The Give-and-Take of 2 Public Projects

It ain't over till it's over.

Two important architecture and planning issues are changing shape as new information emerges and people take sides.

A proposed plan for the neglected 620-acre East Mesa in Balboa Park has received angry criticism since it was released in April. Most of the criticism focuses on a proposed North Park entry plaza at the park's northeastern corner that would require realigning Pershing Drive.

The city Park and Recreation Department's Balboa Park Committee, the first city agency to consider the plan as it works it way up to the City Council, is set to hear from the public Monday.

On another front, the Coronado Historical Assn. has gained new ammunition in its battle to prevent the city from tearing down the historic Babcock Court bungalow apartments at Orange Avenue and Seventh Street to make way for a new police station.

The East Mesa Precise Plan was prepared by a team of consultants led by land planners Wallace Roberts & Todd of San Diego. It marks the first time a detailed plan for this sizable chunk of Balboa Park has been mapped out in detail.

Running more than 200 pages, the plan proposes a logical arrangement of new, relocated and existing uses on the East Mesa, now a rolling terrain that also includes tennis courts, a golf course, the velodrome and the unsightly Arizona Landfill. The East Mesa is bounded by Upas, 28th and Russ Streets and Park Boulevard.

Among the plan's priorities: returning Florida Canyon to a near-natural state, adding recreation facilities at Morley Field, and walkways, picnic and play areas at the park's eastern edge, which would serve residents of nearby neighborhoods.

Overall, the plan is thoughtfully conceived, but the proposed realignment of some streets has nearby residents worried about increased traffic, and they have other concerns as well.

The northeastern corner of the park is the focus of most of the criticism.

The plan calls for a reconfiguration of the five-way intersection at Upas and 28th Streets into a safer, more orderly, four-way intersection. Busy Pershing Drive would be realigned to connect directly with Pershing Avenue, a smaller neighborhood street. Nearby Jacaranda Lane would be closed, as would a section of Florida Drive.

Concerned that these changes--especially the realignment of Pershing Drive--would increase traffic along Pershing Avenue, about 90 homeowners formed the North Park/Morley Field Safe Neighborhood Committee.

On May 4 the residents were able to persuade the park committee to put off a decision until city traffic engineers take a look.

"The bottom line is, (the city) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to propose a plan, one of whose primary features is to change the traffic circulation in the park, without consulting with the traffic department," said Scott Ehrlich, a Pershing Avenue resident and spokesman for the neighborhood group.

Because the Balboa Park Master Plan, adopted by the city in 1989, did not mention realigning Pershing Drive, Ehrlich thinks Wallace Roberts & Todd overstepped its bounds by proposing the road changes and new plaza.

"They did all of this so they could have a pretty landscape plaza on the corner," Ehrlich griped. "That's the only justification I've been given."

Laura Burnett, staff planner and landscape architect at Wallace Roberts & Todd, said the realignment was to correct what was seen as a confusing intersection that awkwardly handled pedestrians and cars.

Wallace Roberts & Todd had some community input during the design process. Before beginning work on the new Precise Plan, the city gave the planning consultants a collection of suggestions from a coalition of Balboa Park interest groups including community planning groups from North Park and Golden Hill.

The document, Burnett said, specifically suggested realigning Pershing Drive and making 28th and Upas Streets a four-way stop with lights. Gary Halbert, a city traffic engineer, said a city study indicates that the proposed realignment would have a minimal effect on traffic on Pershing Avenue.

Other criticisms of the plan also have surfaced.

Carol Landesman, a Golden Hill resident and member of the Balboa Park Committee, is concerned about landscaping the 60-acre Arizona Landfill with native grasses that would be kept four to six inches high. Landesman and others think the grasses would be brown most of the time and would not make a usable recreational surface. The area is in the center of the East Mesa.

Landesman's other complaints range from the proposed planting of eucalyptus (she'd prefer a different species) to the installation of asphalt pedestrian and bike trails (she doesn't think they'll look good in the natural setting) to public art proposed by artists Christine Oatman and Richard Posner (Landesman wants more details).

Ehrlich questioned putting a children's play areas and picnic tables on the edge of East Mesa, keeping the mesa interior as open space. He said residents are concerned that weekend visitors to these areas would alter the character of nearby neighborhoods.

But, as Burnett pointed out, the new facilities are intended primarily for nearby residents. Most visitors will continue to flock the center of Balboa Park, where museums are concentrated.

Despite the criticisms, the Precise Plan is the first and only thorough effort at planning for the future of East Mesa. The proposed mix of recreation facilities and open space, the way public spaces would tie to surrounding streets and to the heart of the park, and the plan's respect for East Mesa's natural terrain, including Florida Canyon are pluses that far outweigh minor flaws that can be corrected in the weeks ahead.

The plan should reach San Diego City Council for consideration by fall.

Over in Coronado, historic preservationists are fighting a different proposal, and they have much greater cause for alarm.

The Babcock Court apartments, including 10 tiny cottages, are one of only two known courtyard groupings of detached apartments in Coronado. The one-story, white stucco buildings with tile roofs were completed in 1922.

First as apartments, later as a hotel, the grouping offered residents a friendly, outdoors-oriented social environment at modest cost. They are symbols of an earlier Southern California era. Even today, although they are vacant, their quaint, well-proportioned Mediterranean revival exterior adds a distinguished historical flavor to a growing, changing city.

The city purchased Babcock Court in 1973 and is now considering using it, together with a larger lot it owns next door, for a new police station. Next Tuesday, Coronadans will vote on an ill-conceived ballot measure regarding Babcock Court's future.

The measure, put on the ballot by the city, calls for an unspecified amount over $500,000 to be spent on refurbishing the property for an unspecified use.

One unmentioned issue caught in the middle is property rights. Many Coronadans fear "historic" designations will limit what they can do with their property, and many won't be prone to supporting this vague measure.

In its move to tear the buildings down, the city last year commissioned a structural report that found the buildings unsafe. The city then evicted tenants and said the cost of restoring the buildings would be prohibitive--more than $1 million.

But in March, State Historic Building Safety Board members inspected the property at the request of the Coronado Historical Assn. They found that, contrary to the city's report, that Babcock Court was not unsafe.

In April, the buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the only Coronado listing besides the Hotel del Coronado.

Earlier this month, the city received an initial environmental impact report, prepared by Recon, a San Diego consulting firm, that found the buildings historically significant. It also determined that for $550,000 to $650,000--far less than the city's estimate--the property could be restored and used either for residential or commercial purposes.

Despite growing evidence in favor of Babcock Court's historic value, Coronado Mayor Mary Herron remains uncommitted to saving the buildings.

"I think it will come down to economics," she said. "We'll have to assess what best serves the public--whether to keep it and utilize it in some way, or to find space for public facilities."

Added City Manager Homer Bludau: "The question for me is, is that the best use of the property? I really doubt $600,000 or $700,000 would be the total cost of refurbishing." Bludau said the cost of acquiring a replacement lot could run as high as $1.5 million.

If next Tuesday's measure fails, city officials should not take that as a sign that voters don't want to save the building. Coronadans may well favor some kind of specific proposal with a finite price tag and potential funding sources.

Regardless of the outcome of next Tuesday's vote, city officials should come to their senses and do all they can to restore and sensibly reuse these vital historic buildings. If they pushed for saving Babcock Court instead of acting doubtful about the property's merits, some of Coronado's citizens might well rally their financial resources behind the cause.

Anyway, the significant contribution Babcock Court could make to the urban fabric of Coronado over the next 50 to 100 years can't be measured in dollars and cents. The city's decision could influence future decisions that could make or break the city's architectural character for years to come.

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