The Botanical Building in Balboa Park is one of the city’s most photographed icons.

But look closely and you’ll see it’s falling apart. Some of the wood framing on its domed roof is popping off and splitting. The water feature on the west side of the building’s been out of commission for years. Rust lurks behind elaborate plant displays.

In late 2013, the Balboa Park Conservancy announced plans to restore and upgrade the facility. The effort was billed as the fledgling group’s foundational project – something that would prove its mettle as the park’s chief fundraiser.

The Conservancy envisioned a nearly $3 million, donor-backed restoration would be finished before the 2015 Centennial Celebration. That didn’t happen. Now, more than two years in, the group reports it’s raised just $457,000. The rust and cracks continue to fester – and the group’s still working to build its track record.

Conservancy leaders point to a handful of roadblocks, from intense fundraising competition and struggles in the lead-up to the Centennial to an initial reliance on volunteers to help sell a project that wasn’t fully sketched out.

“Our story wasn’t adequate,” said Carol Chang, the Conservancy’s board president.

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There have been distractions, too.

Most pivotal, Chang said, were the reverberations associated with the failed Plaza de Panama project, largely driven by the vision of Qualcomm founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs. That project was struck down by a judge but the decision was later overruled. The project remains at a standstill for now.

“It was a chilling effect to the philanthropic community to find the city’s largest donor wasn’t able to get a project done in Balboa Park,” Chang said.

Chang and other Conservancy leaders believe they’ll make more dramatic progress soon. They’re now hoping to get the Botanical Building project finished in 2018, the 150th anniversary of Balboa Park.

The Conservancy recently picked an architecture firm to illustrate an expanded vision to sell philanthropists, and says it has invested in staffers to help make the case.

One of them is Tomas Herrera-Mishler, who became the Conservancy’s CEO last summer. The group’s also hired a full-time development staffer. Herrera-Mishler called for the Conservancy board to bolster the Botanical Building project shortly after he took the helm.

Initial plans mostly focused on revitalizing the 100-year-old Botanical Building and installing new water and energy-saving systems. Now the Conservancy’s also looking to reconstruct the archway that shaded the grassy area west of the building in 1915 and to invest more in landscaping and plants to surround and fill the facility.

The Conservancy expects to have the plans – and an estimated sticker price for the project – within six months.

San Diego-based RNT Architects, which was selected earlier this month after a competitive process, is preparing to survey the Botanical Building’s needs and history and to get visitors’ feedback. The initial money the Conservancy’s raised will cover those costs.

Kotaro Nakamura, the principal architect set to work on the project, said he’s excited to propose ways to improve visitor experiences in that corner of the park.

“Once you go through, there’s not much of a reason to come back again,” Nakamura said. “That’s something I’m trying to fix.”

Nakamura, who designed the new pavilion building for the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park, said his firm’s work will be crucial for fundraising efforts. Over the years he worked on the Friendship Garden project, Nakamura said, he accompanied fundraisers to many meetings with philanthropists and showed off models and renderings.

Chang and Herrera-Mishler believe those additional resources – and lessons learned the last few years –will help the Conservancy find more success.

They say the Botanical Building project must lay a framework for success that the Conservancy can follow in the future.

“We’ve got a lot riding on it. There’s no question,” Herrera-Mishler said. “Now it’s time to knock it out of the park.”

(Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.)

    This article relates to: Arts/Culture, Balboa Park, Must Reads, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    Unsure what Nakamura espouses but there is much about the area that I've liked & returned to enjoy except relatively recent since those that got involved made the area around the pond look inaccessible & plastic. That would repulse anybody seeking natural warmth & organic growth. Unsure why the arboretum was closed or what happened while supposed repairs were expected. Likely the potential designs will promote disharmony & require too much logistics. However, beside the malfeasance, misappropriation, & particular neglect there are other issues with the area, especially to the east since the zoo was indulged. That makes the arboretum a rather one-sided feature. Where does the money drain?

    apriliausa subscriber

    Maybe you should've kept some of the $10 million for the centennial anniversary and spend it on repair. Anything that comes from this city and affiliates is should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    The first people the Balboa Park Conservancy should hit up are the former Jerry Sanders minions he appointed to run the defunct Balboa Park Celebration, Inc. organization, who spent more than $2.3 million in city tax funds on themselves for lunches and junkets, before declaring their effort a failure and scattering. Perhaps if the city had the gumption to claw back city tax funds from those individuals, instead of sweeping the whole affair under the rug, it could use the money to restore the Botanical Building. It knows where those individuals are working now, so finding them shouldn't be a problem.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    They seem to have the inability to take a step back and look at themselves. There is a confusion that they are doing nothing to resolve. The group already had a decent architectural study and plans, they even ran them by SOHO and got their approval, now they just want to hire an architecture firm known for their civic connections. It's obvious to me that they have done nothing to distinguish themselves from all the other groups, past and present, with similar names and similar messages, including a couple of utter failures. They have blown all their money on an out-of-town Executive Director, from as far away as is possible, who seems to not be worth what he is paid (possibly even making more money himself than the group took in last year). They just have too many similarities to the failed "insider welfare" Centennial Committee, and the one-man-show disguised as a Committee (Plaza de Panama Committee), rather than any group that has actually done anything. I think savvy potential donors are more concerned with them being spenders with no track record, rather than associating any possible gift to Balboa park with the Irwin Jacobs project. Everybody knows what the problem with that one was: it's not philanthropy if you have to force something in over the objections of people more informed than yourself, using political connections, promise of political support, putting possible objectors on the payroll, and Washington, D.C. style lobbying techniques. 

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    As a lifelong San Diegoan, I recall seeing scaffolding around the Botanical Building and The City supposedly refurbishing it several years ago. What happened? Low bid and poor workmanship?

    The Balboa Park Conservancy was set up by Jerry Sanders and "The City" as a non-competitive favored nonprofit arm for "The City" to raise funds. Following in the footsteps of another City backed failed nonprofit effort, the Balboa Park Celebration Inc. which received $3M in Public Funding with Zero Return on Investment, perhaps it is time for The City's Politicians to dismantle Balboa Park Conservancy in favor of an organization with integrity and openness.