Proponents give up on controversial plan to place observation wheel in Balboa Park

A conceptual rendering of the Balboa Park Star.
A conceptual rendering of the proposed 148-foot-tall observation wheel, to be known as the Balboa Park Star, in location at Balboa Park.
(City of San Diego)

A plan to temporarily place an observation wheel in Balboa Park has been abandoned by proponents who are pointing to city bureaucracy and a vocal opposition group as insurmountable roadblocks.

“Regretfully, four months into this journey and after many hours dedicated to community outreach and responding to the city’s endless list of project action items, we’ve decided to walk away from the Balboa Park Star,” proponents said in a statement.

The brainchild of David Cohn of the Cohn Restaurant Group, the so-called Balboa Park Star was intended as a pandemic-friendly activity that could promote more foot traffic in the park at a time when many of its other attractions — museums and restaurants — have limited or ceased their operations because of state and county regulations.


Cohn, who operates the currently closed Prado restaurant, teamed with would-be operator Sky Views of America in the fall to advocate for a short-term installation of a 148-foot-tall observation wheel in the park’s Plaza de Panama. The restaurateur also wanted to offer visitors a food and beverage experience inside the wheel’s climate-controlled gondolas.

In December, after the Balboa Park Star team had received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration and worked with other park groups to assuage concerns, the wheel concept was preliminarily approved by the city’s official park advisory group, the Balboa Park Committee. At the time, the city Park and Recreation Department said that additional factors would need to be considered before determining the wheel’s feasibility. It was unclear whether the wheel would have required approval by the City Council.

“The proposal was supported by the Balboa Park Committee with the understanding that additional diligence would be needed given the complexities of putting an observation wheel in the heart of San Diego’s crown jewel,” said Tim Graham, a city spokesman. “The city was clear and transparent about the health, safety and operational considerations required, but the expedited timeline proposed didn’t provide adequate time to perform this work.”

The proponents decided to regroup after a Jan. 6 review of the effort by the design subcommittee of the city’s Historical Resources Board, said Molly Bowman-Styles, president of Windansea Communications and a member of the Balboa Park Star team. Bowman-Styles and Ben Pickett, vice president of Sky Views of America, said the eventual decision to pull the plug on the Balboa Park Star was predicated on two reasons.

“No. 1, the number of bureaucratic hurdles we were expected to cross made it virtually impossible to secure the city’s approval for a temporary attraction in Balboa Park,” the pair said in a joint statement. “We had hoped the city would view our project as another opportunity to lend a helping hand to businesses and nonprofits struggling for survival during the pandemic. But that was not the case.

“No. 2, the efforts of a small but vocal group of San Diegans who, instead of responding to our offers to meet with us to discuss the project, resorted to attacking it — and by extension, the Cohn restaurant family — from their self-described position as defenders of a public park that belongs to all San Diegans.”


The opposition effort was spearheaded by David Lundin, president of the Balboa Park Heritage Assn. Lundin’s online petition against what it called the “for-profit Ferris wheel,” has been signed by more than 3,795 people.

“Balboa Park Heritage Assn. opposed this proposal as it is a wholly inappropriate use of the public’s dedicated park lands for private profit,” Lundin said. “Hopefully this misguided proposal is dead, and not merely suspended. Should the Cohn Restaurant Group renew its proposed commercial privatization of the Plaza de Panama, we will again oppose that inappropriate use.”

Van Grove writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.