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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.

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