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Myths & the Actual Facts


"The sole impact of the Plaza de Panama project on the Cabrillo Bridge is to remove less than 70 feet of concrete railing on the eastern bridge abutment. The Centennial Bridge would be constructed around the southwest corner of the Museum of Man, without obstructing any view that is visible today (or for the last 70 years). The appendage/bypass bridge will be architecturally compatible but will not be visible to cars or pedestrians traveling east on the Cabrillo Bridge until they are close to the Museum of Man."


In fact, the impact is of such great magnitude to the bridge that 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.

The bypass appendage bridge is twice the width of the Cabrillo Bridge where the bypass will meet it. That's 70 feet across from the 35-foot historic bridge.

The bridge will also have to be restructured to take the lateral loads and they will have to take out the sidewalk as well to remove the "70 feet of concrete railing."

The historic viewscapes are not completely obstructed by trees, as the mayor claims. The tree issue is a red herring, it is classic developer speak. You have all heard "you won't see it once the vegetation is in," and of course this never turns out to be true. In fact this bypass road project would remove most, if not all, the trees in front of the Museum of Man, most. So, in fact the bypass appendage will be VERY visible. The bypass road will be up two thirds of the castle like façade and will obscure the bottom of the windows of the wedding chapel and the balcony of the Plaza de California. Additionally, the parks own master plan calls for removal of the eucalyptus in this area.

Furthermore, the National Historic Landmark status was given in 1977 when the views were even more obstructed by trees than they are today and they still called out this area as what sets the stylistic and architectural tone for the entire district.

The mayor's proposed concrete scar across the face of the California Quadrant (Museum of Man) is NOT reversible and therefore does not conform to the Secretary of the Interior Standards for the treatment of historic places.


"With respect to the National Register designation, City Historic Resources staff has issued an official memo indicating that there is no substance or precedent that the project will cause Balboa Park to lose its historic designation. The park's designation is based on the composition of buildings and landscapes, not any one element. A limited impact on one element with the substantial restoration of the historic core of the park, as proposed in the project, in no way threatens the historic designation."


The mayor ALMOST got one thing right. This project isn't about just one element. In fact the entire project is an extreme abuse of a National Historic Landmark. The impacts are significant from every consideration of the project.

  • The clashing modern bypass bridge impacts both visually and architecturally a reserve of Spanish Revival design.
  • Bringing the full impact of a road with two busy lanes to the open edge of Alcazar Garden destroys that garden's setting. (See the mayor's next Myth).
  • The massive amount of cutting, grading, earth removal, digging, and retaining wall construction will change the historic landscape, particularly through changes in elevation that will occur with the Alcazar parking lot, the subterranean road between El Prado and the Palisades dug way below grade, and the elevated plane of the Organ Pavilion parking bunker. It changes not only the landscape but changes the spatial relationship between historic buildings and landscaping as well.
  • The proposed rehabilitation of Plaza de Panama introduces a glut of modern materials and uses that bear no resemblance to the park's historical period of significance: 1915 and 1935. Modern vendor structures, outdoor furnishings, and fountain features that are all about 2015 do not belong in a National Historic Landmark District.

In fact no component of this project can be considered a restoration of any of the elements of the National Historic Landmark District. It would instead result in severe negative impacts, which in fact jeopardizes the NHL status. A 213 process would be triggered by this project and would likely result in loss of designation if this is allowed to proceed. If designation were lost Federal funding for the park would also be lost as NHL's have priority for federal funding. This is when the mayor's decision to treat Balboa Park like a suburban shopping mall remodel will impair the fiscal health of the park.

We have seen no such official memo indicating that there is no substance or precedent that the project will cause Balboa Park to lose its historic designation form the City Historic Resources staff.


"The Plaza de Panama project will enhance the pedestrian access between the Plaza de Panama and the Pan American Plaza. Pan American Road, currently a two-lane road for vehicles, will become a pedestrian promenade with the implementation of the project. At its narrowest point, the promenade would be 48 feet wide, the same width as the current roadway and sidewalks. Current pedestrian access between these two spaces is limited to 8-foot-wide sidewalks on either side of the two-lane road (only one sidewalk exists between the House of Hospitality to just past the Organ Pavilion)."


In fact, currently the access is more than 350 feet at its narrowest point. The new subterranean road will cut the central mesa in half creating a peninsula in front of the House of Pacific Relations cottages and the Pan American Road will be depressed into what can only be described as a "big ditch" that cannot be crossed except by way of a new small bridge. The ditch itself has a series of three retaining walls with earth fill between them on either side to the main road. This will be especially problematic for large events such as December Nights. It creates a huge impediment to pedestrian flow and is extremely destructive visually in that it creates an unsightly scar across this whole area. It takes out the public restrooms, the Charlie Brown Christmas tree and fills three sides of Palm Canyon with 30-foot retaining walls, it also includes two other retaining walls on either side of the Esplanade from the Organ Pavilion to Plaza de Panama.


"The bypass road will have no impact on Alcazar Garden. With the implementation of the Plaza de Panama project, 7,000 cars will pass Alcazar Garden on the south side, but the traffic will be a further distance from the Garden than the current distance of cars traveling on El Prado. In addition, the traffic will be at a lower grade than it is along El Prado and there is additional landscape space and a low wall to mitigate sound."


This is complete nonsense. No such plans that the mayor describes have been presented. All plans that have been shown to the public thus far show the open edge of Alcazar Garden bearing the full brunt of 7,000 cars passing daily. Further, the new parking lot would be a foot higher than the level of Alcazar Garden, not lower. Their plans do not indicate a separation, road grade, or retaining wall even closely comparable to what exists on the north side where the present road is deeply depressed and separated by vegetation, a double arcade walkway with about ten feet of lawn, and a retaining wall, which all serve as visual and sound barriers, and above which sits the garden well elevated and removed from the traffic, thereby maintaining the serenity of Alcazar Garden, one of the park's most beautiful and popular outdoor spaces.

But that's not all!

The mayor's plan not only includes two way traffic rushing by the courtyard it includes valet parking, ADA parking, freight drop off, pedestrian drop off, all of which has to cross the two lanes of traffic to enter the park! It also includes a circulation passenger drop off and a very long bridge for ADA access to the plaza.

This project includes regrading the entire parking lot, pushing it out into the canyon with massive fill and 30-foot retaining walls and encircling it with a roadway three sides within Palm Canyon, removing trees and the pedestrian bridge to be relocated.


"The intersection at the proposed bypass bridge, with its hard angle turns and blind spot, is just as safe as the existing turns now in Plaza de Panama."


The turns at the bypass appendage are anything but simple. These are hard angle turns coming on and off the concrete ramp. The severity of those turns coupled with concentrating so much pedestrian and vehicle activity in a confined space creates the safety issue. The caution required to navigate the difficult turns and cross walk is bound to create a bottleneck with traffic backed up across both the Cabrillo Bridge and bypass bridge, thus creating a whole new dynamic of issues.

What the mayor isn't telling you about the turn in Plaza de Panama is that the visibility there for both drivers and pedestrians is much better. Not so at the bypass, with an obvious blind spot for pedestrians stepping onto the bypass heading east. The mayor also leads you to believe that all pedestrians cross only at that turn in the plaza. Not true. Pedestrians utilize a number of crossing options in the Plaza. At the bypass pedestrians will only have the option of using the opposite sidewalk.


"The bypass road will prevent traffic from traveling through the core of the park."


The fact is there are much better ways to achieve the goal of removing traffic flow through this one area of the park. "The core," as the Mayor refers to it, is not just the Plaza de Panama, the core of the park includes the Palisades as well. The core of the park is the National Landmark District and all it contains.

The mayor considers it an acceptable trade off to ruin one portion of the park to rehabilitate another portion.

Interestingly, the mayor says that it is a myth the bypass road will increase traffic in Balboa Park. But he can only say in fact that the studies haven't been completed yet. People shouldn't trust the wishful thinking of a politician as a compelling answer or argument. The mayor's refusal to acknowledge the fatal flaws in his own project, to exclude all other feasible alternatives, is not how public park planning should work.

The fact is this project caters to the automobile and the driving experience in a day and age when other parks across the nation are restricting or eliminating automobile access through creating better pedestrian and tram access. The Sanders plan will bring in more cars and more traffic than ever, especially as people circulate in other parking lots to avoid the folly of a paid parking structure in the heart of the park.

Far better parking and traffic solutions are found in alternatives offered in the Precise Lite Plan, or in the San Diego Zoo Parking and Circulation proposals, or in the Jones study, which indicates that the creation of more parking on the west side of Balboa Park through traffic calming measures on 6th and 5th Avenue would be a more progressive and 21st-Century approach, not this massive and messy 20th-century project of roads, bridges and traffic recirculation.


"Paid parking in the midst of free parking will reduce the amount of traffic due to drivers looking for parking space."


Of all issues concerning this destructive project the one that generates more public outrage is the prospect of charging parking fees for the park. Month after month of testimony in public meetings all over San Diego, people who regularly use the park and those who live in neighborhoods surrounding the park have spoken and said they don't want the impacts this proposal will have.

One has to question the thoroughness of the mayor's parking study. Did it take into account the San Diego Zoo implementing paid parking in response to the parking bunker behind the Organ Pavilion?

The average citizen with the capability of common sense won't buy any data based study cooked to produce a desired outcome by those paying for it. People who live in neighborhoods where paid parking buildings have been built have real-life street knowledge that free spaces in their neighborhood fill up long before anyone enters a paid parking structure.

Of the 260 new spaces that will be gained with the massive new parking structure directly behind the organ pavilion, 100 are dedicated to valet parking only! Balboa Park is popular with people of all economic profiles, if the dominoes of allowing paid parking start to fall into place, an element of our population would be disenfranchised from access to the park.

No one believes that a paid parking garage can exist or pay for itself in a sea of free parking. All the design professionals who have looked at this, including the San Diego Chamber of Commerce Land Use and Transportation Committee, have said that this will have to result in paid parking throughout the entire park to be successful.


"A comprehensive environmental review is being conducted for the project, which will evaluate a total of five project alternatives, each of which has resulted directly from testimony received in public meetings. Each of the alternatives will be evaluated with the same care as the proposed project."


The biggest myth that Mayor Sanders is perpetrating is that he would consider alternatives.

In every public meeting since the unveiling of this ill conceived plan, a vast majority of public comment has stated that while people support removing automobiles from Plaza de Panama, they do not support the concrete off ramp or paid parking bunker or many other portions of the project.

The fact is that the Sanders group is not considering alternatives. This was demonstrated in a temper tantrum last month when it was announced they pulled the plug on the project because they didn't get their way at the City Council Rules Committee. In other words, it will be this project or no project. Everyone knows that. But the design team in December and January publicly stated there are no alternatives that meet their goals. That EVERY alternative has "fatal flaws," in their exact words.

The EIR will list alternatives, of course, because it is required to do so. But from public statements made by the design team, the way this project has been developed, and the behavior demonstrated at the June City Council Rules Committee, they are committed only to the bypass off ramp and paid parking structure project or no project at all. They have set up the EIR so that only their project can be selected.


"The Plaza de Panama Committee has participated in nearly 90 meetings with various organizations and individuals over the past nine months to provide information about the project and seek public input. They have listened, studied and illustrated every option put on the table by the public and SOHO. The project is adhering to stringent public process requirements, as called for by city and state law."


After more than 60 meetings the team received opposition from 90% of the public. The public has stated time and time again they DO NOT WANT this project. All of the groups, organizations, and planning groups that have publically and formally opposed the Sanders plan can be seen here:

Stakeholder letters of opposition to Sanders/Jacobs Plan
Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 (C3)
Committee of One Hundred
Hillcrest History Guild
La Playa Heritage (67-page pdf)
League of Women Voters
Mission Hills Heritage
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Neighborhood Historic Preservation Coalition
North Park Historical Society
North Park Planning Committee
Old Town San Diego Community Planning Group
San Diego Archers
San Diego Council of Design Professionals
San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo Alternative
State Historic Preservation Officer

Along with this, please consider the over 3000 signatures and comments against the project, the approximately 600 emails to the city against the project, and the hundreds of comments to local newspapers against the project.

What the design team has actually stated about public input is "we are open to public input, the public may ask any question they want." Anyone who has been involved in the public process over the years knows that is a dismal definition of what public input is about.

The most recent example of this was in June. On a Thursday before the City Council Rules Committee was to meet, a notification was obscurely passed out regarding a Memorandum of Understanding for city council to endorse the Sanders plan. In that notification were all the myths the Sanders group has been perpetrating about this destructive project. The Memorandum of Understanding, however, was not attached to the notification. That was issued a couple of days later. In fact, the only way anyone from the public could receive the notification or a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding was through a leak at City Hall. Once the cat was out of the bag the MOU was posted online, that is if one knew to look and where to look for it. Mayor Sanders clearly did not want the public notified.

With the notification and Memorandum of Understanding issued only days before the Council Rules committee, the mayor clearly did not expect the public to know about the meeting or for them to even show up. But show up they did in large numbers. The result of the meeting was that council members listened to the public. The Sanders group had a tantrum and announced they were through. But, as it turns out, not really. It appears to have been only a stunt to cool the flames of public opinion. In the meantime, contrary to public statement, work continued to move the project forward.

Compare that to the process involved in the Balboa Park Master Plan. That process involved a strong degree of negotiation, willingness to compromise, and public input. Each step of that design process was signed off not only by the planners, but city staff, and members of the public as well.

The public in the current process has no vote on any decisions. They do not sit in during planning sessions. Instead they are shown plans after they've been developed, and are then asked, "Any questions?" The public has not been involved in any way in developing these plans, this has been purposely avoided.

Because the Balboa Park Master Plan was so thoroughly vetted, it should have been the plan for which Mayor Sanders sought private funding. It was, after all, the people's plan for the park. This plan was even fully funded, but unfortunately, not unlike how the process is being circumvented now, the funding was stolen by past mayors, city managers, and councils to fund other civic projects.

It should also be noted that the public has already previously rejected the bypass concept. The plans drawn up for it during the Balboa Park Master Plan were nearly identical to the Jacobs/Sanders plan. At that time the public, along with planners and city staff, said no to the bypass because of its severe impacts both visually and architecturally.

With Balboa Park so far behind in deferred maintenance, the public would be better served to forgo the massive concrete and asphalt project and use the money to catch up on the nearly $250 million in deferred park maintenance.

The Balboa Park master plan went through a nine-and-a-half-year public vetting, had a full EIR process, which was approved and now they are trying to rush this through in a space of a few months, we should implement the Precise Plan Lite (LINK, 12-page pdf) for now and after 2015 with cool heads plot the park's future for its transportation needs.


"A well thought-out schedule was prepared by construction management professionals to guide the project through the entitlement phase and through the completion of construction in advance of December 31, 2014. Up to now, the project has met all milestones in the schedule."


Dr. Jacobs himself has only committed to a fraction of the money needed for this massive project. The balance to be made up by other donors and a parking bond to be paid for by hoped for revenues of the garage. To this date, no other donors have been identified. In fact, we have been told by potential donors that they do not like this project and are hoping that this project can be put to bed soon so that they can begin to come forward to address the real needs of Balboa Park and get on with the 2015 celebration and the 250 million dollars of backlogged deferred maintenance for the park.

Again design professionals, architects, engineers and planners seriously question the cost estimates and the availability of funding. Some view the estimates of the project as being as much as double what is being projected.

Haven't we all heard the "don't worry, be happy" refrain in regard to expensive civic projects before? It will be taxpayers who will be footing this bill due to lack of donations for an extremely unpopular project, lack of parking revenues for the garage as people seek free parking outside of it and the significant underestimation of project cost.

Plaza de Panama Circulation & Parking Structure Project

SOHO's Plan

To Save Balboa Park

The Sanders/Jacobs Plan for Balboa Park

Balboa Park through the years

Media Coverage


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