The Pedestrianization of Balboa Park: The story of the 66 design changes made through listening

A famous person said the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference. If many Americans are fed up with all the anger-filled public discourse these days, there’s at least one benefit to remember: We have proof that people care, that the stakes really do matter.

And nothing can spawn a boisterous debate quite like the proposed redesign of a beloved public space. People have a deep sense of personal ownership about places like these – historic buildings, neighborhood blocks, iconic parks – even though these places are shared and belong to the public. These are places we know, even take for granted, and we think of them as “ours.” And when talk turns to changing these special places, we all have different aesthetic tastes and different priorities to balance. We want our ideas be acknowledged and respected.

The people in charge of rebuilding Lower Manhattan after 9/11, for instance, had to navigate a delicate maze of raw emotions and conflicting opinions about the proper way to memorialize the victims of that tragedy and re-imagine New York’s iconic skyline. There are elements of that public debate that remain unresolved to this day.

Credit. The Weather Channel

Credit. The Weather Channel

Here in San Diego, there has been much heated discussion involving what’s known as the Plaza de Panama redesign project. The Plaza de Panama is situated in the heart of one of San Diego’s crown jewels, Balboa Park, which any local citizen will tell you is the nation’s most beautiful park. Cars and parking are currently allowed in the Plaza de Panama. The redesign proposes reserving the plaza exclusively for pedestrians.

Credit: DesignCollab

The Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park, San Diego, CA
(Credit: DesignCollab)

After literally years of discussion and hundreds of public meetings, San Diegans seem to have reached something resembling a consensus, an extraordinary accomplishment given there are probably as many different opinions as there are thorns in the park’s famous rose garden.

The road to achieving consensus is not an easy one and rightfully so. When people feel strongly about something they need to be given adequate time to process and consider all options on the table and determine the degree of consensus that they are most comfortable with. Consensus can be measured in different ways. In community engagement activities, there are at least six levels used to measure consensus to encourage finding agreement where agreement can be found.
From a personal point of view, these levels are:

  • I strongly support this decision and will speak in favor of it
  • I support this decision
  • This decision is okay
  • I am not completely comfortable with this decision, but I can live with it
  • I dislike this decision, but defer to the wisdom of the group
  • I absolutely do not support this decision and will speak against it

So is “consensus” possible? It is, especially when ranges of support are defined. It’s not all or nothing, actually its everything in between. Consensus does not sit on one  side of a bright line. Instead, it is a range of support and that range allows more people to participate and identify where their agreement is or is not.

So how was consensus achieved for Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama? In part, by making sure every voice was heard. Gordon Kovtun of KCM Group, the firm managing the project, counts a total of 66 design changes that resulted directly from public input. Today, we hear from Kovtun as he explains the painstaking evolution of a project that is now within months of a groundbreaking.

– – –
What role have you played in the Plaza de Panama project?
I am the principal of KCM Group, a construction management and consulting services firm in San Diego. KCM Group was selected by Dr. Irwin Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee to manage the Plaza de Panama project from concept through construction.

As the program manager, I was responsible for putting together the team that designed and engineered the project; led the public outreach process; developed the planning documents, Environmental Impact Report and associated studies and analyses; brought the project to the various advisory groups and the City Council for approval; and now will oversee the construction, landscaping and related park improvements through the last detail.

Our team included the urban planning and landscape architecture firm Civitas, Inc; the historical preservation firm Heritage Architecture; Rick Engineering; MJE Marketing; Estrada Land Planning and many others. And throughout this process we worked closely with the city’s Director of Special Projects, Gerry Braun, and the office of Mayor Jerry Sanders, in what was truly a public-private partnership.

How many different proposals have been floated over the years? When did the current one begin to gain traction? And why, after all these years, was there finally a consensus that these changes needed to happen?
Over the last four decades, there were dozens of proposals to address the traffic and circulation challenges of Balboa Park, though few were ever advanced beyond a color drawing, a general description or, more recently, a PowerPoint presentation. Many of them received their first serious review in the 4000-page Environmental Impact Report for the Plaza de Panama Project, which analyzed 13 alternatives covering a range of approaches. Foremost among them was the 1992 Balboa Park Precise Plan, which allowed traffic to continue as it does today, taking the parking spaces but not the road out of the Plaza de Panama. This was a half-measure that excited few people; soon after it was adopted, it was put on a shelf to gather dust (like so many other plans).

The Plaza de Panama project gained instant traction because its introduction of the Centennial Bridge resolved age-old questions: How can you reclaim the plazas if you continue to let cars dominate and degrade them? And how do you get rid of the cars without closing down the Cabrillo Bridge, the park entry used by roughly 40 percent of vehicles?

This paradox was revealed by every traffic study done in Balboa Park. People wanted the plazas back, and they wanted the Cabrillo Bridge access to remain. The Centennial Bridge was an elegant way to achieve both of these community objectives, diverting the traffic after it crossed the Cabrillo Bridge but before it reached the plazas.

Cabrillo Bride, San Diego, CA(Credit: Balboa Park)

Cabrillo Bride, San Diego, CA
(Credit: Balboa Park)

I’d like to say that the simple genius of this approach was solely responsible for the consensus that emerged, but other factors were important.

First, the funding was not an issue. By and large, the project is a gift — free and clear — to the citizens of San Diego. The Plaza de Panama Committee was offering private funding and asking that the City contribute nothing more than its own staff time and permitting costs plus the proceeds of a lease revenue bond that would be repaid by parking garage users. (Some previous proposals had generated a lot of excitement by promising hundreds of millions of dollars in park improvements. But as they were developed without funding plans, these were little more than theoretical studies.)

Second, our team had an extraordinary understanding of Balboa Park. Mark Johnson of Civitas, David Marshall of Heritage Architecture and Vicki Estrada of Estrada Land Planning had been involved in nearly every planning effort in the park for decades. And KCM Group augmented that experience by commissioning rigorous studies of the park’s traffic, parking and circulation. This in-house expertise was invaluable in dealing with the hundred nuances of Balboa Park.

Third, the adverse effects of continuing to run two lanes of traffic through the park core had become progressively worse in recent years and painfully obvious to everyone. The lurching, stop-and-go traffic in the plazas, the gridlock and backups over the Cabrillo Bridge, and the increasingly risky interactions between cars and pedestrians were an obvious detraction to the visitor experience. We took time-lapse videos — showing the traffic congestion and close calls with pedestrians — that would have been humorous had they not been taken in the heart of one of America’s greatest parks. And the inadequacy of the trolley service inside the park — too few seats, too few trips, no access for the disabled, difficult boarding for the elderly and families with strollers — was all the more apparent because of this dysfunction. In short, people were fed up with the status quo, and as they stepped forward to say so, they asked to be on the supporter list, which eventually numbered more than 2,500 people.

Fourth, the people who knew the park best — its institutions, its regular users and two of its greatest historians — recognized the importance of this opportunity. Their endorsements carried a lot of weight, and as the planning advanced and they better understood the project’s positive impacts on the park experience, they became increasingly enthusiastic. At every public meeting, we could count on solid participation from park leaders. As an aside, one of their chief concerns was that this effort, like so many before it, would be bogged down by the Balboa Park naysayers who believe they have veto power over anything that happens there. Once it became clear that Mayor Sanders and Dr. Jacobs were not going to be intimidated by these individuals, our support from park institutions reached critical mass.

Any time you propose a major design change to a civic jewel like Balboa Park, people are going to have very strong opinions. How were you able to strike a balance between respecting everyone’s opinions and advocating for your particular proposal?
The key was recognizing that most people who hold strong opinions about Balboa Park do so out of love for the park. Not all of them were our allies at first, but we viewed them as future allies. Indeed, many turned out to be our strongest supporters once they processed for themselves the challenges the park faced and the merits of the project. We began a dialogue with each of them, listened carefully and responded to their concerns.

The fact that we were willing to listen to new ideas and incorporate them into the project was a huge factor in our success. We did not advocate for the proposal so much as we advocated for a balanced solution to the park’s problems — one that would serve the interests and values of all park users. Anyone who wanted to strike that balance was a natural ally.

Credit: San Diego Reader

Credit: San Diego Reader

People often started out thinking that everyone used the park like they did. Only as they became better acquainted with how the park was used by their neighbors — by young families, or the elderly, or the disabled, or bicyclists, or tourists, or nearby residents — could they recognize how  important it was to not let one group’s vision preclude others. In the end, we believe our project improves the lot of everyone, even the historic preservation community whose leaders remain skeptical. They will now be able to enjoy the park plazas and architecture as they were enjoyed in 1915, and the pedestrianization of the park core will certainly lead to renewed interest in restoration and preservation. Although I will say that those who insist on being able to drive through the historically pedestrian plazas will be disappointed.

To what extent did you solicit public input during the planning and design process?
City policy spells out a rather extensive public-input process for Balboa Park. The Plaza de Panama team did that times 10. We conducted more than 200 meetings to solicit public feedback and usually met with stakeholder groups several times. For 18 consecutive months, we made presentations to, or conducted workshops with, the Balboa Park Committee, which is the land-use advisory group for the park. We also hosted monthly walking tours in Balboa Park, including one in Spanish, and met repeatedly with surrounding community groups, park institutions and park users. Our project team kept journals of every suggestion that came out of these meetings and workshops. This ongoing dialogue helped to generate ideas that improved the project and it also won us many supporters. As a general rule, the more people knew about the project, the more they liked it.

Did public input change any of the planning or design for the project?
Absolutely. We counted 66 changes that resulted from public input, including a major redesign of one of the project’s signature elements, the two-acre park on top of the underground parking garage.

The first public meeting the team held, incidentally, was with leaders of San Diego’s disabled community. Every one of their suggestions to make the project elements more accessible was incorporated into our design, and we were especially proud of the strong support we received from that segment of our citizenry.

Does any public hearing or meeting stand out in your mind as the single most contentious? Describe what happened and how it was resolved.
In May 2012, the Planning Commission held an informational workshop on the project, one month before it was to come before them as an action item. The project opponents showed up in strength, about 50 in all, and by varying degrees, characterized the project as unnecessary, unworkable and unimaginable. Alternatives were presented and numerous concerns were raised. As the session ended, the commissioners addressed the chasm between the project we presented and the opposition’s claims by asking us to provide additional information. They had a lot of questions they wanted answered, tables of information they wanted compiled, photographs they wanted to study — and all of it needed to be done in advance of the next meeting.

Credit: City of San Diego

Credit: City of San Diego

This list of tasks was daunting at first. Then we realized that this development played into our strengths: fact and analysis. So our team compiled a comprehensive Project Summary that answered every question from the commission and rebutted every (reasonable) criticism of the project. It was a majestic document — we had requests for copies from throughout the city — and it was distributed not only to the planning commissioners but the City Council members who would vote on the project in July.

When the Planning Commission met again in June, its members had all read the Project Summary and were armed for a high-level discussion. An entirely different meeting then took place, one in which the commission and our team discussed every aspect of the project in great detail, and the commissioners’ comments demonstrated a keen understanding of the challenges that must be overcome to construct any improvements in Balboa Park. The meeting ended with the Planning Commissioners endorsing the project in a rare, unanimous vote. Coming on the heels of the Balboa Park Committee’s endorsement two months earlier, this vote confirmed once again that the more knowledgable people were, the more they liked the project. That 7-0 vote provided the momentum that carried us to an easy Council victory one month later.

Many local politicians and leaders voiced their support for or against the Plaza de Panama plan. How were you able to get these people to begin to see eye to eye and work towards a consensus?
We worked with many politicians and all they ever asked was that we address the fears and concerns of their constituents, and thoroughly consider every alternative. When they saw that we had done that effectively, and they saw how project support kept growing month by month, their reservations melted away. A perfect example was Council President Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park. He was initially wary of anything that might disrupt the fragile politics of the park, and he heard frequently from those who shared that view. But he also studied the public campaigns, pro and con, and saw for himself the extent of our outreach campaign. In time, he became one of the project’s biggest champions.

In July the City Council approved the Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park. What’s next?
Once we get past the lawsuit phase, we expect to begin the project in a matter of weeks. The first phase of work will begin in March with some utility relocations and other preparatory work, and the excavation for the underground parking garage will begin in April. Assuming no further delay tactics, the project will be complete in time for the opening ceremonies of EDGE2015, the Balboa Park Centennial Celebration, in December of 2014.

During construction, KCM Group will continue its dialogue with park users and the Balboa Park Committee to address concerns and reduce impacts. We will have construction information available at the Balboa Park Visitor Center and look forward to hearing from the public.

Credit: KCM Group

Credit: KCM Group

Moving forward, what opportunities will the public have to be involved?
There will be many opportunities for public involvement, including a groundbreaking ceremony and educational programs to explain what’s happening. Construction of this type — building a bridge, excavating for a parking garage, restoring historical features and installing new landscapes — has a natural attraction for students in particular, and KCM Group hopes to create educational opportunities during construction for school groups and park visitors. You can follow our progress and receive e-mail updates on our website,, and follow us on Twitter at @Plaza_de_Panama.

But the most exciting public opportunities will come when the project is complete and San Diegans can enjoy the acres of new parkland, plazas and gardens, and most importantly a car-free experience in the Plaza de Panama, just as they did when it opened a century ago.

At KCM Group, we believe strongly that Balboa Park’s best years are ahead, and look forward to being a part of that exciting future.
– – –
Thank you Mr. Kovtun for sharing your experience and insights on such a publicized project with such an interesting history. We look forward to seeing how the project continues to unfold.

The Collaborative Services Blog Team

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3 thoughts on “The Pedestrianization of Balboa Park: The story of the 66 design changes made through listening

  1. ohanzi says:

    Where do I start with the errors? I’m not surprised Mr Kovtun didn’t mention the “consensus building” tactic of having a billionaire contributor call the Lt. Governor to threaten the job of the well-regarded non-partisan State Historic Preservation Officer, a man who quit a higher paying architectural practice to serve the State. He “resigned” during this process.

  2. ohanzi says:

    Where do I start with the errors? I’m not surprised Mr Kovtun didn’t mention the “consensus building” tactic of having a billionaire contributor call the Lt. Governor to threaten the job of the well-regarded non-partisan State Historic Preservation Officer, a man who quit a higher paying architectural practice to serve the State. He “resigned” during this process. The idea that “the more one is informed about this project the more one likes it” is a revolting lie and 180 degrees from the truth.

  3. WOW just what I was looking for. Came here by searching for currency trading
    pros and cons

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