviver” and it’s enough to ignore the strange move of wedging the dining area into the restaurant’s back corner.

down the street the new north park theater sign lit up the rainy night – it is bright:

– traffic will be moving in both directions across the cabrillo bridge in balboa park under the most recent plaza de panama makeover plan. earlier plans had called for just the east bound lane being open, and dumping drivers into the new parking garage south of the organ pavilion (by way of alcazar garden).

– questionable quote of the week:

Former councilman Bud Harbin, who attended some of the workshops, said Imperial Beach wouldn’t be in a financial pickle if it already had high-rise hotels or a marina near the Tijuana estuary. “I would not like to see a lot of 10- and 15-story buildings here. However, Coronado has … high rises and they don’t get complaints,” Harbin said. “They built them and Coronado has a lot of money.”

those ugly high rises that dwarf the hotel del in coronado have to rank as one of the worst land uses in the region’s history. and the fact that coronado is fiscally sound has absolutely nothing to do with its regrettable towers – it’s one of the wealthiest places in san diego, if not the country.

– good to see the posts going in for the new kensington sign going up this saturday at the ken 100 grand finale, 1-4 pm at the library park… how cool is it that san diego city residents can now throw their yogurt cups and margarine tubs in the recycle bin? even lawn furniture! now if i can just figure out a way to fit that 8-foot chaise lounge in there…

plaza de panama presentation

plaza de panama presentation

– plans for removing parking and restoring balboa park’s plaza de panama to its original vision as a pedestrian area will be presented at the balboa park club tuesday, 4/20, at 5 pm.  here’s what the plaza looked like sunday when it was full of booths and people for the 40th anniversary of earth day.

there was quite a large turnout, and that’s not even counting all the people holding signs showing aborted fetuses.  my balboa park earth day wishes: less religious folks yelling at passers-by, and more food vendors.

– this upcoming weekend is packed with events.  start your saturday off by participating in the annual creek to bay cleanup from 9-12. from 10-4 saturday the centennial kensington home tour will be going on; sd uptown news has a great writeup. and art walk in little italy is 11-6 on saturday and sunday.


– could there have been a bigger contrast between michelle obama’s visit to a community garden in city heights last week, and the san diego tea party tax protests on the same day? the former was about promoting the efforts of lower-income san diegans to make healthy food choices and fight crime in an inner-city neighborhood. the latter was “taking back america” to a declining white male conservative class that’s doesn’t like someone else in charge. oh, and they’re really angry about having to pay taxes. just think of what they could have accomplished if their efforts were put toward helping their less fortunate neighbors instead?