Setting aside national politics, it seems San Diego Twitter has been busy debating the merits of the newly-revived "Plaza de Panama" plan to revamp Balboa Park. I'm sure anyone reading this is familiar with the plan, but the basic elements are (1) build a large paid-parking garage on the site of the parking lot behind the Organ Pavilion and put a park on top, (2) completely close the Plaza de Panama and surrounding areas to cars and (3) to keep the park accessible from the west, keep the Cabrillo Bridge open by building a bypass bridge coming off the south side of the current bridge to funnel cars into the parking garage.
After the Mayor's announcement that the plan was back, many people came out against the plan. Some were upset about the effect on the historic nature of the Cabrillo Bridge and the aesthetics of the bypass bridge. I won't try to argue about aesthetics, but all the renderings I have seen suggest a minimal disruption. If we are going to rally against architectural pillaging in Balboa Park, perhaps we should tear the whole thing down. It was always supposed to be temporary, right? Should we tear down the Timken Museum as being too modern? The Timken almost wasn't built, but is now a jewel in the park along with Panama 66 in the also-modern Sculpture Court, a favorite haunt of many of those now opposing the proposed plan.
Far too often, people argue that there is a better solution, like closing the Cabrillo Bridge entirely to cars. I completely endorse this idea and agree that it would be better. The problem, however, is it is not an option at this point. The institutions in the park will not support it. The Mayor will not support it. Irwin Jacobs and other wealthy benefactors will not support it. Any alternatives died years ago. The city will not, and can not, step back to square one, which would require abandoning a costly EIR and risk another lawsuit. The choice we face today is between the status quo and the currently-envisioned plan. Any other argument ignores the political realities facing the city and disregards the years spent arguing over the merits of the plan. Arguing for closing the bridge was commendable in 2012, but is misplaced in 2016.
Most of the critics are focused more on the parking garage. The argument seems to be that there is no reason to add even more parking to Balboa Park when the current lots are often empty. Also, the thinking goes, conceding the argument that closer parking is necessary will only further cement the primacy of the automobile in the culture of our city.
I understand these arguments. Usually, I am against any new parking lot or garage. But not all parking lots are created equal. The heuristic that "all parking lots are bad" is too broad. Parking is bad when it is offered for free and induces people to drive rather than walk or take transit. Parking is bad when it increases the physical distance between destinations. Parking is bad when it precludes better use of the space, like more housing or, on the street, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, or wider sidewalks.
But none of those problems are present here. As every critic willingly concedes, there is already a surplus of parking spots in Balboa Park on almost any day. If these existing spots are already empty, building even more parking is not going to induce more driving. The EIR for the project concluded, based on a traffic study, that the new parking garage will not cause any increase in driving to the Park. (See page 212 of Project EIR.) If anything, centralizing the parking and building a road that funnels all traffic into that garage will eliminate the stupid circling of cars (and resulting emissions) while they hunt for a spot in the closer lots.
The parking garage also won't increase any distances for walking between destinations. Rather than expanding the physical space devoted to parking, the new garage would effectively replace a huge surface lot with a peaceful park. When it comes to walking, this is an improvement. Similarly, the new garage would not preclude a better use. By placing a park on top, it actually increases the amount of parkland in Balboa Park when looking at surface area. There is no scenario where the current lot gets replaced with a park if it isn't sitting on top of parking. When it comes to parking garages, it's hard to beat this one.
The plan is also distinguishable from the fights over parking spots on city streets. In places like Hillcrest and Little Italy, the incumbent businesses are taking the short-sighted and selfish position that parking spaces for customers are more important than bike lanes. The fight is zero sum: any space devoted to parking or car travel is space that can't be used for alternative means of transportation. In effect, the demand for parking prevents people from walking, biking, and taking the bus. With the Balboa Park plan, however, nothing actively prevents anyone from walking, biking, or taking transit. Without the preclusion of more beneficial modes, the argument against parking is even weaker.
People also argue against spending taxpayer dollars on a parking garage given the other needs in the park. Usually, this argument holds water: any dollar spent on parking is a dollar not spent on better uses. With the Balboa Park plan, however, the intention is that donated private dollars will vastly exceed any public dollars spent on the plan. Without the parking garage, all this money evaporates. As Andy Keatts explained on the recent VOSD podcast, losing any leg of the stool will cause the whole plan to crash. Again, the choice is between the status quo and the current plan. Given that the parking garage avoids the usual problems with adding parking plus the pedestrian improvements to the park that are enabled by adding the garage, I can't help but support the plan that leverages some public money with large sums of private donations.
Also, an overlooked portion of the lawsuit challenging this plan was the dispute about paid parking in Balboa Park. Opponents of the plan argued that any parking inside the Park had to be free in perpetuity, but the court rejected this argument. The proposed parking garage would represent the first paid parking in Balboa Park and would replace a vast, free lot. Replacing free parking with paid parking should be embraced and applauded, not rejected. The sooner the city embraces more paid parking, the sooner we can start to avoid the externalized costs of parking.
Finally, I find the outright rejection of the plan to be a missed opportunity to make the plan even better while still accepting the basic elements. The biggest flaw in the plan is the premise that more parking is needed in Balboa Park. The current lots are underutilized and adding more spaces to the center of the park will only result in the more distant lots being even emptier. There are enough parking spots in Balboa Park; at most they are disorganized. If the plan is truly about improving Balboa Park, we should demand that it result in no net increase in parking spaces. This is important for two reasons. First, if the city will be on the hook for paying off the bonds used to build the garage with future parking revenue, we should do everything possible to ensure this garage is fully utilized. If the garage is surrounded by free parking, there is a strong chance that it won't be used. Looking to North Park, it can be difficult not to lose money on a paid parking garage surrounded by free parking.
Second, we should accept the plan, but push it farther: let's eliminate other Central Mesa surface parking lots, like the lots between the Science Museum and the Carousel by the Zoo. Or in light of the complete emptying of the Inspiration Point lot that will likely occur if this plan is implemented, let's envision a better use for that land in a prime spot next to Downtown. Perhaps we should sell the Sports Arena site and build a new arena overlooking downtown. Perhaps we should give the land to UCSD to build an urban campus. Or we could shift San Diego High School into the park and devote the current school site to parkland for downtown. The ideas that become possible if the plan is implemented are endless. Rather than engaging and exploring these possibilities, too many people are rejecting the plan outright.
Sometimes, refusing to participate is the best strategy to achieve the desired outcome. Other times, it feels like choosing moral purity over real progress. As much as we may want it, it is impossible to eliminate cars from San Diego with a wave of the wand. The Balboa Park revamp presents a serious step towards removing cars from the heart of our public places and, perhaps just as importantly, is an embrace of change in a city that desperately needs change. While there are obvious trade-offs, it's a net win that I hope happens, and happens soon.