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Plaza de Panama History

The Plaza de Panama was originally built as a setting for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1916. With the exception of the California Building and Tower (Museum of Man), the Cabrillo Bridge, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and the Botanical Building, all of the buildings for the first Exposition were constructed to be temporary. There was no anticipation that the complex of buildings and public spaces would last as long as they have, or that they would support vehicle traffic.  The City Park Commission voted in 1918 to allow cars to use the Cabrillo Bridge, El Prado, the Plaza de California, the Plaza de Panama and the Esplanade. Until 1973, vehicles were allowed to use El Prado to connect from 6th Avenue all the way to Park Boulevard. 

In 1956 a citizen's task force was appointed by Mayor Dail to study many issues in the park including the deteriorating temporary buildings, congestion and parking.   The task force recommended in 1957 that El Prado and the plazas be closed to vehicle traffic by construction of a pair of bypass bridges connected to the Cabrillo Bridge just west of the entry arch to the Plaza de California.  The idea to provide one bypass bridge, on the north, became part of the Balboa Park Master Plan created by the consulting firm of Harland Bartholomew and approved by the City in 1960.

Since that time several additional studies have been undertaken, reviewed and approved. Many alternatives for removing cars from the core of the park have been studied and the issues have been discussed in many public meetings. Unfortunately, none of these proposals has ever been funded beyond the level of studies.  The most recent fully approved plan was the 1992 Central Mesa Precise Plan.  The 2004 Balboa Park Land Use, Circulation and Parking Plan was never approved and the subsequent Balboa Park Parking Management Plan was also never approved.  None of the recommendations of these plans have been implemented.

Is this the first time reclaiming the Plaza de Panama and parkland has been considered?

No. The City has undertaken numerous planning efforts in recent years, and has adopted official precise plans for the Park’s Central and East Mesas, in addition to a Park-wide Master Plan.  Moreover, because Balboa Park is a National Historic Landmark (NHL), the City of San Diego has established a review procedure that allows for the National Park Service (NPS) and the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) to comment on projects within the NHL park boundaries.  The following is a list of documents encompasses current Park policy.  Click on Public Letters on this website to find more detail in a document entitled "Project Summary and Historical Issues."

Balboa Park Master Plan, 1989

Balboa Park Master Plan Amendment, 1997

Central Mesa Precise Plan, 1992

East Mesa Precise Plan, 1993

Park Boulevard Promenade Plan, 2004

Balboa Park Land Use, Circulation, and Parking Study, 2004

Balboa Park Parking Management Study 2006