Statement: “The zoo, for example, has to turn away people 100 days out of the year,” said Tomas Herrera-Mishler, CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy, during a Voice of San Diego live podcast at Thorn St. Brewery on July 23.

Determination: UnfoundedUnfounded

Analysis: As Balboa Park planners look to polish what’s known as the crown jewel of San Diego, a major question is how much of a problem parking is for visitors.

Tomas Herrera-Mishler, who took over as director of the nonprofit park conservancy in June, said a lack of parking spaces hurts the bottom lines of the park’s major institutions.

“I do think that there is a capacity problem,” he said. “The zoo, for example, has to turn away people 100 days out of the year, and that’s a huge economic disadvantage to our community.”

If true, that’s a strong argument for more parking in the park, something that would only add to the city’s $500 million to-do list of park repairs and improvements.

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

Herrera-Mishler attributed the 100 days statistic to San Diego Zoo CEO Douglas Myers. The stat was also reported in a 2013 article in the Union-Tribune about the zoo’s new employee parking garage and was then attributed to Rick Gulley, president of the San Diego Zoological Society.

Christina Simmons, spokeswoman for the San Diego Zoo, confirmed that zoo officials have observed patrons struggling with parking for years.

“More than 100 days each year, the lot fills up by 11 a.m., and we see people driving around in circles, fighting for the occasional open parking space and (more than likely) choosing to drive away and go somewhere else,” she said in an email.

But Simmons clarified the zoo has no actual documentation showing the number of days per year that the parking lot fills up.

“The lot in front of the zoo is used not just by zoo-goers, and we have no system in place to track them,” she said. “As we are not able to interact with or determine the number of people that choose to go away, we are not able to accurately assess the revenue lost.”

Simmons said the oft-cited 100 days figure likely comes from a study done for the Park Boulevard Promenade project by a Balboa Park working group more than a decade ago.

Documents for that project from 2003 state that “the Zoo uses off-site parking areas 100 days per year to accommodate Zoo visitor parking demand.”

But the overflow parking often was sufficient. The same study said the main and off-site lots accommodated everyone who needed parking all but 55 days a year. And even then, that stat doesn’t mean the zoo had to turn people away when its lots were full.

Fact Check: If parking at the zoo is really this bad, it would add some weight to the argument Balboa Park needs more.

More recent information is hard to come by. The city doesn’t track parking in Balboa Park beyond generally listing available parking spots. The city auditor and independent budget analyst, both of whom examined the city’s relationship with the zoo recently, didn’t look at parking capacity there, either.

So while it may sometimes be hard to find a parking spot in the zoo’s main lot, there’s no hard evidence that the zoo actually loses customers 100 days per year because people can’t find parking. That makes Herrera-Mishler’s statement unfounded.

Even if the statement were true, zoo parking problems could well be a thing of the past. The zoo is opening a new $18 million, 650-space parking garage for employees next week. That will free up visitor parking in the main lot, Simmons said.

“We believe this will address the main issue for us, but time will tell,” she said.

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Fact Check, Land Use, Must Reads, News

    Written by Zoe Schaver

    Zoe Schaver is a 2015 summer reporting intern for Voice of San Diego. You can get in touch with her with comments, questions or offers of free food at 619-550-5672 or by email at

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    I think the photos of empty parking lots on the 4th of July that Andrew Keats tweeted totally debunks Jacobs and the park tenants claims about the park having too little parking. Thanks to Andrew and VOSD for injecting a little reality into this farce. There are tons of parking in Balboa Park. Some park tenants are upset because all that parking isn't in front of the buildings they occupy with sweetheart leases from the city. This isn't about making the park accessible to tourists and residents, its about catering to already spoiled park "institution" boards and management who want front row parking spaces.

    James Bergman
    James Bergman

    I think that it is important to have adequate parking wherever you go. The Zoo especially because I don't often make the trip there, and when I do I really want to be able to stay and get in. I do kind of wish that they could add a parking garage for visitors or just add more space. Or, maybe I should just go when it is less crowded. 

    Robet Lawson
    Robet Lawson

    Charge for parking and encourage transit/bike/motorcycle/cab/lyft/uber/carpool use. It's a park, one of the few places you can go in this sprawling city to escape endless fields of asphalt. Also, it's kind of dumb that I don't use a parking spot but pay just as much as people who park a whole RV there.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Derek Hoffman beat me to the comment that those who left the zoo lot after not finding a space may well have parked elsewhere including along Park Blvd. (often, my preference if I come up on a busy day). There also are the very large Inspiration Point parking lot and the 500-space lot just across Park Blvd. from Inspiration Pt., both served by a shuttle to Plaza de Panama, or the Pepper Grove lot near the Space Theater - it's not such a long walk to the zoo from those locations. 

    The #7 bus runs quite frequently along Park Blvd. so locals could choose to use that and leave spaces for visitors not familiar with the Park. After all, people do manage to get to the Central Mesa for Earth Fair and December Nights. Earth Fair manages to arrange parking at the City College parking structures with shuttles to the park, why can't the City do something similar on weekend when City College parking is available.

    I also took issue with Mr. Herrera-Mishler's statement (at the C-3 Breakfast Dialogue) about how little parking is left available on Tuesdays. It's ONE Tuesday a month when there's an additional crowd seeking parking to visit museums on the Free Tuesday. And I would guess that most of those complaining they couldn't find parking did not look at either of the lots adjacent to Park Blvd., Inspiration Point, the 500-space lot at Park & Presidents Way, or Pepper Grove (adjacent to the Space Theater lot). As in most cases elsewhere, earlier is always better if a visitor thinks there will be a high demand for parking.

    Lastly, as one commenter pointed out, better signage would make a huge difference so that people are made aware of alternative parking and informed at the entry of the zoo lot if it's filled. The latter probably will require some substantial investment for tracking but still lots less than the cost of a new parking structure.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    Not mentioned is that the zoo itself is also quite full when the parking lot is full.  Trying to squeeze more people into the zoo on the most crowded days isn't necessarily the best idea.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    What is the monthly cost for employees to park in the garage?

    William Schneider
    William Schneider subscriber

    How many of the supposed people turned away would benefit from alternative transportation to the park, whether it be an aerial tram from Downtown, or a streetcar? Is adding more parking the right solution to this problem?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @William Schneider Maybe those people who "turned away" just parked in one of the parking lots further out. I think some signs directing traffic to those lots would be a lot cheaper than building a new parking garage.

    And to get really fancy, they could have electronic signs that indicate when the lot is full, so people don't have to circle the lot just to discover that for themselves.

    Zoe Schaver
    Zoe Schaver

    @William Schneider Excellent question. As San Diego looks to build more progressive transit services and get away from its car-centric culture it'd be an important step to make public amenities like Balboa Park more accessible by alternative forms of transportation.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @William Schneider The Mid-City Rapid (215) from SDSU to downtown stops at the zoo and has connections to the trolley at each end of the route and at the City College Transit Center.  So excellent public transit already exists to the zoo as well as Balboa Park.  The zoo web site also lists the available transit options: