Balboa Park’s South Palisades parking lot will become a public plaza

A 144-space lot near the San Diego Air & Space Museum will be converted into a pedestrian zone starting in April


A Balboa Park project seeking to reclaim a parking lot for parkland is moving forward. That’s despite concerns around losing a considerable number of spaces near museums and attractions at the southern end of the city’s so-called crown jewel.

City Council members voted unanimously Monday to spend $600,000 on the first phase of what’s known as the Palisades project. The project will see the existing asphalt area in front of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, known as the South Palisades parking lot, replaced with turf, landscaping, enhanced lighting and an improved tram stop with nearby spaces for the disabled.

The North Palisades will remain and be repaved. Still, park goers will lose access to 144 conveniently located parking spots.

The new Palisades plaza, which might eventually also feature a water fountain that respects the area’s 1935 origins, will work to revitalize the Palisades and make it more welcoming to visitors, said Councilman Chris Ward, whose district includes Balboa Park.

Envisioned in Balboa Park’s 1989 master plan, the plaza project will return the South Palisades lot to its original, pedestrian-driven purpose. The reclamation effort has been championed for years by the preservation-driven nonprofit, The Committee of One Hundred. However, the endeavor only recently became viable when the larger scale Plaza de Panama project collapsed, freeing up millions in city funds.

In June, City Council approved a $1.2 million budget allocation for initial work related to the pedestrian plaza. The allocated money covers $600,000 in work to be performed by city forces. Another $600,000 can be used to hire an outside contractor, although one has not been selected. The fountain, proposed for the center of the plaza and depicted in a rendering shown to council members, has not been funded and will not be completed during the first phase of work.

Although councilmen Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman, a mayoral candidate, OK’d the city’s funding request, they were disappointed in the loss of popular parking spaces.

“I think I’ll be reluctantly supportive today,” Sherman said. “But I hope this spurs a final solution to put more parking in the park.”

City staff will be on the hook to re-stripe the South Carousel Lot near the San Diego Zoo and the Inspiration Point South lot east of Park Boulevard, said Andrew Field, who is director of the parks and recreation department. The effort will result in a net loss of just 13 spaces, he said.

Still, a handful of public speakers opposed the public plaza, noting that park parking is already limited and that the city still needs to address mounting building maintenance costs.

“To spend money to decorate and landscape the Palisades lot ... is a misallocation of funds,” said Robert Swanson, a former director of the San Diego Automotive Museum.

Work on the Palisades project is set to begin in April and take around 15 weeks to complete, Field said.

The council’s action comes amid a parallel effort, recently orchestrated by the city’s Balboa Park advisory group, to craft a 10-year vision for the local landmark that better addresses immediate and future priorities.