Jury Honors San Diego Historic Streetcars in Centennial Gateway Competition

From left to right: Bastiaan Bouma (AIA), Derek Emery (San Diego Historic Streetcars), Matthew Geaman (AIA), Jay Turner (San Diego Historic Streetcars

From left to right: Bastiaan Bouma (AIA), Derek Emery (SDHS), Matthew Geaman (AIA), Jay Turner (SDHS). Photo by Buu Huynh.

Last week, San Diego Historic Streetcars was presented with an award for our design concept in the Balboa Park Centennial Gateway competition that was organized by the American Institute of Architects, in conjunction with the San Diego Museum of Art. Out of the 44 excellent submissions, the distinguished jury agreed that our proposal to restore the historic Class 1 streetcars to Park Blvd. was one of a handful worthy of special recognition. We’d like to give a big thanks to the jury, the AIA, the San Diego Museum of Art, our awesome board of directors, and all of our supporters.

Of course, a good portion of the work here was already done for us some 100 years ago. Originally designed by John D. Spreckels’ San Diego Electric Railway Company, these streetcars were the original gateway to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition on Park Blvd. As visitors arrived by train at the Santa Fe Depot, most would hop onto these Arts & Crafts cars and ride down Broadway and up Park Blvd. to arrive at the streetcar terminal on the east side of Balboa Park. We want to see San Diego reconnect those dots, preferably with historic streetcar service that connects uptown, downtown and the crown jewel of our city in a meaningful way.

What a great way to close out 2013! We’re looking forward to big things next year and can’t wait share our progress with you as we work to restore these historic streetcars. For now, check out our Centennial Gateway competition concept board right HERE and read our accompanying narrative below.

In preparation for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the designers of the Balboa Park we know and love put much thought into the respective gateways of the park. Of course, the majestic Cabrillo Bridge still stands as the gateway to the West side of the park and was nominated for National Historic Designation in 1976. On the East side, most exposition attendees traveled to the park in 1915 via Class 1 streetcar— a streetcar specially designed by John D. Spreckels’ San Diego Electric Railway Company for this very purpose. Attendees would arrive at the celebrated Balboa Park streetcar terminal, which was near El Prado off Park Blvd. However, these historic gateways on the East side of Balboa Park have been lost to history. The Balboa Park streetcar terminal has long since been torn down and the Class 1 streetcars went off the rails in 1939. Amazingly, San Diego has an opportunity to re-establish these historic gateways nearly 100 years later.

As time has gone on following the Panama-California (1915) and California-Pacific Exposition (1935), Park Blvd. has become an increasingly ill-defined and under-realized asset of Balboa Park. However, by restoring the three original Class 1 streetcars and establishing a new streetcar alignment on Park Blvd., we can recapture a significant amount of the original charm and character of the 1915 Exposition. These historic Arts & Crafts-era streetcars can serve as a mobile gateway to the park, transporting guests in historic style and helping to better connect Balboa Park to Downtown and our public transit system. Each of the streetcar stations along Park Blvd. could be modeled after the original Balboa Park streetcar terminal, putting a modern spin on the architectural style of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. These stations can also serve as information kiosks outfitted with large state-of-the-art touch screens that provide patrons with information on the history of Balboa Park and the 1915 Exposition, general Balboa Park info, as well as current programming information for the Centennial Celebration and the various museums, theaters, and other park facilities.

We should prioritize building stronger connections between Balboa Park and our urban neighborhoods. There is no excuse for our failure to provide better access to San Diego’s central, historic public space– and the Centennial Celebration is the perfect event to kick off an effort to solve the transportation problems that exist for the ‘crown jewel’ of San Diego. Not only are the Class 1 streetcars an attractive option in terms of aesthetics and tourism, but they are also the most sensible solution for our former streetcar districts. While the three restored original streetcars can open the door for National Historic Designation and provide service on holidays and weekends, the workhorses of this new alignment would be modern replica vehicles. Modeled perfectly after the original Class 1s, these replicas would capture that same historic feel and provide transportation service with reliability equal to that of any modern bus, light rail, or streetcar. The Class 1 streetcars can thus represent the best of both worlds. While these streetcars are rooted in San Diego’s history some 100 years ago, that does not preclude them from embracing modern reliability and new technologies. We envision this new streetcar alignment to run on cutting-edge lithium battery technology, removing the need for overhead cables in any of the view corridors along Park Blvd.

In 1915, The Class 1 streetcars were the first of their kind– a newly designed center-entrance streetcar that improved upon past streetcars and set a precedent for forthcoming models. They provided a warm and unique welcome to the guests that attended an Exposition celebrating both our past and the promise of human achievement. They can do so again for the Centennial Celebration of the Panama-California Exposition; what a fitting future for such a streetcar.