Pete Wheeler looks at the mounds of trash in a forgotten corner of Balboa Park and sees a potential sanctuary.

Wheeler, a wealth manager who lives in Point Loma, wants to build an elaborate 40-acre peace garden on the former Arizona Landfill plot, which has been filled with rows of city trucks and fields of yellow wildflowers and grass since the landfill shuttered more than three decades ago.

Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Pete Wheeler

“It frankly is a disgrace to such a beautiful city,” said Wheeler, who’s been quietly pushing the project for more than a year.

Wheeler envisions 12 spiritually themed gardens, a large meeting center, an outdoor amphitheater and a space for at-risk youth programs. He wants to call it the World Peace Sanctuary San Diego and have several religious groups maintain the gardens.

Wheeler believes the former landfill site, which boasts views of downtown and the Pacific Ocean, is an ideal destination for San Diegans and tourists to reflect and find support, whether they’re religious or not.

Wheeler’s idea was hatched after Mary, his wife of 48 years, died of cancer two years ago. Wheeler isn’t religious but a Tibetan lama and other religious leaders provided moral support before his wife’s death. Wheeler and that lama, Lhanang Rinpoche, once talked about a peace garden in San Diego.

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

The conversation’s since gotten more serious. Wheeler’s recruited a prominent Balboa Park advocate to help.

Vicki Estrada, the landscape architect who wrote the city’s master plan for the park, has produced concept maps and accompanied Wheeler to meetings with city officials and park stakeholders.

Estrada, who is doing the work on a volunteer basis, acknowledges the peace garden proposal faces significant obstacles. Wheeler does, too.

The city’s continuing to monitor methane levels at the landfill site, and plants die in many parts of the plot once their roots descend below grasses that have thrived there. The most recent estimate suggested it could cost $86.7 million to reclaim the area, though the city says methane levels have fallen in some areas since then.

Wheeler guesses he’ll need to cobble together about $40 million in private contributions to move forward with his project, which would cover about half of the 77-acre plot. Wheeler’s also looking into planting options that may not be hampered by the site’s methane issues.

Estrada says they’re set to learn more about the plot’s current condition at a meeting with city officials next week.

Then there’s the complex city process necessary to make the project happen, which Wheeler has yet to officially kick off. A city spokesman said officials aren’t certain the proposal is in keeping with the city’s formal plan for the park’s east mesa, which could mean additional regulatory hurdles. (That plan calls for open meadows, trees, botanical garden areas, picnic areas and children’s play areas.) Yet Estrada, who’s shepherded several successful park projects over the past three decades, remains optimistic.

“I would not have agreed to do this if I didn’t think it had a chance,” Estrada said.

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Land Use, 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.

    NP Guy
    NP Guy

    I think the idea is good but I live close by and I don't like the youths at "risk" place because the next person that will be at "risk" will be me.

    Java Joe
    Java Joe subscriber

    There are several Buddhist centers in San Diego already for meditation and prayer.  I think that parcel should be developed into a useful extension of Balboa Park with plantings, trees, pathways, gardens (community or other), picnic tables, and lots of benches for people to sit and enjoy the view.  Mr. Wheeler (and anyone else) can dedicate a tree or a bench to the memory of a loved one with a nice plaque. The area should be developed into "something," but not something dedicated to a particular belief system. It needs to be open and inviting to all.

    vintagevoice subscriber

    I bicycle on the East Mesa of Balboa Park several times a week. Today, this area is horribly blighted by a large municipal parking area surrounded by chain link fence. 

    Just removing the municipal parking area would be a tremendous improvement.

    I think some of the comments below are too harsh. I like the open space and agree that many of us use it, but the blight of the muni parking must go. Any way we can get rid of that parking is desirable.

    Brer Marsh
    Brer Marsh

    everyone except the city wants the muni parking gone, even the park director.

    My comments are harsh? Really? I'm a proponent of urban open space and dislike well meant follies that aspire to capture public land. What else is one to do?

    Brer Marsh
    Brer Marsh

    Wealth manager hires landscape architect to push his pet religious based project on public land. The news story I see when I read this is about a guy with money who can't see the valuable role the land already plays to the community that lives here and uses this "forgotten" piece of land. Hundreds of walkers, runners, bicyclists and more enjoy this VALUABLE piece of urban open space on a daily basis. It is also home to wildlife. Recognize that even undeveloped it is a place of meditation and respite. Keep the Mesa open space!

    bryan borich
    bryan borich

    @Brer Marsh  Did you look at the picture of what the site looks like now (and for the previous 3 decades)?

    I'd note that technically Buddhism is not really a religion as much as a lifestyle.

    <<Hundreds of walkers, runners, bicyclists and more enjoy this VALUABLE piece of urban open space on a daily basis>> Not currently. It's unusable, except maybe by some of the wildlife.

    Shawn Strande
    Shawn Strande

    @bryan borich @Brer Marsh

    I live next to Morley Field and can attest that the open space behind it is heavily used by runners, dog walkers, bicyclists...I've done all 3 there, as have many others.

    Brer Marsh
    Brer Marsh

    @bryan borich. If you spent any time on the east Mesa you would know what I'm talking about.