If you’ve ever grumbled about parking in Balboa Park, experts say you should consider paying up to fix the problem.

Frustrated motorists often circle lots at the center of the park in search of free parking on busy days, encountering pedestrians and other crawling cars along the way. Leaders of some park institutions have long claimed a dearth of parking is one of Balboa Park’s most pressing problems and public garages have been repeatedly discussed as potential solutions.

A handful of outside parking and planning experts – all of whom have visited Balboa Park – told Voice of San Diego a comprehensive pricing plan for current parking in Balboa Park could offer immediate relief for parking headaches while the city continues deliberating long-stalled plans to build those parking garages.

The latest of those plans – initially approved by the City Council four years ago, but back on the table after a court delay – calls for a paid, 800-car underground garage as part of a broader project to get cars out of the park’s central mesa. Only one 650-spot garage, mostly used by San Diego Zoo employees, has materialized in the last decade despite city-sanctioned studies and plans calling for more parking.

But experts say Balboa Park might be able to do a lot with what it’s already got.

“If you started charging for it, you might find miraculously that there’s suddenly more parking,” said Donald Shoup, a professor emeritus at UCLA who’s literally famous for his parking research.

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

That’s despite the longtime opposition to paid parking in Balboa Park and, well, just about everywhere else.

Shoup and his fans, who dub themselves Shoupistas, say free parking can encourage bad behavior such as hovering around in search of parking, hogging close-in spots for hours and filling public space that could be used for other things with cars – all longtime realities in Balboa Park.

“What you have right now is not a parking supply problem but a parking management problem,” said Patrick Siegman, a San Francisco-based transportation planner and economist who’s visited Balboa Park many times.

A paid parking system, Siegman and others say, could supply real-time data to help the city establish when and where parking is in greatest demand, and whether additional parking is needed. Ideally, fees would be set with the goal of keeping some spaces open in every lot at any given time so it’s always possible to find a spot.

Shoup and Siegman believe dynamic, demand-based pricing in current asphalt lots and reduced or even nonexistent charges in less-used lots could help resolve two longtime parking conundrums in Balboa Park.

Cars inch through often packed lots at the center of the park despite a plethora of options in two larger, further-flung lots along Park.

A 2011 parking survey completed along with environmental reviews for the Plaza de Panama project found lots near The Prado were at or near capacity during peak weekday and weekend hours. At the same times, the two areas southeast of the park’s core – known as the Federal and Inspiration Point lots – had hundreds of open spaces.

City signage now attempts to direct visitors to those lots, where trams pick up and drive visitors to The Prado. (A city spokesman said park and recreation officials are hopeful that as more San Diegans learn about the free parking with shuttle service, they’ll take that option.)

A 2006 plan to address the park’s parking and circulation issues emphasized a related challenge: Balboa Park employees often arrive hours before visitors and take the spots visitors want most – and for hours longer than visitors would use them.

The result, according to that study: “Visitors walk an average of 1,435 feet from parking space to their destination. Employees at the Prado area institutions walk an average of 565 (feet) from parking space to destination.”

Parking Concepts, Inc., the firm that authored the parking analysis for the Plaza de Panama project, concluded the plan – initially slated to charge $5 for five hours of parking – could push employees to farther-away lots.

“Although there would be no prohibition on employees or staff parking in the new structure, the parking fee would deter most, if not all, employee parking in the structure,” the consultant wrote in the study.

Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick, who chairs a group of Balboa Park institutions backing the Plaza de Panama plan, confirmed the city and park institutions haven’t set parking rules for employees despite the 2006 study’s recommendation that the city do so.

The zoo has since built a garage behind the Botanical Building that’s likely keeping zoo employees out of the zoo lot on Park Boulevard, and freeing up those spaces for park visitors.

But other park employees can still take valuable parking spots.

Shoup and Siegman believe charging for parking in the existing asphalt lots closest to park institutions would change longtime employee parking practices and encourage some visitors who now search for parking in the heart of Balboa Park to avoid the process altogether.

They and other experts also say charging for parking could even encourage more environmentally-sound behavior.

For one, they said, less circling around looking for parking translates into fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at nonprofit Trust for Public Land, said paid parking can also promote alternate modes of transportation over car-centric projects and put a greater emphasis on maintaining public spaces.

Right now, a bus that stops along Park Boulevard is the only direct transit option to Balboa Park, and it’s outside the park’s popular core.

Harnik said paid parking could encourage more future transit investments and mean fewer vehicle trips, a major goal of the city’s Climate Act Plan.

“The very fact of charging for parking tremendously reduces the amount of driving,” Harnik said. “People think twice about carpooling and sharing a ride.”

But Kidrick and other park leaders are unlikely to get behind a park-wide plan to charge for parking anytime soon.

It wouldn’t be politically popular. Many city residents view it as a de facto entry fee to a public park meant to be free.

And institutions are already advocating for the Plaza de Panama plan, which would bring the first non-valet, paid parking to Balboa Park.

Kidrick said institutions will be watching how the parking garage and park circulation evolve along with the Plaza de Panama revamp before promoting other garages or parking policy changes. They do expect to lobby for other solutions in the future.

“We see Plaza de Panama as the first phase of future creative planning to better the situation because Plaza de Panama was never intended to answer all of the parking ills of the park,” Kidrick said. “It takes a great first step and give us the chance, when it’s completed, to take a look at the park and how it’s used even more and how this project has positively affected it.”

The Plaza de Panama plan is not meant to solve the parking problems in the park, but rather to clear the cars from many of those roadways and lots in its core and replace the lost parking with a garage. If you wanted to address parking immediately, Shoup’s convinced a broader plan could deliver results.

“Before you build a garage, try charging for parking,” he said. “You may not need a garage.”

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, 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.

    Timbell subscriber

    My thought would be, the owners of the business's would pay for the placard, windshield sticker, bumper sticker, id. As far as not parking in a parking lot (oxymoron).  Your proposal has some merit..

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Lisa - you might find it informative to search the SD UT archives for articles about when Mayor Susan Golding proposed paid parking in Balboa Park and Mission Beach. The "fire storm" was impressive. I've no doubt it would be equally or more impressive today. Sorry I can't easily give you dates but it was between 1991-1995 or thereabout.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    What parking woes? Balboa Park has hundreds of acres of free parking. The city has to do a better job of signage to let people know where the parking is, not begin charging people to park in their own public park, which likely would violate the city charter. The fact that some walking adverse drivers cruise the close in parking lots instead of parking in outlying lots just says volumes about why America is in the throes of an obesity epidemic. Walking is good for people; perhaps they will discovers new areas of the park they've never visited. Balboa Park is for all San Diegans, not just rich limousine liberals and wealthy tourists. Come to the park, park your car in one of the empty spaces and enjoy the park. No need to create new money making schemes for the city by charging people to park their cars in the park. Get SANDAG and MTS to extend the trolley from downtown up Park Boulevard and much of this perceived "problem" will go away.  

    William Charles
    William Charles

    Of course charging for parking would create more spaces.... because nobody would go to the park if you have to pay additional fees just to park your car. Which would also ruin the attendance at the beautiful museums. Why don't we just build more parking? Simple solution

    Timbell subscriber

    So why not issue a vehicle placard and id to the employees and have them park in the tram parking lots. Any employee found parking in the open lots would be fined the five dollars for parking in the open lot.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Timbell So, who would pay for the registration and placards and enforcement? What guarantee is there that an employee would choose to not use the placard? 

    An alternative thought is to not allow parking in the Organ Pavilion lot, the Palisades lot or the Alcazar lot before 9:00 am or even 9:30 (exceptions would be vehicles with ADA placards). 

    Some years back, the City imposed time-limited parking in the Plaza de Panama and maybe not before a certain hour though I don't recall if it did or not. This is as an example and by no means a suggestion that the 3 lots I name have time delimited parking (30 minutes; 3 hours... etc.)

    Dawn Owens
    Dawn Owens

    It's already too expensive to visit just one museum, adding on an additional X for parking is obscene.  The people with the money to pay for both admission and parking are probably working during the day, anyway.  What about retirees on fixed incomes, already stretched to the max by housing costs?  Ever thought of opening the museums past 4:30?  Night hours for people who aren't the 'dancing and cocktails crowd....? 

    I was there for the first time last week.  There was plenty of parking near the electric car recharge stands (!) and the handicapped parking next to the Air and Space Museum.  And this was after 10 o'clock AM.  No bike stands in evidence that I remember, either, which might help.  This tells me you don't have seniors/handicapped visiting, and while electric car recharging stands are a wonderful addition, they're not being used to capacity and resulted in unused up close parking spaces.  

    How about charging for parking in close, free parking on the outskirts with shuttle service, and add in bike stands for those who can arrive that way? And yes, employees and volunteers of which there are hundreds should have a 'park and ride' feature with quick access to a shuttle.  They're parking close in because they're on their feet all day, understandably.  You also need to ENLARGE the signage all over the park. It's hard to read until you're up too close, what with paying attention to all the pedestrians and crazy traffic, even with it in slow motion.  As in - THIS WAY TO FREE PARKING SHUTTLE, RUNS EVERY FIVE MINUTES' so people don't think they'll be waiting forever in the sun.  Make the shuttle a cute tram and it'll be part of the appeal. 

    Now what did you pay for that idiotic 'parking study'?  Because it was all obvious. 

    kkmrnn subscriber

    Thank you for bringing this issue up. I strongly support the idea of charging for parking in and near Balboa Park. I have often witnessed cars cruising through the center part of the park looking for a spot, especially on free Tuesdays. Although people don't like paying for parking, it is a good way of rationing a scarce resource.

     I have taken the El Cajon Boulevard bus from Talmadge to Balboa Park several times and found it convenient to the museums on the Park Boulevard side of the park. I wonder if MTS and the park could do a promotion to encourage people to take the bus rather than drive.

    DavidM subscriber

    “Before you build a garage, try charging for parking,” Shoup said. “You may not need a garage.”

    How about the employers tell employees to park further away (like Horton Plaza does during Christmas season, and you may not need to charge for parking.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    Consumer oriented businesses everywhere do not allow employees to park in prime spots.  I own some of that type of business and my employees know that they can't park in the nearby spots.  Amazing that the tenants in the park refuse to take action, as it directly effects their business.  I chalk that up to incompetent management.  And really wrong that the city won't do anything about it but will put taxpayers on the hook for the parking garage.  Yes, I also chalk that up to poor management.

    I have mixed feeling about charging for parking, but you don't have to charge much to affect behavior.  One concern is that those who are in poor health or have difficulty walking for other reasons may also not have the money to pay for parking.  Possibly, the park could charge for parking only during peak hours.  This would spread demand more evenly over more of the day.  I'm sure the city and park could provide other creative solutions to parking issues if they cared to but using other people's money is always more attractive, isn't it?

    Karlos Garcia
    Karlos Garcia

    It's also much easier to sell more parking as the solution to socal people. It's what we're used to. Using taxpayer dollars has a much more indirect and deferred cost attached to it than charging for parking. It's unfortunate that the public isn't more willing to sacrifice something for the betterment of the community as a whole when it comes to driving vs alternative modes of transportation.