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SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego City Council on Tuesday approved a memorandum of understanding with the nonprofit Plaza de Panama Committee that will move forward Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposed project to restore the heart of Balboa Park to pedestrian use in time for the Centennial Celebration of the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition.
Not a project approval, the MOU is a formal expression of the city’s intent to work with a committee of private citizens to shepherd the proposed restoration project through the planning and permit process, which will allow the project and all viable alternatives to be vetted in a public process.
“I’m heartened by this approval, which marks the most significant progress yet toward reclaiming a piece of San Diego’s history through restoring the Plaza de Panama to pedestrian use,” Sanders said. “This is something our citizens have wanted for decades, and we’re going to work to ensure this doesn’t become yet another plan gathering dust on a shelf.”
The proposed project, which is supported by most of the Balboa Park institutions, would free the Plaza de Panama, West Prado and Plaza de California from vehicles, returning them to pedestrian use as they were originally envisioned. It also would improve circulation of vehicles entering from the west of the park, diverting them onto a new bypass road to the Alcazar parking lot instead of going through the Plaza de California and Plaza de Panama.
The plan adds additional parking in a three-story, underground structure south of the Organ Pavilion that would be topped by a park, replacing the asphalt parking lot currently there. A tram would help circulate pedestrians around the park.
In all, the proposed project would add more than 6 acres of parkland, including the reclaimed plazas, and net an additional 260 parking spaces for park visitors.
The Plaza de Panama Committee, headed by Qualcomm Founder Dr. Irwin Jacobs, would raise about $25 million in private donations toward the project’s estimated $40 million cost. The city would implement a tax-exempt bond to fund construction of the parking garage, with garage revenues paying the bond’s annual debt service. Under the MOU, construction cost overruns would be borne by the committee.
Under the MOU approved today, the restoration project will undergo full environmental and discretionary permit review – including analysis of impacts on the park’s historical resources. The review includes consideration of project alternatives.
Removal of vehicles from the Plaza de Panama has been the longtime goal of the city, listed in both the Balboa Park Master Plan and the Balboa Park Precise Plan. Past efforts have resulted in planning documents, but languished for lack of funding and a civic champion.
At the invitation of the mayor, Jacobs became that civic champion in 2010, funding architectural and design work needed to develop the proposed project. Jacobs has committed to raising the private funds needed to construct the project if it is approved.