Balboa Park is known as San Diego’s crown jewel. Maintaining it takes a lot of work.

The nearly 150-year-old park and those who care for it face significant challenges in ensuring the park remains the iconic destination it is today.

Some of the park’s beloved trees have fallen prey to the drought, recent storms and old age. Many of the park’s historic facilities are crumbling and in need of repairs. And one of the top architects of some of the city’s long-range plans for the park estimates about half of them remain unfulfilled – and unfunded.

Here’s a breakdown of five of the biggest challenges confronting Balboa Park.

The number of needed repairs is staggering.

Most San Diegans are struck by the beauty of the Spanish Colonial buildings that line the El Prado walkway. But those buildings – and many others throughout the park – are falling apart.

A chunk is missing from the arcade walkway near the Timken Museum.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The walls and some window ornaments on the Casa de Balboa building sport black marks.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Then there’s the abandoned, weed-filled Starlight Bowl amphitheater and the Botanical Building, which is plagued with rust and rot.

Those are just the needs you can see when you walk by. Last summer, the former San Diego History Center executive director confessed she feared a 100-year-old pipe could burst, damaging the historic documents stored there. (A city spokesman said the city’s set to replace piping along the west and central mesas in a couple years.)

The latest guesses suggest Balboa Park’s repair needs total at least $300 million, a figure that doesn’t even include leased facilities such as the Starlight or museums. The city’s working to put together a more complete tab by this summer.

City officials say they’re doing all they can to make fixes but acknowledge resources are limited.

“It can be overwhelming at times because public expectations are high,” said Casey Smith, the park’s operations manager.

The city’s tendency to go with lowest-bidding contractors can also mean the work doesn’t always match what the public might expect for San Diego’s crown jewel.

The city hired workers to make public bathrooms near the Museum of Photographic Arts more accessible to disabled visitors last year. After those workers left and a urinal overflowed, diluted urine repeatedly leaked from the men’s restroom onto collections at the Model Railroad Museum, said Jeff Van Deerlin of the city’s park and recreation department.

A building manager later told the city they’d need to close the bathroom during December Nights, an annual holiday event at the park that draws thousands of people.

The city said Friday it still isn’t fixed. A spokesman said city staffers  are trying to address the leakage issue as quickly as possible.

Trees are dying.

Photo by Ry Rivard
Photo by Ry Rivard

In the 1890s, Kate Sessions pledged to plant 100 trees a year in Balboa Park for the chance to use 32 acres as her nursery. In exchange, Balboa Park got cypresses, canary island pines, eucalyptus groves and jacarandas.

Balboa Park became known as a place to enjoy horticulture from all over the world.

Many of Sessions’ trees – and others planted over the years – weren’t a match for San Diego’s arid climate. Then came years of little rain.

The city had to cut back on watering to comply with drought mandates. To cope, city workers dug basins around some trees, to help them pull in more water. They’ve also installed more efficient water-delivery systems to ensure more water is directed at plants rather than sidewalks or other surfaces.

They also prioritized watering for plants and trees in the park’s most popular areas, and those it considers most historic, “horticulturally important” or that have been dedicated in someone’s honor.

Still, many trees haven’t survived or are dying. Others have fallen during storms. Some in less trafficked areas have been left to dry up.

Smith said city workers and volunteers planted nearly 100 trees this winter to replace those that have been lost. The newer trees are more drought-appropriate, he said.

They also recently changed out 45,000 square feet of turf on Park Boulevard medians and replaced them with drought-tolerant plants and drip irrigation Smith expects will save the city at least 500,000 gallons of water annually.

The nonprofit Friends of Balboa Park has marshaled donations and volunteers to help the city make big shifts through its Adopt-a-Plot program, among other numerous efforts. Other groups such as the Balboa Park Conservancy have assisted, too.

Yet water-wise switches also leave big questions for a park known for its greenery and horticulture.

Pat Caughey, chairman of the Friends of Balboa Park board, said the city and those who love the park will have to make a more philosophical decision over the long haul about the future of the unique, lush plants and trees that can’t be found elsewhere in the city.

“The dilemma is, do you go from a water-intensive use landscape to a low-water use landscape? That’s part of the debate,” Caughey said. “Do you take out all the water-thirsty plants and put in drought-tolerant plants?”

Finding a place to park can be a headache.

Earlier this month, Janet K. Poutre headed to Balboa Park on a Thursday morning. Poutre, who serves on the city’s arts and culture commission, figured she’d find a spot within 10 minutes and have ample time to make it to the unveiling of the Museum of Art’s new outdoor art display at the Plaza de Panama.

She ended up crawling through five packed lots. Park Boulevard was full, too.

Poutre, who wore pointy-toed heels ill-suited for a hike across the park, ditched her plans and gave up after 20 minutes.

Balboa Park stakeholders say Poutre’s experience isn’t unusual and that it can lead would-be visitors to leave or avoid the park.

“A constant uncertainty exists about where to park, and how to reach the destination once parked,” consultants wrote in a 2006 parking management plan prepared for the city.

There have been various plans over the years to build a public parking garage to ease the strain and potentially restore some paved lots to parkland. There’s currently no funding to support those ideas.

Meanwhile, the city tries to steer visitors to the Inspiration Point and Presidents Way lots, which fall outside Balboa Park’s core, but are served by green shuttle every 15 minutes between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. during the winter. Those lots tend to have more open spots but Peter Comiskey, who leads the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, said even those fill up on the park’s busiest days.

Poutre acknowledged she didn’t think of the shuttle option earlier this month. Many others don’t either.

“I think what happens with locals is we think we know, so we don’t go to the website and check out what’s new at the park,” Poutre said.

Some longtime park advocates think the city could do more to reduce parking woes if it focused more on getting people to the park sans car or encouraged them to park elsewhere. A gondola from downtown to the park has been floated.

Vicki Estrada, a landscape architect who wrote the city’s Balboa Park master plan, which included a parking garage, said the city could also cut a deal with nearby City College, which offers up parking spaces during December Nights, to provide spots on weekends.

A consistent shuttle would make that link work, Estrada said.

“There are so many spaces surrounding Balboa Park.”

Some park lands aren’t actually being used as park lands.

Drive down B Street south of Interstate 5 and you’ll come across a piece of Balboa Park entirely unwelcoming to park visitors.

Photo by Andrew Keatts
Photo by Andrew Keatts

It’s the city’s Central Operations Station, which bears a “restricted access” sign. Behind it are rows of buildings and a large parking lot.

The city’s development blueprint for the park, approved by the City Council in 1989, called for the city to reclaim the plot and make it open park land. That hasn’t happened and a city spokesman said there are no plans to change this anytime soon.

A couple miles north sits a field full of yellow wildflowers and a yard with rows of city trucks. The more than 70-acre area between Pershing Drive and Florida Drive is part of Balboa Park, too.

Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

It’s the Arizona Landfill site, where San Diegans’ trash was packed between layers of dirt for more than 20 years. The landfill closed in the mid-1970s and the city plan for this area approved years later called for a makeover. The plan envisioned trees, botanical garden areas, pathways, picnic areas and play areas for children.

None of that’s happened, either.

A 2008 report suggested it would cost $86.7 million to reclaim the area.

Here’s why, as Kelly Bennett explained in 2012:

The city’s decision to open the dump had long repercussions. Now the city pays a crew of people to monitor the site’s methane emission and to make sure no contaminated water runs off of it. An elaborate underground methane capturing system funnels the gas to that controlled combustion chamber — the “flare station” — the [nearby] disc golfers can see, and the chamber burns off the gas.

The city’s still checking methane levels at the site and says the situation has improved the past few years. But a city spokesman said methane is still present and could stress plants or trees more deeply rooted than the grasses that now cover much of the site.

Those two large plots are just two examples of City Council-approved visions for the park that haven’t been implemented.

Others include the closure of Florida Drive and a 1,000-to-1,500 spot parking garage that had been proposed behind the Organ Pavilion.

Estrada, who wrote some of those plans, estimates about half of what was laid out has come to fruition. There just hasn’t been cash or political will to support them.

That’s not to say there ever was total agreement on how the park should be developed.

Ex-Mayor Bob Filner, who represented an area that included the park when he was on the City Council, once described the process to create the Balboa Park Master Plan as “one of the most controversial and protracted issues” the City Council had faced in a decade.

There isn’t a clear leader dictating the park’s future.

Dozens of nonprofits call Balboa Park home, and many government leaders boast about San Diego’s civic gem.

Yet longtime park stakeholders confess Balboa Park has a leadership problem.

A much-cited 2008 report on the park’s future by the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land put the situation bluntly:

Unfortunately, while numerous people and institutions are interested in assuring that Balboa Park can help them be successful, there is no official body with the focus on Balboa Park and the authority to help the park itself be successful. Thus, there is no way to put the park onto solid footing for the future without a clear understanding of mission, roles, authority, responsibility and decision-making structures for Balboa Park.

That report helped inspire the creation of the Balboa Park Conservancy, a group then-Mayor Jerry Sanders and others hoped would become the city’s partner in ensuring the park’s future prosperity. The idea was that nonprofit would help the city raise cash to support the park’s steep infrastructure needs and ink a formal relationship with the city.

More than five years in, the conservancy’s still trying to prove itself. It’s organized a host of conversations about park priorities in the past couple years and recently released a public survey on the subject. Its foundational fundraising project – a plan to upgrade the Botanical Building and the area around it – hasn’t moved as swiftly as everyone hoped.

The group’s struggle to deliver on its signature project has only highlighted the park’s leadership vacuum.

Efforts to organize a year-long centennial celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the event that put Balboa Park on the map, imploded. Tales abound of the inability of stakeholders to get on the same page.

Post-2015, discussions continue about the lack of a shared vision for the park.

There’s disagreement, for example, about whether the park should embrace a Smithsonian of the West approach with a focus on its large concentration of museums, and about how much institutions in the park should be allowed to grow their footprints.

Former city architect Mike Stepner, who’s long been engaged on park issues, said the current situation leads to piecemeal planning rather than a comprehensive vision.

The park’s missing a champion to galvanize residents and city officials to address its many needs, he said.

“While everybody seems to love Balboa Park, the park just doesn’t get the attention,” Stepner said. “Nobody’s out there making the case that we need to do this or that for the park.”

Stepner hopes the Conservancy can eventually fill that void.

Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, which fought Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs’ plan to build a parking garage and a bypass bridge, largely agreed with Stepner but said he’s not convinced the Conservancy is up to the charge.

“There’s all these competing interests and goals of the organizations (in Balboa Park). It takes somebody pretty strong,” Coons said. “I just don’t think the Conservancy’s strong enough.”

Conservancy leaders caution it can take years for groups like theirs to build their operation and credibility. They’re also adamant they’re making significant progress.

“You’ve got to earn respect and trust,” Conservancy board member Chuck Hellerich said. “That takes time.”

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

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Government, 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.

    Ben Adams
    Ben Adams

    Lisa you should mention the US Navy's land grab that started 100 years ago.  That's as bad as the landfill.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    If it's so hard to find parking, why not charge 25 cents an hour for parking in the busiest spots during the busiest times of day on the busiest days of the week? Besides making it a little easier to find parking, it would also raise revenue for repairs. That's two benefits for the price of one, and who doesn't like two for one deals?

    Ken Brucker
    Ken Brucker subscriber

    Doesn't The City have to pay for a new stadium to give to the NFL instead of repairing Balboa Park?

    Jonathan Chapin
    Jonathan Chapin

    How can a city that takes in $1,000,000,000 + a year never have any money for civic improvements? Why can't we just use the profits from having the Chargers here to fix everything?

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    Balboa Park - "The Soul of San Diego" according to a Legler-Benbough Foundation Report, has a lot of blackness in it, as Lisa Halverstadt illuminates in this article. Perhaps Lori Saldaña as an alternative to Kevin Faulconer in the Mayor's Race, can create an independent team to create and implement solutions. Mr. Faulconer was on the City Council that approved creation of The Balboa Park Conservancy and Balboa Park Celebration Inc. Entities (Audit Committee Chair) and approved a non-competitively awarded contract (as Mayor) for December Nights to The Conservancy.Balboa Park has a role in San Diego's future. Let's ensure that ALL of The Park operates under Parkland Uses.

    michael-leonard subscriber

    @Kevin Swanson "Let's ensure that ALL of Te Park operates under Parkland Ises." Care to edit that? ;-)

    Vicki Estrada
    Vicki Estrada

    Mike Hansen may be corrected in that the B St yard is no longer dedicated park land (it wasn't dedicated because the city needed the site for maintenance uses). It was part of the original 1400 acres of the park. However, both the Master Plan and subsequent Precise Plan show the site as park. I personally have never heard that the site will never be park land. Just because a site isn't designated park land does not mean it can't be a park. The Master Plan took 9 years to complete and the B St yard was discussed heavily during the process. I would hate to give up on that site. It will take time to relocate the uses to be sure, but as this is the gateway to the park for many, it is important that that relocating the uses is at least explored.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Dear Jamie Lytle,

    Nice photo!


    Hector the Reflector

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    "Some longtime park advocates think the city could do more to reduce parking woes if it focused more on getting people to the park sans car or encouraged them to park elsewhere."The Mid-City Rapid (215) and existing route 7 both provide frequent service along Park. There's really no reason parking should be an issue. The means is already in place for a lot more people to access the park without needing to park a vehicle.

    ZachW subscriber

    The plethora of excuses spewed by city officials in this article is disgusting. Our city managed to come up with $300 million for a football stadium when a billionaire threatened to leave town, but Balboa Park repairs remain elusive. I guess Mayor Faulconer and the rank and file at city hall consider the Chargers stadium to be the city's crowns jewel, not Balboa Park.

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    It's my understanding that the part of the City Operations yard closest to "B" Street, as shown in your photo is not on dedicated park land and will never be removed. The part closest to 26th Street (probably 2/3rds of the acreage) is on park land and should be removed. The largest building on that area, when I was inside there was used for scenery storage for the Junior Theatre (admittedly an actual park usage) but they were using more space for set storage than the La Jolla Playhouse, the Globe, and the San Diego Rep combined. This building needs to leave soon, and it would be easy, as it is on the edge. There are many non-park usages in tha part of this lot, that are forbidden by City Charter, such as storing shopping carts found citywide. Even the old Hillcrest neon sign was kept there, while its auction bidders got their space ready. Somebody just needs to move that fence in 20 feet every year and let them figure out how not to waste space. It's time for the media to get a tour inside there and demand an explanation for the use of each square foot in there.

    Bob Gardner
    Bob Gardner subscriber

    Since it was such an outstanding idea, methinks the City of San Diego ought to set up a conservancy to build a new football stadium. Alex Spanos, Fred Maas, and Mark Fabiani could be put in charge of such a committee. Then the politicians who are trying so hard to spend our money on that could instead focus city money and efforts on saving Balboa Park.