Observation wheel in San Diego’s Balboa Park wins preliminary approval

A conceptual rendering shows the proposed observation wheel in Balboa Park's central Plaza de Panama.
(City of San Diego)

A plan to temporarily place a 148-foot-high observation wheel in the middle of San Diego’s Balboa Park has received the support of the city’s park advisory group.

The Balboa Park Committee voted 7-1 Thursday night in favor of the short-term attraction, or what’s being called the Balboa Park Star, with one member abstaining. The vote marks an important first step in erecting the temporary park ride.

“The Park and Recreation Department has identified a number of potential operational impacts that must be contemplated in order to fully appreciate the feasibility of this project,” said Christina Chadwick, the city’s assistant deputy director for the parks department. “Given the committee’s conceptual approval tonight, we will now be moving forward with the goal of getting this installation up and running on a temporary basis.”


First pitched by David and Leslie Cohn of the Cohn Restaurant Group and operator Sky Views of America in October, the Balboa Park Star is intended as a pandemic-friendly activity to help revitalize the heart of the park, which has seen crowds wane amid varying state and county regulations.

The plan calls for Sky Views of America to erect the company’s 148-foot observation wheel, the R50 XL, in the Plaza de Panama near the San Diego Museum of Art for three to six months. Cohn, who operates the Prado restaurant, also intends to offer visitors food and beverages inside the ride’s 36 climate-controlled gondolas.

Ticket prices would likely run around $16 per person, with potential discounts available to families, seniors and members of the military. The proponents have also suggested a revenue-sharing approach with the city, offering to contribute $1 per ticket to a park fund.

“When we thought about this project and brought it to you in October, we honestly were naive and had no idea what we were facing ... but we think we’ve made great progress,” said David Cohn. The group, for instance, has received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, and has held frequent discussions with park institutions and stakeholders to alleviate their concerns.

The goal, Cohn said, remains to “bring some joy to San Diegans and bring something unusual to Balboa Park to reenergize the park as we hopefully come out of COVID-19.”

The proposal, although largely supported by committee members, received pushback during the public comment portion of the meeting. Commenters who submitted their letters in advance of the meeting objected to the size and purpose of the attraction, calling it an “eyesore” and “tacky.” Several voiced concerns that the ride would detract from the historic nature of the park.


But committee members mostly lauded Cohn for coming up with a creative way to reinvigorate Balboa Park. The one dissenting vote came from member Vicki Granowitz, who is also a San Diego planning commissioner.

“In a vacuum, I think it’s a wonderful idea and I applaud your creativity,” she said. “I think this is the wrong solution for the park and for the public at this time — for when it would be up and operating” in the spring and summer, she said. “I think the plaza needs to be for the public, and I think it sends a message that could be problematic for what we want to do in the future.”

The Balboa Park Star proposal still needs to be reviewed by the city attorney’s office and evaluated by the city’s historical resources board.

There is one other potential obstacle. State and county health officials must also sign off on operation of the observation wheel. This means that San Diego County must, at a minimum, maintain its standing in the state’s red tier, the second most restrictive level of its COVID-19 monitoring system.

Because of consistently high COVID-19 case rates, San Diego County is days away from potentially landing in the most restrictive purple tier.

Van Grove writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune