The most controversial decision in the San Diego City Council since the Chargers ticket guarantee finally came to a head last night at around 9:30 pm, and when the council had completed its vote, the Irwin Jacobs plan to transform Balboa Park had its official go ahead. The $45 million plan to eliminate vehicle traffic from the Plaza de Panama, build the “Centennial Bridge” that will circumvent the centerpiece of the park itself, and lead into a brand spanking new $16 million parking structure that will introduce paid parking into Balboa Park for the first time in the park’s history now has the formal approval of the City Council.
Despite overwhelming public opposition to the perceived privatization of San Diego’s crown jewel, the City Council voted 6-1 to approve the plan pushed by the billionaire founder of Qualcomm, the eighth largest employer in San Diego, with even the council’s most liberal members giving the plan the green light. Todd Gloria, Marti Emerald, and David Alvarez shocked opponents of the project by joining Carl DeMaio, Lorie Zapf, and Kevin Faulconer in voting ‘Yes.’ Sherri Lightner, criticized by many San Diego Democrats for being too conservative, was the lone ‘No’ vote. Council President Tony Young was out of town, but word in the chamber was that he would have joined the majority in voting ‘Yes.’
An overflow crowd gathered to weigh in on the most contentious issue to come before the City Council in recent memory, with a line of anxious residents still extending outside the door when Council President Pro Tem Kevin Faulconer called the meeting to order at 2pm. Local dignitaries gathered inside the Council Chambers to lend their voice to the debate: NBA Hall of Famer and native San Diegan Bill Walton, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis joining Dr. Jacobs and Mayor Jerry Sanders in support of the project that Jacobs has spearheaded from the beginning; Congressman Bob Filner and former City Attorney Mike Aguirre denouncing the plan. Seven and a half hours later, Dr. Jacobs’ efforts were validated.
Few in the chamber had any argument with proponents’ desire to remove vehicle traffic from the Plaza de Panama, the main entryway from the western side of Balboa Park and the center point of the park’s museums and main access point for the Old Globe Theater, and open it to pedestrian traffic only. Rather, the manner in which the Plaza de Panama Committee proposed accomplishing this goal was in dispute.
But the most contentious aspect of the committee’s plan was the paid parking structure that would be located just to the south of the Organ Pavilion.
The park has always been, and has always intended to be, free and open to the public, a public asset owned and operated fully by the citizens of San Diego and to be enjoyed by all. There has never been a charge for public access, and now for the first time the public will be assessed a fee to park their cars.
On the surface it doesn’t sound like a terribly unreasonable proposal. As Mayor Sanders pointed out, over 80 percent of the parking spaces available to visitors will remain free of charge, and only the new three story structure will require a fee. To opponents of the plan, even that remains unacceptable.
At a projected cost of just over $14 million, with an additional $2.5 million in financing to cover the first three years of debt service, the city will be required to issue lease revenue bonds to build the 797 space, three story parking structure that is estimated to yield an additional 260 parking spaces for Balboa Park and will include 6.3 acres of open space park on the structure’s roof (similar in concept to the Sports Deck at San Diego State University).
According to the real estate advisory firm Keyser Marston, the parking structure will generate an estimated $1.3 million, which will more than cover the $1.1 million in debt service the city will be responsible for. Those figures include income from visitor parking, special events, valet parking, and $60,000 per year in fees generated from monthly parking (more on that in a minute). The firm also factored in operating expenses for the garage and the new and improved free tram service that will operate throughout the park.
The city’s Independent Budget Analyst, however, disagrees. Those projections are overly optimistic, they say, despite the insistence by plan supporters that the revenue calculations are extremely conservative. Any shortcomings in revenues from parking fees will have to be covered out of the city’s general fund, leaving the taxpayers of San Diego on the hook for a project that opponents say is unnecessary to begin with.
The Keyser Marston report, the IBA states, did not account for the availability of nearly 1,260 spaces at Inspiration Point, nor did they include the San Diego Zoo parking lot just to the north. The Keyser Marston study also assumes the sale of 100 monthly passes at $50 each to museum and park employees, which seems farcical but was deemed an acceptable conclusion by the IBA. Taking into consideration these and other revised assumptions, including security and maintenance costs for the parking garage which the Keyser Marston study did not include, the IBA projects a potential operating deficit of $968,000, all of which would have to come out of the city’s general fund. (See the IBA report here.)
Plan proponents seem to think that park visitors will happily fork over the $5 for five hours to park their cars when there are other free options nearby, an assumption that is simply ludicrous on its face.
Tensions on both sides
It looked like the fix was in, despite opponents of the Jacobs plan heavily outnumbering supporters among those gathered in the City Council Chambers and in the two overflow rooms. City Clerk Liz Maland opened the public comment period with 16 straight speakers in favor of the plan before finally allowing six opponents to voice their view. She then yielded the speakers lectern back to proponents. To those watching on cable TV or via webcast, it wouldn’t become clear until after the 6pm break that the overwhelming majority of speakers were there to urge the council to vote ‘No.’
There were heated charges levied from both sides of the issue. Save Our Heritage Organisation Executive Director Bruce Coons did his cause no favors when he admonished the City Council to “show some leadership for once in your life,” repeatedly denigrating council members and supporters of the project. Dan Soderberg, vice president of SOHO, complained that the project “has been nothing but autocratic and divisive,” while also accusing that “the City Council has not protected the public’s right to participation.” They were crass and abrasive, and probably did more harm to the opposition’s cause than good.
Coons also drew the ire of City Councilperson Lorie Zapf for his assertion that the Plaza de Panama project will ultimately lead the council to eventually make all parking in Balboa Park paid parking. Zapf accused the activist of making false and misleading statements, noting that there are no such intentions. She is correct, however, Coons’ larger point was that since in his view there would be only a limited demand for spaces in the parking structure, the City Council would ultimately be compelled to institute paid parking elsewhere in the park in order to make up for the revenue shortfall.
Several commenters raised the specter of the five story garage built with public funds in North Park, a structure operating at a loss for the city.
SOHO’s Susan Brandt Hawley was far more eloquent, making several arguments about the legality of the project, including that the plan violates the City Municipal Code in that voting against the plan would not bring irreparable financial harm to the property’s owner (the city). “Developers want to do what they want to do,” she said, noting that in her opinion Jacobs was in effect holding the city hostage since he would be willing to donate for the plan he spearheaded and that plan only.
“Giving away $25 million shouldn’t be this hard,” Jerry Sanders told the audience. “The opposition had plenty of time to get their act together,” he said, and urged the City Council “to summon your own courage and leadership” and support the project.
“This is what we need for our future,” said DA Bonnie Dumanis.
“In my opinion what you have before you is a world class opportunity and a gift that’s been carefully thought out, with millions of dollars being spent in the face of great opposition and adversity, and at this point with no expectations in return for that,” snooted Dean Oliver, a member of the Plaza de Panama Committee. “Please don’t be distracted today,” he told the council in an arrogant and pretentious tone, “by those who in reality have no true achievable dreams for greatness for Balboa Park.” (Watch the video if you haven’t seen it. Oliver’s remarks come at about the 1:07:00 mark. The air of superiority is really quite astonishing.)
“My predecessor as mayor,” joked Congressman Bob Filner, “I heard when he first started, said we’ve finally got to the point of getting cars out of Balboa Park.”
“We passed the Master Plan 23 years ago, and it did just that,” he said referring to his time on the San Diego City Council. “I don’t think it’s responsible for a public body to depend on financing for a major project on the philanthropy of a single person, no matter how great, how distinguished, and how much we love him.”
“And, as the Independent Budget Analyst pointed out, there’s virtually no confidence that the paid financing will meet the bond issue,” Filner said.
Mike Aguirre, as he is wont to do, provided perhaps the most cringe worthy moment of the afternoon, saying “We cannot allow a plutocrat to control the government,” and accused the City Council of being under the complete control of Irwin Jacobs.
Among the most striking things to come out of the comments was the complete lack of a compelling reason to support the Jacobs plan specifically. Supporters spoke of the “world class opportunity” in front of us, and the incredible generosity of the benefactors, with one staffer from the City Manager’s office insisting that it would be fiscally irresponsible to turn down the $25 million gift regardless of the merits of the project or its shortcomings.
Proponents spoke of the need to “restore Balboa Park” and eliminate vehicular traffic from the Plaza de Panama. But none could justify the need for paid parking, and none could specify why the Jacobs plan was the far superior alternative. It is more elaborate and far more costly, and has the potential to drastically alter Balboa Park as we know it today, but no one could offer a single convincing rationale in favor of it. They could merely offer that more time and money ($5 million) had been invested in it, and that no other alternatives had been so vetted. There’s a reason for that.
In the end it didn’t matter. The City Council had made up its mind long ago, and they chose to accept Dr. Jacobs’ gift along with his stipulations for giving it.
Former City Council President and candidate for Congress in the 52nd District Scott Peters issued the following statement:
I congratulate the Mayor and City Council and the citizens who’ve worked hard to come up with a plan to improve the walkability of Balboa Park. The park is a tremendous historic resource, but it was built when our city was much smaller. The Plan adopted maintains the Park’s cultural integrity while also making it more accessible to the residents of our growing region. The dozens of institutions within the park rely on foot traffic to survive, and this plan will help them significantly.”
San Diego is fortunate to have philanthropists like the Jacobs who are so generous with their resources and their time, and dedicated to making our city a better place.
Correction: This post has been updated to attribute comments made by Dan Soderberg that were originally credited to Bruce Coons.