The plan to temporarily place an observation wheel in Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama has received the support of the city’s official park advisory group.
Thursday evening, the Balboa Park Committee voted 7-1 in favor of the short-term attraction, or what’s being called the Balboa Park Star, with one member abstaining. That means proponents — David and Leslie Cohn of the Cohn Restaurant Group and operator Sky Views of America — will aim to erect the part-time installation in the spring, following completion of additional steps and easing of state restrictions.
The vote marks an important first step in getting the controversial park ride off the ground.
“The Park and Recreation Department has identified a number of potential operational impacts that must be contemplated in order to fully appreciate the feasibility of this project,” said Christina Chadwick, who is the city’s assistant deputy director for the parks department. “Given the committee’s conceptual approval tonight, we will now be moving forward with the goal of getting this installation up and running on a temporary basis.”
First pitched by the Cohns in October, the Balboa Park Star is intended as a pandemic-friendly activity that could help revitalize the heart of the park, which has seen crowds wane amid varying state and county regulations.
The plan calls for Sky Views of America to park the company’s 148-foot observation wheel, the R50 XL, in the Plaza de Panama near the San Diego Museum of Art for three to six months. Cohn, who operates the Prado restaurant, also intends to offer visitors a food and beverage experience inside the ride’s 36 climate-controlled gondolas.
Ticket prices would likely run around $16 per person, with potential discounts available to families, seniors and members of the military. The proponents have also suggested a revenue-sharing approach with the city, offering to contribute $1 per ticket to a park fund.
“When we thought about this project and brought it to you in October, we honestly were naive and had no idea what we were facing … but we think we’ve made great progress,” said David Cohn. The group, for instance, has received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as held frequent discussions with park institutions and stakeholders to alleviate their concerns. The goal, he said, remains to, “bring some joy to San Diegans and bring something unusual to Balboa Park to reenergize the park as we hopefully come out of COVID-19.”
The proposal, although largely supported by committee members, received pushback during the public comment portion of the meeting. Commenters who submitted their letters in advance of the meeting objected to the size, style and purpose of the attraction, calling it an “eye sore” and “tacky.” Several voiced concerns that the ride would detract from the historic nature of the park. Committee members, however, mostly lauded Cohn for coming up with a creative way to reinvigorate Balboa Park.
The dissenting committee vote came from Vicki Granowitz, who is also a San Diego planning commissioner.
“In a vacuum, I think it’s a wonderful idea and I applaud your creativity,” she said. “I think this is the wrong solution for the park and for the public at this time — for when it would be up and operating (in the spring and summer),” she said. “I think the plaza needs to be for the public, and I think it sends a message that could be problematic for what we want to do in the future.”
Among the steps still required, the Balboa Park Star proposal still needs to be reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office and evaluated by the city’s Historical Resources Board. State and county health orders must also allow operation of the observation wheel, meaning San Diego County will need to, at a minimum, return to the state’s red tier, or the second most restrictive tier.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.