A controversial plan to ban vehicles from the center of Balboa Park was unanimously endorsed Thursday by the city of San Diego's Planning Commission.
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Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs funded development of the $45 million plan, which envisions a 405-foot-long bypass bridge to take traffic away from the Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California, along with construction of an underground 822-space parking garage near the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
With the 7-0 vote, the commission recommended the project's passage to the City Council, which will make the final decision next month.
The basic idea of getting rid of cars from the center of the park to make it more pedestrian-friendly is almost universally accepted but, for opponents who overflowed the Council Chamber in the City Administration Building, the devil is in the details, especially when it comes to what would be called the Centennial Bridge.
Leaders of the group Save Our Heritage Organisation say the new structure would destroy the beauty of the west side of the park and traffic changes would disrupt the peaceful atmosphere of the Alcazar Gardens. Others question plans to charge for parking in the new structure, which they worry could become a financial liability for the city.
Bruce Coons, the head of SOHO, called the Plaza de Panama plan "elective surgery" with bad trade-offs.
Bill Lewis, an architect who designed a competing proposal, said the parking garage should be under the plazas so that patrons will be close to museums on the prado, some of which would struggle if parking was far away.
"We think there's a better way of doing it -- we think there is a more cost-effective way of doing it," Lewis said.
Jacobs said a "tremendous amount of work" has gone into development of the proposal and study of nearly two dozen alternatives over the past two years. Most of the other plans weren't feasible or failed to meet project goals, he said.
"The Plaza de Panama project was carefully designed to allow for the reclamation of the park, while at the same time maintaining convenient public access," Jacobs said.
"The Centennial Bridge will be a new structure in Balboa Park and thus has historic impact, but the benefits the project will realize -- beautiful open plazas activated with people, increased parking and access, and dramatically reduced conflicts between cars and people -- justify the addition of this bridge," Jacobs said.
He said his plan gives the best balance of any of the proposals and it is supported by park institutions and the tourism industry.
"Every plan for Balboa Park in the last 50 years has had a goal of returning the park to the people -- and nothing has been done," Jacobs said. "We now have a chance to accomplish this goal."
Commission Chairman Eric Naslund noted the mix of vehicles and pedestrians in the plazas and said it was "unbelievably to me how it even got that way."
He said he would reluctantly accept the bypass bridge in order to take advantage of the project's benefits.
Supporters of the plan hope to have the changes to the park implemented in time for the 100-year anniversary of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
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