If promises are kept, 2017 could be the year city leaders start etching out plans to address Balboa Park’s many needs and break ground on a controversial project some believe will chip away at a long-running park problem.

Here’s a guide to the public pledges and projects expected to play out in 2017.

New Focus on Needs

Recently released consultant’s assessments of city-owned buildings in Balboa Park concluded would take about $200 million to get park buildings in tip-top shape. City officials have since suggested it would cost $79 million to get those buildings into good condition.

City Councilman Mark Kersey, Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin and city staffers who attended a Dec. 7 infrastructure committee meeting emphasized the consultants’ surprising takeaway that many Balboa Park buildings were in better condition than expected.

But they also zeroed in on what that new estimate didn’t factor in. It doesn’t include the potential for expansions or code upgrades. Nor does it include significant seismic issues that could be crucial to keeping Balboa Park’s iconic buildings intact in the event of an earthquake.

An engineering consultant who’s previously worked with the city on California Tower seismic upgrades told me retrofits for the Museum of Man and the Museum of Art buildings alone could total $5 million to $10 million each.

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

“These are both unique historical buildings with significant challenges, collections and logistical issues,” structural engineer Tony Court wrote in an email.

The new estimate also doesn’t account for yet-to-be started projects and expansions envisioned in the park’s master plan. Kersey, who chairs the council’s infrastructure committee, said the outstanding questions should force a conversation about Balboa Park’s infrastructure and maintenance needs.

Now that the city has more data about basic repairs, Kersey said, it’s important to have “a more in-depth discussion just on this particular topic.”

Kersey’s chief of staff told me the councilman hopes to schedule that discussion in February or March.

Identifying Priorities

City Councilman Chris Ward pledged on the campaign trail to assemble a group to assess the park’s top priorities and needs, as well as sustainable funding options, is his first 100 days in office.

That conversation would likely complement the infrastructure committee’s review. There’s currently no dedicated funding for the park despite its status as a tourism mecca. Nor is there anything official indicating which Balboa Park projects should go to the front of the line.

A handful of Balboa Park advocates say Ward has already chatted with them about his plans for a working group that would look at both issues.

In a statement, Ward said he’s interested in addressing infrastructure needs and continuing to implement the park’s master plan.

“I want to have a robust public discussion that brings stakeholders together to find agreement on the needs, prioritization, and funding of park improvements – not just to address deferred maintenance but to implement many of the long-awaited improvements to the East Mesa and Golden Hill neighborhoods,” Ward wrote.

Vicki Estrada, a landscape architect who wrote the Balboa Park master plan, said she was excited about Ward’s enthusiasm and informed questions about the park’s needs after a meeting last week.

“I’ve got hope for Balboa Park that he’s going to do the right thing,” Estrada said.

Bruce Coons of the Save Our Heritage Organisation and Tomas Herrera-Mishler of the Balboa Park Conservancy were also optimistic about Ward’s commitment to Balboa Park’s needs – and what might result from his convening of Balboa Park stakeholders.

“We’re really looking forward to meeting with (Ward) and his staff and continuing this conversation,” Herrera-Mishler said.

The Plaza de Panama Project

Philanthropists have long pushed a plan to make over the park’s central mesa with the goal of clearing the park’s core of cars and adding additional parking. They decry forced interactions between cars and park visitors and say there’s a need for more close-in parking.

A lawsuit stalled their plan to address those concerns for years.

Then Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and other supporters announced they were reviving it. In November, the City Council approved a new financing plan for the project that largely relies on proceeds from paid parking at a new partially underground behind the Organ Pavilion. The city’s committing up to $50 million for the Plaza de Panama project while philanthropists will be working to raise about $25 million. Two foundations have already collectively pledged $6 million.

San Diego Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick, who serves on the committee backing the project, said additional fundraising will likely begin in early 2017.

If the city issues bonds for the project as expected and construction planning goes smoothly, the project could break ground next fall.

But a new lawsuit could complicate matters.

The Save Our Heritage Organisation sued the city on Dec. 21, alleging officials failed to undertake necessary environmental reviews for changes to the project since it was first approved in 2012. A spokesman for City Attorney Mara Elliott dubbed the suit “an unjustified attempt at delay.”

David Lundin, who leads the fledgling Balboa Park Heritage Association, has said he’s weighing next steps too.

Those challenges could delay construction and create fundraising challenges.

Spotlight on Starlight

For more than five years, the Starlight Bowl has sat vacant and abandoned. Wedged between the municipal gym and the Air & Space Museum, the amphitheater had until recently been caught in limbo by a lease held by a now-defunct nonprofit.

It could get new life this year.

Steve Stopper, a former Starlight contractor who once sued the city, claiming it was wasting taxpayer resources by letting the venue sit dormant, has since helped marshal a movement to save it. He’s created a group called Save Starlight that’s drawn more attention to the venue.

More than 400 attended the group’s August clean-up effort and a spokeswoman said it’s received about $375,000 in donated sound and light equipment to help execute Stopper’s vision to host events there once again.

Now Save Starlight and the city are in talks about an arrangement that would allow the group to take further steps to try to revitalize the Starlight Bowl, a city spokesman said.

Stopper said he’s thrilled with the progress and excited about the wave of support he’s gotten from more established Balboa Park groups, such as the Committee of 100 and the Friends of Balboa Park, plus others in the arts community.

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

    This article relates to: 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 lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    Steve Karo
    Steve Karo

    In response to comments denigrating Starlight Bowl and the group diligently working toward restoration and operation.  Please visit savestarlight.org.
    1-The Bowl was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company for the 1935­-36 California Pacific International Exposition. In its early days the Bowl was home to symphony concerts broadcast via radio across the country, and other events. It is as historical as any other structure in Balboa Park which as a whole is designated as historical.
    2-Most, if not all, restoration upgrades and operational costs will be born by the company.
    3-Times have changed. Planes are quieter. Greatly improved audio and visual capabilities and an expert (Steve Stopper) at the helm will provide a much enhanced result It will not be perfect but closer to that  goal.
    4-Don’t make the mistake of lumping the ampitheatre with theatrical venues, the bowl has much more potential for a variety of events with an emphasis on community activities, not musical theatre.  This will be a totally fresh approach with keen eyes and a great hard working team.
    5-Starlight Opera folded due to a complex mix of problems of which the plane noise was a small part.  As far as the North Park Theatre, the same is true.  Essentially, Lyric Opera was the victim of our financial downturn and never recovered. I might remind you that although operations are different, the theatre is very much alive and thriving.
    6-As far as preserving the facades of the Starlight and building a parking garage?  That’s just silly and would cost the City a great deal more that the current plan.
    7- This is a well thought out endeavor to enliven a moribund space with the appreciated input and cooperation of City staff.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Steve Karo Steve, Here's a proposition for you.  Let's you and I stand in the Starlight Bowl about 7 PM, look at the stage and imagine a musical or even a straight dialogue performance.  Then you turn to me and explain how much quieter the aircraft in the landing path have become.  

    What's that you said.....  

    Steve Karo
    Steve Karo

    @Bill Bradshaw @Steve Karo

    I did just that, 5 shows a week for 20 years and to sold out or near sold out crowds Lots of good people involved in this project with more knowledge and experience than either of us, plus hundreds of volunteers.  Obviously, you are not an enthusiast, but I respect your opinion.  Let’s leave it at that.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Steve Karo @Bill Bradshaw Actually I was an enthusiast for about 3 years, but the noise got so frequent the "pauses" in the performance became a farce so my wife and I finally didn't renew our subscription.  

    We had a lot of company.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    I would like to see a dedicated foundation created to steward Balboa Park.  Such a foundation would raise funds that would be dedicated to the park, administer the master plan, possibly hold the deed to the land and create a legal umbrella for the operation and preservation of the park.  Other cites and parks have such a foundation, which as far as I can tell, has served them well.  Such an organization would smooth out the swings in funding and attention that the park receives because it is just one more line item in the city budget.  It would also be more likely to attract charitable giving than trusting the city to direct money to the park.

    We have a real jewel in Balboa Park and it is time we set structure/organization in place for its perpetual care.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    The only way to make the Starlight Bowl work would be to reroute all the airliners landing at Lindbergh Field. It ain't gonna happen in our lifetimes. The city should identify alternatives uses for the site that wouldn't be affected by the fact that the site is directly below the Lindbergh Landing path. As for the Jacob's proposal, the city shouldn't issue bonds or take any other actions to support the project until it has the promised $30 million in private contributions in the bank. Talk is cheap.

    bgetzel subscriber

    Renovation of the Starlight Theatre should not be on the infrastructure priority list because: 1) It is not an historic structure; 2) It has no architectural merit; 3) Watching a musical while being buzzed by 747s is not pleasurable; and 4) Its revival is not economic (Remember the renovation of the North Park Theatre?).

    As far as the renovation of significant Balboa Park structures - we need to define the priorities and fund sources. As with our decaying streets and our huge homeless problem, there are not enough funds available to do the job. Will the Mayor and/or the City Council have the guts to propose a bond measure?

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    The City seems to have an abundance of performing arts faculties.  Why not preserve the facades of the Starlight, build a parking garage there, and remove the surface parking from the Pan American Plaza?

    The parking in the Pan American Plaza is far more intrusive into the park than the Organ Pavilion Parking lot.

    Joe Doakes
    Joe Doakes

    Airliners are becoming quieter all the time.  The options presented by Bill Bradshaw may not apply.  How about some authoritative comment by the FAA or airport officials on expected noise levels?  

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I don't get the plan for Starlight Theater.  Seems to me there are three options, (1) operate between 11 PM and 6 AM, (2) make it a domed facility, and (3) change the flight path into Lindbergh Field.  If there's a fourth, please tell me.  If the idea is simply to clean it up and reopen, someone is going to lose a lot of money, hopefully not the taxpayers.

    Rachel Laing
    Rachel Laing subscribermember

    @Bill Bradshaw Agree! The effort to save the Starlight Theater is mostly about nostalgia -- and ironically, much of the nostalgia stems from what a hilariously bad experience it is to watch a show in an open-air theater under a busy flight path. San Diego has so much great theater, I don't see how the Starlight can compete. I think it's a case of people wanting the option/not wanting to see something they loved as a kid disappear, but not really wanting to actually pay to see a show there.

    Voice SD
    Voice SD

    @Bill Bradshaw Starlight Theater - maybe a "domed facility" near an airport - Schools around Heathrow Airport have built "super adobe" huts (first used for war refugees) on the the school grounds so kids can go "outside" and play. The super adobe structures attenuate up to 17dB of the otherwise painfully loud aircraft noise.