Parks board endorses Balboa Park observation wheel plan

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SAN DIEGO — Plans to temporarily erect an observation wheel in a plaza at Balboa Park have won support from the city’s official advisory group for the park.

The Balboa Park Committee voted 7-1 in favor of allowing the attraction Thursday night with one member abstaining, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. While the vote is a first step toward getting the project approved, there are other regulatory hoops to jump through before the wheel concept will become reality.

The Balboa Park Star, an upscale observation wheel, was thought up by the Cohn Restaurant Group and pitched to the Balboa Park Committee. The 148-foot wheel would offer a new, socially distanced dining experience for parkgoers for a limited time.

Preliminary plans are for the temporary fixture to be in place for about three months, taking just two weeks to assemble, the restaurant group said. It would be operated by Sky Views of America, the same company which operates the San Diego County Fair’s Grand Wheel.

Thirty-six gondolas would seat up to eight people, according to a report presented to the committee, with a view at the top stretching all the way to the downtown waterfront. 

The company said it wanted to offer a new way for people to dine after many restaurants closed down in March due to the pandemic. Safety protocols would be enforced, including mandatory face coverings for passengers and staff. The gondolas also would be sanitized between each use. 

“I think it would be really cool to sit and have dinner and see everything,” said Analicia Rodriguez, a visitor to Balboa Park, when FOX 5 interviewed residents about the project in October.

“As long as it’s not disruptive to the community here, I think it would definitely be a really cute idea,” another parkgoer said.

But the project has also proven controversial, with some worrying that allowing a private entity like the restaurant group such premium real estate in a public park sends the wrong message.

“In a vacuum, I think it’s a wonderful idea and I applaud your creativity. I think this is the wrong solution for the park and for the public at this time — for when it would be up and operating (in the spring and summer),” said Vicki Granowitz, the San Diego planning commissioner who cast the lone dissenting vote Thursday.

“I think the plaza needs to be for the public, and I think it sends a message that could be problematic for what we want to do in the future.”

Residents in the public comment section of the board’s meeting weren’t always as diplomatic, objecting to the size, style and purpose of the attraction, and calling it an “eye sore” and “tacky,” according to the Union-Tribune.

Steps still required before the wheel can be erected for the first time include review by the City Attorney’s Office and evaluation from the city’s Historical Resources Board, the newspaper reports.

State and county health orders must also allow operation of the observation wheel, meaning the county will have to move out of its current, restrictive level of coronavirus safety measures.

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