Plan to remove vehicle traffic from Plaza de Panama revived

Balboa Park traffic

SAN DIEGO — A revived plan to remove vehicle traffic from the center of San Diego’s Balboa Park was moved forward Monday by the City Council, which agreed to spend $1 million to complete planning and documentation.

The roughly $70 million plan envisions shutting off traffic in the Plaza de Panama, Plaza de California and Esplanade areas of the park, constructing a vehicle bypass bridge and building a parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Part of the cost would be offset by paid parking in the garage.

The City Council first approved the project four years ago, but it was overturned by a judge on a technicality. The city later won an appeal, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer recently revived the idea.

During the intervening time, parking areas have been taken away from the Plaza de Panama. The open area between the Museum of Man and El Prado cultural institutions has been spruced up with seating areas and landscaping, but there are still conflicts between moving vehicles and pedestrians.

The council’s 8-1 vote gives the project a place in the city’s capital improvements budget for this fiscal year. A more detailed financing plan is expected to be brought forward in November.

According to city staff, the city’s contribution will be capped at $45 million, with private philanthropy via the Plaza de Panama Committee covering the rest. The estimated cost has increased $30 million since the project was first approved in 2012.

Jim Kidrick, head of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, said the park’s cultural institutions are united behind the plan.

Bill Walton, the former basketball great who is assisting the money- raising effort, told the council that the project “will provide an epic benefit” to the park.

On the other hand, David Lundin, the founder of the Balboa Park Heritage Foundation, called the plan “absurd” and said the design was “wholly inappropriate.”

Council President Sherri Lightner, in casting the dissenting vote, said the project wasn’t in keeping with San Diego’s innovative nature, and that relying on vehicle traffic into the parking garage for revenue was against the city’s plan to combat climate change.