Patty O’Reilly of La Mesa has visited Balboa Park regularly for more than seven decades.

These days, the 77-year-old usually schedules her visits around when she thinks she’ll find handicapped parking in the small lot next to the Alcazar Garden, not far from the Old Globe Theatre she loves.

“Sooner or later you learn,” said O’Reilly, who felt sore for days after parking farther away.

And twice a week, 28-year-old Alex Perez circles the lot near the municipal gym in Balboa Park, where he plays basketball, in search of a disabled spot. If he doesn’t find one, he’ll have to propel his manual wheelchair up the hill behind the Hall of Champions before a two-hour practice – and carefully down after that.

“It’s a hassle,” said Perez.

Their stories aren’t isolated. Balboa Park isn’t always an inviting place for people with mobility limitations despite city efforts to improve accessibility.

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

The park’s parking woes can be more confounding for disabled people who rely on a limited number of handicapped or close-in parking spots. There’s also scant signage directing visitors to disabled parking or ways to get around within the park. The latter can leave disabled visitors uncertain where they can find parking and unsure if a free tram meant to help them get around is actually free and meant to help them get around.

Some avoid Balboa Park altogether.

The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, which relies on lots of senior volunteers, including many with disabilities, acknowledges it’s sometimes struggled to hold onto them.

“Like anybody else, they’ve gotta find a place to park,” said Melvin Weekley, who serves the House of Pacific Relations board.

Easing that challenge and improving accessibility has been central to discussions about making over Balboa Park’s central mesa.

The recently revived project – known as the Plaza de Panama plan – would clear the park’s central plazas of cars. Backers wanted to replace lost close-in parking with a parking garage and another lot dedicated to disabled parking, valet and visitor drop-offs. They also incorporated a tram system to shuttle visitors who park in the new garage behind the Organ Pavilion to other areas of the park.

When that project stalled in court, Balboa Park’s parking challenges festered.

Ex-Mayor Bob Filner ordered city workers in 2013 to remove parking from the Plaza de Panama. The city later replaced lost disabled spots and installed additional ones next to Alcazar Garden, behind the Organ Pavilion and in the larger lot behind the Hall of Champions.

The result, a city spokesman said, is that Balboa Park actually has more accessible parking spaces than it did in the past and exceeds federal requirements for handicapped spots in multiple lots in the park.

It also instituted a tram system that ferries riders from parking lots and from the Air & Space Museum area to the Plaza de Panama.

But the tram doesn’t stop at the Organ Pavilion lot, now the largest disabled parking hub in the heart of Balboa Park.

That means those spaces often sit empty, in an otherwise packed lot.

Disabled spaces in the Alcazar lot and others in the park are regularly full, while the Organ Pavilion regularly looks as it does in this shot from Google Maps.

Image courtesy Google Maps
Image via Google Maps

Disabled park visitors say that’s because it’s too far from the Prado, where most of them are trying to go, doesn’t get tram service and is too hard to traverse.

“That surface is terrible, absolutely terrible,” said Beverly Weurding, CEO of the Wheelchair Dancers Organization, which hosts regular classes in Balboa Park.

Weurding, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a manual wheelchair, said she’s feared falls due to the uneven surface. Getting onto the sidewalk from the parking surface can also be challenging.

The task isn’t over once a person with mobility problems gets onto the sidewalk. Others told me the long, gradual slope from the Organ Pavilion lot to the Prado can be cumbersome. The other options? The stairs or another slope directly behind the Organ Pavilion.

O’Reilly, who uses a walker or cane depending on the situation, has tried the stairs and came away sore and regretting her decision.

“It’s hell to park there,” she said.

The status of that lot came up during discussions about the Plaza de Panama project, said Susan Madison, who once led city efforts to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and offered input on the Plaza de Panama project.

Madison, who uses a wheelchair herself, said city staffers and advocates for the disabled urged the committee pushing the Plaza de Panama project to add accommodations or regrade the area before putting more parking there.

Years later, the long, gradual slope outside the Organ Pavilion lot remains but there’s no garage or tram stop.

The city decided against adding one after it bought the trams in 2013.

Adding a stop there would require removing many parking spaces in the lot and city staffers concluded it would also slow tram service overall, city spokesman Tim Graham wrote in an email.

That means changes are unlikely unless the Plaza de Panama project is implemented.

The Plaza de Panama project, which will likely go forward as long as there’s cash to pay for it, would add a garage that houses two accessible elevators and 16 disabled parking spots, which would be free despite charges for other users. The project also recommends a tram stop just outside the garage. (The project would also add even more disabled parking to the Alcazar Garden lot.)

Supporters of the Plaza de Panama project have said frequent tram service accessible to people with disabilities was a crucial element of the project.

But the tram service the city’s got now isn’t drawing as many fans as it could.

O’Reilly, Weurding and others acknowledged they’ve never tried the Balboa Park tram. They all said they’re unclear how it works. After all, the sparse signage that directs visitors to the trams only highlights that they’re free, not who can use them. Small signs at the tram stops, however, do feature small accessibility icons.

“There’s the question of, ‘Are you capable or not of getting on and off the tram?’” O’Reilly said.

Louis Frick, executive director of San Diego-based nonprofit Access to Independence, was frustrated last week when he pulled up the Balboa Park website to learn more.

Frick, who uses a power wheelchair, found details on disabled parking near the trams but no word on whether drivers assist those getting on the trams or if both he and his wife, who’s also in a wheelchair, could ride the tram at the same time. (The city spokesman later told me the trams can carry up to two passengers in wheelchairs at a time and that drivers are trained to help disabled people board if they need help.)

Folks who have tried the trams give them positive reviews.

David Decelles of Pacific Beach, who uses a wheelchair, said the trams have made it easier for him to get from the Prado area to museums farther south.

Kathie Legenza of Clairemont, who uses a walker, tried the Balboa Park trams for the first time this week. She initially worried whether they’d accommodate her and later told me she was impressed by the ramps to get onto them and drivers’ willingness to help her.

“I was just so thrilled to be able to get on and be met with somebody so nice, as both these gentlemen were really nice,” Legenza said.

James Jett of Vista, who carries an oxygen tank and relies on disabled parking, also dubbed the tram service excellent. He said he’s found it easy to get on and off the tram and appreciates the quick transportation option from outside the park’s core.

Jett and his wife Lynne often give up on finding handicapped spots in the park’s center and look for space at Inspiration Point, a lot farther away.

The tram’s made that option work for them – for now.

“The need for more handicap spots is quite apparent to us,” Lynne Jett said.

Others who rely on disabled parking agree and believe the lack of parking is keeping some disabled folks who’d otherwise come to the park from visiting.

Weurding is one of them.

“It is a shame you don’t see more people at the park in wheelchairs and it’s mainly because of the parking issue on weekends,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said signs at Balboa Park tram stops don’t offer accessibility details for disabled visitors. Each sign features a small accessibility icon.

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Corrections, 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.

    Stephen Hon
    Stephen Hon subscribermember

    If I read the story correctly, several of the disabled people complaining about parking had never even tried to ride the shuttle giving pretty poor excuses such as they were not sure whether the shuttles were accessible and made no real effort to find out. Since the shuttles run quite often waiting at a stop to find out would not have been a long wait. Disabled people who had actually ridden the shuttles said they were fine and the staff were helpful and attentive. As much as I respect the work of Lisa her stories on Balboa Park appear to be part of the VOSD effort to support the cause of Irwin Jacobs. I think they should have put a disclaimer at the end of this story about Jacobs being a major supporter of VOSD. The Plaza de Panama project will, as Bruce Coons pointed out, not improve access in the Park. It would be much much cheaper to fix the problems with the lot behind the Organ Pavilion and improve the sidewalks etc than go ahead with the Plaza de Panama Project. Just because Irwin Jacobs has done many good things for the City, that doesn't mean he gets a pass on the Plaza de Panama Project. If we have learned anything about Irwin Jacobs in this effort is that he carries a grudge if people don't fall over themselves thanking him for any of his ideas. 

    Bruce Coons
    Bruce Coons

    The Plaza de Panama project significantly reduces present access, ADA spaces will be reduced in number. Present drop off for the Museum of Man, Old Globe, Mingei, House of Hospitality Museum of Art, Timkin etc will be eliminated and distance greatly increased. ADA pathways will become greatly lengthened and become circuitous.

    Kristen Aliotti
    Kristen Aliotti subscriber

    Outrageous that the Voice of San Diego is posting articles of this type without mentioning the financial support you get from the park-destroyer himself, Irwin Jacobs. I'm not reading any of this carefully (VOSD articles seem to be endlessly repetitive, and require us, the reader, to sort through the copy to find anything new) but didn't you used to put a disclaimer, that the VOSD was supported by significant financial support from Irwin Jacobs? Where is it for this article? Anything dealing with "Balboa Park" or "parking" there is going to be scrutinized, to see if it is biased - in small or large ways - in favor of the appalling Jacobs bridge/parking garage "plan." I oppose the destruction of the bridge, and I oppose paid parking in a garage or otherwise. 

    Steven Lord
    Steven Lord

    @Kristen Aliotti No, Ms. Aliotti, what is "outrageous" and "appalling" is your unwarranted, callous and disrespectful public lashing of Irwin Jacobs.  What, exactly, have YOU done for this city?  All Mr. Jacobs has done is put forward a beautifully innovative proposal for restoring Balboa Park's original pedestrian-oriented tranquility, while simultaneously solving a long-standing shortage of parking. I assure you that your miopic and self-absorbed views are NOT shared by the majority of San Diegans, thankfully, who treasure Mr. Jacobs, his selfless generosity and love for this city.  

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    What part of generous philanthropic citizen do you have a problem with? Why not embrace and look for solutions rather systematically reject?

    Erik Hanson
    Erik Hanson subscriber

    The fact that the trams were ordered and even arrived. without a location and design for refueling stations tells you all you need to know about how well the tram system was planned out.

    And the Jacobs plan will make so access issues Much worse. Such as how the current dropoff location on the street in front of the Globe and the Museum of Man would be about 5 times farther away. And how the "ditch" road offers no pedestrian shoulder for cars that break down under there.

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    Maybe we could start with recalling all the unnecessary handicap place cards in circulation and make issuance more restrictive. Some people would benefit from a walk rather than up close parking and still others could be dropped off and the car parked elsewhere. We live in a City with ideal weather yet resist getting out of our homes and cars to get a little exercise.

    Deborah Gostin
    Deborah Gostin

    @TJ Apple Perhaps you are not aware of the many, like myself, who live with an "invisible" disability (or disabilities) but require disabled parking so as not exhaust oneself before the destination (often much cooler) is even reached.  Exhaustion: Unable to stand any longer, potential for falling - high.

    When people make comments as you did, it requires those of us who look healthy to actually have to explain to others why we need to use a disabled spot. 

    After getting my car keyed at a Target store where I used my placard, but walked away without "looking" disabled, I decided I would have to do more to prevent the reactions and further damage to my car (there have been other incidences as well).  Because of the misunderstandings and ignorance of others, and to educate them, I made an additional signs to put in my car windows explaining that, "Yes, I can walk, but it hurts a lot" with a small bulleted list of what my disease issues are.  

    If I am hearing correctly that this plan only includes 16 disabled spots in the proposed parking structure, then I know this is going to be a very serious problem for the disabled! Providing quotes from some of the disabled who have used the tram successfully will do little to convince the rest of us that this is the way to go. 

    Many of us have written articles and know how powerful some quotes can be, but this is not convincing most of us who are already heavily impacted.  I showed up for Food Truck Fridays a few weeks ago.  Had to park in the lot behind the Organ Pavilion where the disabled spots were all lumped together in two long rows but not close to the walking paths, not really protected from the traffic in the lot, nor conveniently located to the Prado.  If it was a struggle for me to walk the longer distance, I can only imagine the struggle for those using wheelchairs or other mobility aids.  

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    Exactly, let's get rid of the unwarranted handicap stickers and there will be plenty of parking spaces for you and others . . . I think you actually agree with what I am saying but too quick to think everyone is judging you.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @TJ Apple How exactly would you get rid of "unwarranted stickers"?  DMV investigators to visit each and every house?  And how would you pay for that?

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    The Jacobs project isn't necessary for turning the Alcazar Garden lot into exclusively ADA parking. The Jacobs plan will change the parking spaces to ADA and valet parking but, because of the through lanes and valet drop-off lanes of the Jacobs plan taking up a substantial part of that lot plus the required additional width of ADA spaces, the existing spaces will be reduced to a fraction of the existing 130 spaces. Changing to ADA only without the through roads and valet drop-off lanes would reduce that number far less. The City need only come up with the money to level the lot so all of it is Accessible.... but instead, City Council voted to spend that money in assisting the Plan to get moving.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    I don't understand why the tram cannot stop on Pan-American Way across from the International Cottages and just past that entrance to the Organ Pavilion lot. That is immediately adjacent to the ADA spaces in that lot. Surely the time to help people board the tram isn't so great that people driving up toward Plaza de Panama - it's not as if the vehicle drivers are racing to get to work or to meet a deadline! 

    We have to stop and wait behind San Diego buses on public streets when we're unlucky (or unwary) enough to be in the same lane and cannot pull into the lane to the left, so why not the tram as well. It seems to me that service to handicapped visitors should override the possible delays for people going up to and perhaps through the Plaza to exit from the west.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    There once was a stop opposite the Federal Building (Hall of Champions) parking lot which also can serve the handicapped users in that lot but I think those stops (in and out) have been eliminated. Do we want to forever give priority to private vehicles and those who can easily walk up the grades in question?

    Steven Lord
    Steven Lord

    Sounds like the issue isn't the quality of the free tram system (judging by user comments), or the lack of handicapped parking, but the city's ineffective communication of tram capabilities and benefits, complicated by the reluctance of some individuals to try something new. I'm personally looking forward to the implementation of the Plaza de Panama Plan.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    And many of the ramps and sidewalks are in desperate need of repair.  Major trip and fall hazards.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    It is not only the disabled but also seniors that fit into the access problem