SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The San Diego City Council voted 6-1 Monday to approve a $45.3 million plan to remove vehicles from the center of Balboa Park following a lengthy showdown between its supporters and opponents.
The vote came after the council heard about 140 speakers both for and against the plan funded to this point by Irwin Jacobs, a co-founder of the semiconductor firm Qualcomm, and pushed by Mayor Jerry Sanders, who called it a once in a lifetime opportunity.
"We have to plan for the future," said Council President Pro Tem Kevin Faulconer. "Because if we get into a situation where we don't do that, we're shirking our responsibility to our children and future generations of San Diegans."
Jacobs said the project would fully achieve the required goal of removing cars from the plazas, accommodating visitors to the institutions and add more than 6.3 acres of car-free parkland.
Councilman Todd Gloria said the plan's benefits outweighed its costs.
"It does achieve a number of things that are important, specifically, eliminating what I think is a scar down the middle of the heart of Balboa Park, mainly the road and the parking lots in the Plaza de Panama," Gloria said.
"It takes an asphalt parking lot and turns it into a public park, which is what it should be."
Preservationists have no problem with the idea of making the Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California pedestrian-friendly.
However, they strongly oppose some of the details, including construction of a 405-foot bypass bridge to carry traffic around the center of the park, and building a 797-space underground parking garage in which drivers would have to pay $5 to stash their vehicle for five hours.
Councilwoman Sherri Lightner cast the dissenting vote, stating she opposed paid parking and the bypass bridge was intrusive and expensive.
"We all want to transform the heart of Balboa Park into a pedestrian friendly plaza. It's the how that has divided us," Lightner said.
Some opponents believe the so-called Centennial Bridge, near the western entrance to the park, will be an eyesore and destroy the historical significance of the area.
"We're going to take one of the most magnificent journeys that we have and offer visitors, and we're going to turn it into one of the worst possible journeys," said Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation.
Jacobs said the Centennial Bridge would allow the restoration of the Plaza de California to its historic appearance.
"The Centennial Bridge does impact the view of the side of the Museum of Man, but it is a view that is mostly hidden for the last 95 years due to the presence of a historic eucalyptus grove," Jacobs said.
Opponents also believe the parking structure is financially risky because drivers will probably seek out free parking elsewhere. Their argument was bolstered by a report issued Friday by the city's Independent Budget Analyst, which said financial projections might not materialize.
Supporters reject these contentions and hope to have the improvements in place in time for celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Balboa Park in 2015. A nonprofit group is attempting to raise about $31 million to pay for the project, while the city would contribute an additional $14 million with a bond to pay for the parking structure.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, who is running against Councilman Carl DeMaio to be the city's next mayor, said any delays could cause the park's centennial celebration to be marked with a hole behind the Spreckels Pavillion.
"Let's not destroy the historical integrity of Balboa Park under a promise that somehow something's going to happen before the centennial," Filner said.