Returning the Park to the People

Balboa Park is San Diego’s most treasured place. Built for the 1915 Panama California Exhibition and designed by New York architect Bertram Goodhue, the Spanish Colonial complex is now a National Historic Landmark District. Yet the core of the park, the original El Prado and Plaza de Panama, has been dominated by traffic and parking since 1918. It has been nearly 100 years since the plazas have been the “free and open parkland” promised in the original Spanish land grant that established the park.

Civitas has led three projects in the core of the park since 2004. First, a Land Use, Circulation and Parking Plan, then a Parking Management Plan, and now, the Plaza de Panama Plan. This project, funded by a private not-for-profit committee, will completely remove cars from the core of the park, establish free shuttle service and provide 800 parking spaces in a fully underground structure located at an existing surface parking lot. The project creates 6.3 acres of new parkland, reclaimed from cars and asphalt and made into a sustainable green park and plazas for people.

The project is perhaps the most publicly debated proposal in San Diego history, including a 4,000 page EIR that reviewed 27 alternatives. After 200 public meetings the project was approved by the City for construction, including the historic preservation, plaza and garden restoration, and the controversial new bridge that is required to route traffic around the core of the park. This bridge is the primary subject of the controversy, due to differing opinions on its impact to the historic composition of buildings and landscape. The project has been opposed through litigation which will eventually determine whether the project will be accomplished.

The gift of $45 million to the city of San Diego is the idea of local philanthropists Irwin and Joan Jacobs, who hope that their leadership and contribution will finally restore the park to is glory and end a debate about cars in the park that has been ongoing since 1955.

Client: Plaza de Panama Committee
Partners: KCM Group, Heritage Architecture,
Rick Engineering, Animate Digital Studio, Estrada Land
Planning Completed: 2017
Budget: $45 million
Location: San Diego