Council Backs Blueprint for Balboa Park's Future

Times Staff Writer

Capping years of sometimes bitter discussion, the San Diego City Council on Monday gave conceptual approval to a new Balboa Park master plan that restricts the flow of automobiles into the park while converting 4 acres of parking into a pedestrian mall.

At the same time, the master plan approved by the council would guarantee parking for museum and theater patrons by building a 1,000-space underground parking garage near the Organ Pavilion.

Council members endorsed the plan shortly after a separate vote that approved a 1% increase in the city's hotel tax to finance $45 million in much-needed renovation of Balboa Park buildings, among other projects.

Mayor Calls It 'A Grand Day'

"This is a grand day for Balboa Park," said Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who has been searching for a way to pay for the park improvements since November, when San Diego voters narrowly defeated two bond proposals--one for $93.5 million, the other for $73.9 million--to renovate Balboa and Mission Bay parks.

"Not only are we adopting a master plan, but this council has just approved the financing for $45 million in improvements," O'Connor said.

Eight years in the making, the master plan tries to strike a balance between the sometimes conflicting demands of pedestrians and cars in the 1,100-acre park.

Purists have encouraged the city to close Balboa Park altogether to automobile traffic, especially on the Cabrillo Bridge. Considered the ceremonial entrance to the park, the bridge spans California 163 and offers a striking view of San Diego Bay and the downtown skyline, but it is known for its uneasy mix of joggers, pedestrians and cars.

Museum Backers Voice Concern

Museum backers, however, have argued against closing the bridge because it may hurt the financial health of the park's cultural institutions.

Councilman Bob Filner, whose district includes the park, said a compromise was achieved in the latest version of the master plan by keeping the bridge open, but restricting traffic and moving parking spaces.

"The basic objective, where automobile and pedestrian conflicts are removed, has been achieved," Filner said.

The master plan calls for traffic to flow only in-bound on the bridge during the day, with two-way traffic permitted at night, when pedestrian use of the park is lighter. It also calls for the city to consider closing the bridge altogether if more off-site parking can be found and shuttle service into the park proves effective.

The plan also eliminates 4 acres of parking by making a pedestrian mall out of the 123 spaces at the Prado and 296 spaces near the Palisades area, which includes the Aerospace Museum and the municipal gym. City officials said the conversion of the mall, which would remain a hard surface but include extensive landscaping, is meant to recover some of the usable open space in the park.

To replace the lost parking spaces, the master plan calls for an underground parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion. The parking garage would be no bigger than the existing 387-space open parking lot behind the Pavilion, but would be landscaped on top.

At 1,000 spaces, the underground lot would represent a net gain of 194 parking spaces over those lost to the pedestrian mall and landscaping, city officials said. The garage would also be close enough for museum and theater patrons to park, they said.

Specifics of the master plan will be worked out by city officials over the next six months to a year.

A Financial Boost

The good-will that went along with passing the master plan carried over Monday to the financial considerations.

Council members approved a 1% increase in the city's hotel tax, which will go into effect next June, shortly before the waterfront convention center is opened. The increase raises the hotel tax, used to fund tourist-related activities and the arts, to 9%.

That increase, combined with a 1% increase in the tax voted by council members in June, means that the city will have an extra $8.2 million each year starting in 1990. Council members voted Monday to set aside $3.8 million of that to start paying off the $45 million borrowed by the city to shore up aging buildings in Balboa Park.

Among the improvements paid for by the $45 million would be the parking garage; construction of a Japanese garden, and reconstruction of the House of Hospitality and the House of Charm.

The city turned to the hotel tax after voters narrowly defeated a pair of bond measures aimed at pumping money into both Balboa and Mission Bay parks. The smaller of the bond measures called for $73.9 million in renovation money and garnered 61.4% of the vote; two-thirds, or 66%, was necessary for passage.

Despite the defeat, O'Connor said the majority of voters want the renovations, and she urged council members to find some other way to pay for them.

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