Plaza de Panama is the central plaza in Balboa Park and for many years was devoted to automobile parking. In June 2013 reviled former Mayor Bob Filner led a push that removed the parking spots from the Plaza de Panama and created a public space for strolling, sitting, and enjoying the surrounding museums and sunshine.
Here’s a photo of what the plaza looked like as a parking lot.
Below is what the plaza looks like now, less than three years later. Today our family had a small picnic lunch on the plaza and there were people everywhere – a newlywed couple taking photos on the steps of the Museum of Art, small children riding bikes and scooters, people of all ages sitting or taking photos. In short, it felt like an authentic plaza: “a public square, marketplace, or similar open space in a built-up area“.
While a lack of parking at Balboa Park continues to be a prominent point of public discussion and debate the Plaza de Panama proves that empty parking spaces do not a great space make – no one was hanging out at the parking lot it formerly was, other than the valets for The Prado restaurant. People enjoying life and each other are what make a plaza great and if you visit Balboa Park today you’ll find such a place at its heart.
The removal of the parking lot was the start of this new public life, but there have been many other elements that have contributed to the engaging place it is today. Below are a few and it’s encouraging to see a range of different players contributing – I look forward to see what other improvements lie ahead.
- The Balboa Park Explorer Pass – This pass grants access to the museums and cultural institutions in the museum campus area of Balboa Park. Our family has had the annual pass ($229) since the inception of this program. It is fantastic and has us visiting the park more frequently and a wider variety of museums than we previously had. A great idea to increase the amount of visitors coming to the museum campus.
- Trees and tables – After the parking was first removed the plaza felt empty – it’s a big expanse and needed to be populated to make it more inviting. The addition of a variety of chairs, tables, umbrellas, planter boxes, and other items have made it a pleasant and comfortable place to sit and people watch.
- Panama 66 Restaurant – The owners of local favorites Blind Lady Ale House and Tiger!Tiger! Tavern now operate a full service restaurant adjacent to the Plaza de Panama (and technically part of the Museum of Art). This is a photo from March 13, 2016 at 11 AM – the line out the door says all that is needed about the popularity of the venue. The restaurant includes a sculpture garden area and sitting on the grass in the evening while the California Tower is aglow is a newly classic San Diego experience. [Caution: check schedules for sometimes irregular hours.]
- Art of the Open Air – The newest addition to the Plaza de Panama is a series of sculptures set up around the plaza. In the central seating area there are information cards about the works including pieces by Rodin and Miro. A great addition and fitting complement to the Museum of Art which stands on the Plaza de Panama.
- Improvements for walking and biking – Improved crosswalk markings and Balboa Park themed bicycle racks in prominent locations have made it more convenient to visit the park without a car. Hopefully in future we will see the Laurel Street bridge closed to automobile traffic and made into a full-time pedestrian promenade.
Thank you to the many people that are working to enhance Balboa Park and the experience of visiting for locals and tourists alike. The Plaza de Panama shows that even on a short time frame big changes can be made through thoughtful, low-cost projects that put people first. Cheers!