Posted by: cantmisssd | December 6, 2010

Updating Balboa Park

After spending far too long outside the public discourse, Balboa Park is back ahead of big plans for the 100th Anniversary celebration of the California-Panama Exposition in 2015. Scott Lewis has an excellent rundown of what’s been cooking and what challenges remain in efforts to revamp the heart of the park. The crux of plan, backed by a number of local philanthropists, is to reclaim Plaza de Panama from cars and turn it into pedestrian space. The current notion involves re-routing traffic through the Alcazar Garden parking lot and building a parking garage south of the organ pavilion.

The crux of this plan was nailed several weeks ago at dsoderblog: Reclaiming the plaza is good, doubling down on cars is bad. As a secondary point, (potentially) finding private funding in the form of a conservancy to support badly needed park improvements is good, but establishing the precedent that the city is not responsible for maintaining public space is dangerous.

As I noted at dsoderblog, the new plan for Balboa Park belies San Diego’s consistent resistance to non-car transportation. The necessity (such as it is) to maintain and even expand parking at Balboa Park comes from the lack of other options to reach the centerpiece of San Diego. Public transportation isn’t a realistic connector between the park (and by extension the zoo) to most of San Diego, especially including major tourist areas. Which means that virtually everyone has to drive to Balboa Park. While laudable in its goal of reclaiming space from cars, the Jacobs plan as it currently stands wouldn’t address this challenge at all. Rather, it would cement (pun intended) the car-based disposition of the park for decades.

Whether developing public transportation that actually connects to Balboa Park or simply decentralizing the parking even further, there’s no reason that the park needs to be so reliant on having parking in the heart of its attractions. The Hillcrest to downtown streetcar could help with this if it connects to the trolley. Moving the new parking capacity to Inspiration Point, south of the 5, or even into Bankers Hill as an instrument of helping revitalize that strip could all help maintain accessibility without tearing up the park for different roads and more parking.

It’s great that there’s finally momentum to make Balboa Park more inviting for visitors. But if we can’t get beyond parking as a top priority, the pieces are just getting shuffled without bringing major changes. And while private funds to drive redevelopment is encouraging, it belies the difficulties of privatization- public input may be invited, but there’s not necessarily a meaningful mechanism for public oversight of what essentially becomes a private project. Such accountability as there is must be filtered through so many layers of public/private bureaucracy as to be effectively moot. There’s no reason to doubt the good intentions of these Balboa Park supporters, but there’s no reason to take their eventual product on blind faith either.

This momentum provides an opportunity for deep and lasting changes that can do more than essentially move a parking lot. It’s crucial to fight to make sure it does.

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