Life After the Chargers (Fix Balboa Park!)

I've been pretty clear that I think the Chargers are leaving.  In the past I proposed what I think should happen to the stadium site if the Chargers leave. I stand by that proposal, and it isn't that far off from some suggestions that SDSU would buy the land: a recent, totally unsubstantiated rumor I saw suggests that SDSU is interested in the site even if the Chargers leave: they would build a new, smaller football stadium to share with an Major League Soccer team along with an expanded campus.  Although I would rather see an MLS team downtown in Balboa Stadium, I'm generally on board with that rumor.

But even if SDSU moved onto the Qualcomm site, it's not like the City is going to (or should) give them the land for free.  Using the CSAG's estimates (questionable, I know), selling the stadium site with a small remainder for a river park could net $405 million for the City.  What should we do with that money?

The most rational answer would be to spend it on necessary infrastructure and pensions.  But that would be a hard sell to the public after losing the Chargers.  If you are going to take away one toy, you have to replace it with another. Plus, I can't write a post all about water mains.

Me?  I propose spending almost all of it in Balboa Park and the surroundings.  But I wouldn't just stop with the proceeds from the stadium site.  I would keep going.

THE FUNDS

So we already have $405 million from selling the stadium site.  What else can we bank? First, the Sports Arena is an island in the middle of nowhere (relatively) and becoming obsolete.  Using the same $3 million/acre price as estimated for Qualcomm, you could sell the 100 acres that the Sports Arena sits on for $300 million.

Second, Balboa Park is just too big as currently designed.  It is based on an outdated premise that a large, central park is the best design.  I disagree.  Jane Jacobs discussed the poor design of many parks.  In essence, she argued that parks should be like the rest of an urban area: a mix of nearby uses creates liveliness; single uses beget monotony.  I think this applies to Balboa Park.  There is a good central core of museums, and of course the zoo, but after that things drop off drastically.  Restricting the use to parkland and museums has a detrimental effect, but it can be fixed.  Look at the effect that adding Panama 66 has had. If the City had unlimited funds, we could do some cool stuff, but there just isn't enough money to fill it up with parkland and museums.  Go look at it on a map: there is a lot of undeveloped land that's not being put to use.  Some is just vacant, and some is misused.  

For example, the Balboa Park Golf Course takes up a huge chunk of land and is both losing money and wasting water on a lot of grass.  So let's sell half the golf course to developers.  I know, that seems sacrilegious, but wouldn't you rather see a new vibrant community in Golden Hill than a golf course?  If done properly, it could add to the greatness of the park, not subtract.  I would sell half of the golf course land (I very roughly estimated half the course as containing about 32 acres, times $3/million an acre) for $96 million, when combined with "saving" the $1.2 million in annual operating losses for the golf course, adds another $50 million in bonding capacity over 30 years.  The other half of the golf course? Revert most back to natural land and build a bike path/hiking trail from 28th Street near Bird Park down to Powerhouse Canyon and connect to B Street near downtown.  North Park to Downtown bike connection = done.

Third, the other big blight in Balboa Park is the landfill site on the eastern mesa of the park.  It would be great to put something public there, but there is no  current money to be adding to Balboa Park.  Plus, what would we add? More grass?  Grassy areas look pretty, but they are also unnatural and, in many ways, dead zones.  We have enough grass in Balboa Park. I would also sell that land to developers to build an appropriate-scope village with a special design.  Maybe car free? I don't know, but it needs to be done right.  This would not only generate revenue for the city (again, rough estimate of 14 acres at a price of $3/million an acre = $42 million), it would add residents into the heart of Balboa Park.  With a pedestrian bridge over Florida Canyon, there would be a constant flow of locals into Balboa Park, helping to transform it from a predominately tourist area into a local commons where locals can mingle and stroll.

So, altogether, selling the Qualcomm site ($405m), the Sports Arena site ($300m), the golf course ($146m), and the old east mesa landfill ($42m) nets a total of $893 million.  Now, the fun part: what should we do with that money?

THE PLAN

I propose pushing almost all of the $893 million into Balboa Park and its surroundings.  If we expanded Balboa Park to include great yet limited neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, and a new arena, all directly connected to downtown and Hillcrest, it could be a much more vibrant area that truly becomes the heart of the city.  Here's where the money would go.  This isn't a precise plan, but all of these numbers are within the ballpark of reality.

A River Park

Well, wait.  First, an exception.  I would spend $20 million on a river park at the Qualcomm site, with an additional $10 million (total shot in the dark) on building out missing gaps of the San Diego River Trail to the ocean.  Mission Valley is losing a sea of a parking lot, let's give them a park and a path to the beach.  Show some mercy.

A Streetcar

Then, I would spend $100 million on a  streetcar on Park Boulevard between downtown and continue up to University Avenue.  A recent MTS feasibility study pegged the cost of a streetcar from the City College trolley stop downtown to the zoo at about $67 million.  And yes, that also includes a cycletrack up Park Boulevard as well.  Let's extend the streetcar to University Avenue and estimate the new cost at $100 million.  This would connect Balboa Park more directly to downtown and also allow for commuting from Hillcrest to downtown.  Realistically, a good chunk of this cost could come from other sources (Transnet, or state and federal grants), but let's just put the total $100 million price tag on the City for simplicity.

An NBA Arena

If we tear down the Sports Arena, we should build a new arena.  But to add to the experience, it needs to be near downtown.  I would put it on the big parking lot you see just north of the 5 freeway on Inspiration Point. Combined with a new freeway deck creating a wide promenade, the arena would be connected to downtown and right on the new streetcar line. The arena would host concerts, hockey, and perhaps the NCAA tournament.  And then we add an NBA team.  We deserve a team. Maybe the Golden State Warriors' plan to move to San Francisco will fall through and we could get the champions to come south. Other teams are looking to relocate.  We could make it happen.

The cost?  In Sacramento, the city is splitting the cost with the Kings, each contributing about $230 million.  Is it still a massive government giveaway?  Sure, but it's a lot less than a football stadium and an arena near downtown would be much more heavily used than a stadium in Mission Valley.  And again, this is positioned somewhat as a compromise: give the people circuses!  Plus, imagine the boost this would have on Balboa Park.  I would love to see rallies in Plaza de Panama before trekking down to a game.

Park Boulevard Promenade

In response to the Jacobs Plan for a bypass bridge and Organ Pavilion parking garage, the Zoo suggested that Jacobs instead fund a new Zoo parking garage along Park Boulevard.  This has been a plan for awhile: a new, dense parking garage to replace the huge expanse of zoo parking asphalt with a new promenade connecting to the main Prado area.  I'm not always a fan of more parking, but if a parking garage can replace huge surface parking lots AND connect the zoo more cohesively with the rest of Balboa Park, I'm in.  The cost?  The Zoo estimates $106 million, which included the Plaza de Panama improvements and the bypass bridge.  Let's scrap the bridge and build restaurants and shops wrapping around the parking garage on Park Boulevard instead.

Freeway Cap the 5 Downtown

Putting a cap over Interstate 5 downtown has long been a dream in San Diego to reconnect Bankers Hill and Balboa Park with downtown.  Instead of a huge gulf, we could build a cap over the freeway and build parks and mixed-use developments on top.  With the NBA arena to the immediate north and the upcoming IDEA District to the south, a well-planned cap could push downtown San Diego to the next level.  The cost?  The article I link to says about $300 million.  If some of the land was developed instead of just extra parkland, some of the costs could be recovered by selling the reclaimed land.

Cleaning Up with the Leftovers

Even with all the developments above, we still have about $130 million left over.  I would use this money to fix, or start to fix, many of the infrastructure problems plaguing the park.  This $130 million chunk, combined with parking revenue from the new parking garage, increased property taxes and TOT from potential hotels could be used to bring Balboa Park back to its glory.  We could also complete smaller projects, like closing most of Florida Drive and creating a nature preserve (part of the Balboa Park Master Plan). Some more could be spent on a Florida Canyon pedestrian bridge, hiking trails, etc.

So where does that leave us?  If we trade 10 home football games from a corrupt and immoral league, we could get (1) an expanded SDSU campus, (2) an MLS team, (3) a river park and expanded river trail, (4) a new NBA team, (5) a new, downtown arena for that team and concerts, (6) a streetcar and cycle track connecting downtown, Balboa Park, and Hillcrest, (7) a beautiful promenade and expanded zoo, (8) an erasure of the freeway downtown with beautiful new parks and development connecting neighborhoods, and (9) fixing up the existing Balboa Park infrastructure.  To me, that sounds like a good deal.  Who's in?  What would you do differently?