Plaza De Panama FAQs

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about the Plaza De Panama project.

Didn’t we already solve the problem of cars in the Plaza de Panama?

No. The changes made in 2013 accomplished nothing remotely close to the vision laid out in the project approved by a bipartisan supermajority of the City Council. Removing parking from the Plaza de Panama is only one objective of the approved and fully entitled project, which aims to remove cars from the entire central mesa.

The Plaza de Panama project restores more than 6 acres of open space parkland, including the Plaza de Panama, Plaza de California, West El Prado and Esplanade. By including the bypass, the project maintains public access from both the east and west sides of the park, which is critical for the continued success of the institutions and museums in the park.

The modifications made by Bob Filner were implemented as temporary and did not eliminate vehicular/pedestrian conflict; in fact, those changes have made them worse. What’s more, this change was never intended to become a permanent solution. This partial fix underwent no vetting whatsoever and received no approval from any formal or advisory bodies.

The bottom line: We continue to have cars going through the heart of our most precious public spaces in the park, while the approved restoration project eliminates cars entirely from these historically pedestrian-only areas and returns this space to its original intent as pedestrian parkland.


Can’t we just close the Cabrillo Bridge and receive the same benefits?

No. While closing the bridge sounds like a simple solution to free the park’s Central Mesa of cars, this alternative was studied closely and dismissed because of the significant challenges it created for the city, park institutions and park users. They include traffic failures on Sixth Avenue, Robinson Avenue and at intersections in already congested downtown.

A key benefit of the approved restoration project is continued entry to the park from the west via the Cabrillo Bridge, which is how more than 42 percent of park visitors now access the park. Traffic studies performed and catalogued in the Environmental Impact Report for the project show re-routing traffic cause unmitigable failures on streets in neighborhoods north of the park and downtown. It also worsens already severe parking shortages in the Park West and Banker’s Hill communities. And, because Park Boulevard would have to accommodate all vehicles entering Balboa Park, closing the bridge severely congests streets in Hillcrest, North Park, Burlingame and Golden Hill.

In addition, bridge closure degrades access for visitors to many of the institutions, which require nearby drop-off areas for their many patrons who are unable to walk great distances. These institutions — including the Museum of Man, Old Globe Theater, Mingei International Museum, Museum of Art and Timken Museum — all strongly favor the approved plan.

Finally, closing the bridge without a bypass virtually eliminates plans to improve the parking lot behind the Alcazar Gardens into a drop-off for those unable to walk great distances, as well as the park’s primary disabled parking lot and valet staging area. Without the bypass bridge, this lot is guaranteed to remain a congested, poorly functioning cul-de-sac — doubling the amount of traffic in the park south of the Alcazar lot.


Does this project ruin the historic, iconic view of the Cabrillo Bridge or California Quadrangle?

No, it does not. The project’s sole impact on the Cabrillo Bridge is a conversion of 70 feet, — out of 3,000 feet total length — of concrete railing from the road at the east end of the bridge. This portion is not even actually on the bridge, but on the abutment land at its end. The resulting benefit however, is the routing of cars from the center of the park and restoration of the Plaza de Panama, Plaza de California, West El Prado and Esplanade to their historically intended pedestrian uses.

The view opponents claim would be “violated” has been screened for more than 75 years by trees planted by the architect of the Exposition, including the building in the “iconic” view. These trees have obstructed the view in question since at least 1935, and there has never been controversy over this fact, nor have there been plans to remove the trees.

The bypass bridge will not affect the views of the Cabrillo Bridge to those traveling on Highway 163, nor will it be visible to anyone traveling on the Cabrillo Bridge until they’re near the Museum of Man. While there are minor changes to the Cabrillo Bridge, the pining for a view that has not existed for 75 years is simply a distraction.


Will the bypass road encroach on Palm Canyon or the Alcazar Gardens?

No — and this is the most erroneous claim of them all. The bypass road is designed to leave both of these beloved park spaces completely intact.

The Alcazar Gardens benefits greatly from the removal of traffic along El Prado, while cars coming from the bypass bridge will remain at the same distance from the gardens as the parking lot is now. In fact, Alcazar Gardens should be quieter with cars no longer allowed on El Prado.

The planned extension of the walking bridge around the rim of Palm Canyon greatly enhances the access and visitor experience of Palm Canyon, which now is largely inaccessible.


Won’t a paid parking lot be the start of charging for parking throughout the park?

No. The underground parking lot behind the Organ Pavilion — which has been part of the plans for the park for decades — will be bond-funded, with parking proceeds used to service the bond. It is not — and cannot legally be — a revenue generator for the city’s general use, because parking fees collected in the park may only fund parking and traffic improvements within Balboa Park.

The reality is, even including this 800-space underground parking garage, 80 percent of the parking within the Balboa Park remains free.


Why are we adding parking when future generations will be riding their bikes and taking public transit to reach the park?

Balboa Park serves more than 12 million visitors each year from all around the county, and the vast majority of them arrive by car. There are no plans in the foreseeable future to serve the entire region with adequate mass transit to replace the need for vehicular access or proximate parking. However, should the need for convenient automobile parking become so greatly reduced in future decades that thousands of spaces go unclaimed, the park can convert surface lots at a relatively low cost.


Will the park tram continue to operate?

Yes — and in fact, it’s expected to function far better than it does currently. The tram was designed to operate in the post-vehicle park to provide transport from Inspiration Point to the park’s core and around the park for those with limited mobility. Right now, the tram competes with cars. Once that’s no longer the case, the tram will operate far more efficiently.


Won’t this project add more cars to the center of the park?

No. The center or core of Balboa Park is the main east-west spine of El Prado. This is where the vast majority of institutions are located and home to the oldest and most historic buildings, plazas and gardens. The El Prado zone is also Balboa Park’s first and most important National Historic Landmark District, which is only highlighted more by this project. The bypass road and Organ Pavilion parking structure remove cars from these areas, allowing pedestrians to enjoy a car-free experience in the center of the park, from the arch at the end of the Cabrillo Bridge all the way to the beyond the Organ Pavilion. It is easier to navigate and much safer for every Park guest.


What will happen to the international cottages under the new plan? Will they be more difficult to access or isolated from the newly created pedestrian areas?

Access to the International Cottages is greatly improved under the Plaza de Panama project; they will be better integrated into the pedestrian experience.

The project converts the vehicle-heavy Pan American Road into an exclusively pedestrian promenade, with a 150-foot pedestrian connection to the Organ Pavilion instead of a busy road, which now separates the two attractions. The road leading into the parking garage will be a grade-separated, dedicated roadway completely separate from the pedestrian space connecting the cottages to the Organ Pavilion and new park behind it. The rooftop park over the parking garage is at the Cottages’ same level.


Won't this plan make it harder for people with disabilities?

No; in fact, it greatly enhances disabled access. When former Mayor Bob Filner painted over the parking spaces in the Plaza de Panama, he did so without a plan that considered the needs of the disabled nor any review or input from the disabled community. As a result, the current disabled parking is far from the core of the park. Under the Plaza de Panama project, the Alcazar parking lot improvements include a drop-off and valet-loading zone along with with several dozen disabled spaces in a re-graded, ADA-compliant lot close to the core of the park. That’s why the project enjoys the staunch support of the Mayor’s Committee on Disability.


Why hasn't the city considered other plans? Why not build a garage on the west side of the bridge or use the other bridge over 163 to the north to enter the park?

The city considered nearly two dozen alternatives, but ruled them out for reasons of cost, practicality, traffic flow, environmental sensitivity and other reasons. The Environmental Impact Report for the project considered 21 alternatives, including a full analysis of 13 alternatives, making it one of the most robust EIRs ever undertaken for any city project. The project that the City Council approved in 2012 is considered superior to any of the alternatives.


What about the zoo's new parking garage? Didn't that already add enough parking?

No. While it freed up more parking for San Diego Zoo guests, the new employee-only structure did not free up sufficient parking for visitors to other parts of the park. Additional parking for zoo employees also does not satisfy the core goal of the Plaza de Panama project: removing autos from spaces in the heart of the park — which were spaces originally designed to be pedestrian-only — while maintaining access from the west and adding parking proximate to the park’s core.


Why is the city letting private citizens dictate a plan for the park?

This plan was developed by the city of San Diego and continues as a city project. The City Council approved the Plaza de Panama by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. It’s also now in the park’s Master Plan. The design was informed and refined by thousands of private citizens through more than 250 public meetings, as any significant project — whether public or private — must in order to receive broad support and secure City Council approval. Then-Mayor Jerry Sanders invited participation from talented citizens to join the city’s effort and create a planning committee to assist, including the creation of a public-private funding plan with significant philanthropic funding. Nonetheless, this project is a city of San Diego initiative.


Given the major deferred maintenance needs in the park, shouldn't the city spend its money on that first?

It’s not either/or. We can build this project and also simultaneously address the deferred maintenance in the park. Mayor Kevin Faulconer has identified a voter-approved funding stream for regional parks that will be leveraged separately to address the park’s maintenance backlog. In addition, this project is likely to encourage more philanthropic giving for park needs by improving accessibility for millions and optimizing the park’s use. It highlights the greatness of our region’s crown jewel and is projected to generate much more interest in the future to further beautify the park and encourage even more accessibility, traffic and parking options.


We are incredibly excited to see the Plaza de Panama Project advance and look forward to the restoration of San Diego’s crown jewel.

You can see some of the visionary concept designs here

We’d love to hear from you! Please tell us what excites you most about the project by taking a brief survey.


Website design and programming, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.