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The Biggest Challenges Facing Balboa Park

Among the biggest hurdles the park faces:

• There's no clear leader shaping policy or taking charge of projects.

• Some park land still isn't being used as park land.

Parking is still an issue.

Balboa Park is known as San Diego’s crown jewel. Maintaining it takes a lot of work.

The nearly 150-year-old park and those who care for it face significant challenges in ensuring the park remains the iconic destination it is today.

Some of the park’s beloved trees have fallen prey to the drought, recent storms and old age. Many of the park’s historic facilities are crumbling and in need of repairs. And one of the top architects of some of the city’s long-range plans for the park estimates about half of them remain unfulfilled – and unfunded.

Here’s a breakdown of five of the biggest challenges confronting Balboa Park.

The number of needed repairs is staggering.

Most San Diegans are struck by the beauty of the Spanish Colonial buildings that line the El Prado walkway. But those buildings – and many others throughout the park – are falling apart.

A chunk is missing from the arcade walkway near the Timken Museum.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The walls and some window ornaments on the Casa de Balboa building sport black marks.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Then there’s the abandoned, weed-filled Starlight Bowl amphitheater and the Botanical Building, which is plagued with rust and rot.

Those are just the needs you can see when you walk by. Last summer, the former San Diego History Center executive director confessed she feared a 100-year-old pipe could burst, damaging the historic documents stored there. (A city spokesman said the city’s set to replace piping along the west and central mesas in a couple years.)

The latest guesses suggest Balboa Park’s repair needs total at least $300 million, a figure that doesn’t even include leased facilities such as the Starlight or museums. The city’s working to put together a more complete tab by this summer.

City officials say they’re doing all they can to make fixes but acknowledge resources are limited.

“It can be overwhelming at times because public expectations are high,” said Casey Smith, the park’s operations manager.

The city’s tendency to go with lowest-bidding contractors can also mean the work doesn’t always match what the public might expect for San Diego’s crown jewel.

The city hired workers to make public bathrooms near the Museum of Photographic Arts more accessible to disabled visitors last year. After those workers left and a urinal overflowed, diluted urine repeatedly leaked from the men’s restroom onto collections at the Model Railroad Museum, said Jeff Van Deerlin of the city’s park and recreation department.

A building manager later told the city they’d need to close the bathroom during December Nights, an annual holiday event at the park that draws thousands of people.

The city said Friday it still isn’t fixed. A spokesman said city staffers  are trying to address the leakage issue as quickly as possible.

Trees are dying.

Photo by Ry Rivard
Photo by Ry Rivard

In the 1890s, Kate Sessions pledged to plant 100 trees a year in Balboa Park for the chance to use 32 acres as her nursery. In exchange, Balboa Park got cypresses, canary island pines, eucalyptus groves and jacarandas.

Balboa Park became known as a place to enjoy horticulture from all over the world.

Many of Sessions’ trees – and others planted over the years – weren’t a match for San Diego’s arid climate. Then came years of little rain.

The city had to cut back on watering to comply with drought mandates. To cope, city workers dug basins around some trees, to help them pull in more water. They’ve also installed more efficient water-delivery systems to ensure more water is directed at plants rather than sidewalks or other surfaces.

They also prioritized watering for plants and trees in the park’s most popular areas, and those it considers most historic, “horticulturally important” or that have been dedicated in someone’s honor.

Still, many trees haven’t survived or are dying. Others have fallen during storms. Some in less trafficked areas have been left to dry up.

Smith said city workers and volunteers planted nearly 100 trees this winter to replace those that have been lost. The newer trees are more drought-appropriate, he said.

They also recently changed out 45,000 square feet of turf on Park Boulevard medians and replaced them with drought-tolerant plants and drip irrigation Smith expects will save the city at least 500,000 gallons of water annually.

The nonprofit Friends of Balboa Park has marshaled donations and volunteers to help the city make big shifts through its Adopt-a-Plot program, among other numerous efforts. Other groups such as the Balboa Park Conservancy have assisted, too.

Yet water-wise switches also leave big questions for a park known for its greenery and horticulture.

Pat Caughey, chairman of the Friends of Balboa Park board, said the city and those who love the park will have to make a more philosophical decision over the long haul about the future of the unique, lush plants and trees that can’t be found elsewhere in the city.

“The dilemma is, do you go from a water-intensive use landscape to a low-water use landscape? That’s part of the debate,” Caughey said. “Do you take out all the water-thirsty plants and put in drought-tolerant plants?”

Finding a place to park can be a headache.

Earlier this month, Janet K. Poutre headed to Balboa Park on a Thursday morning. Poutre, who serves on the city’s arts and culture commission, figured she’d find a spot within 10 minutes and have ample time to make it to the unveiling of the Museum of Art’s new outdoor art display at the Plaza de Panama.

She ended up crawling through five packed lots. Park Boulevard was full, too.

Poutre, who wore pointy-toed heels ill-suited for a hike across the park, ditched her plans and gave up after 20 minutes.

Balboa Park stakeholders say Poutre’s experience isn’t unusual and that it can lead would-be visitors to leave or avoid the park.

“A constant uncertainty exists about where to park, and how to reach the destination once parked,” consultants wrote in a 2006 parking management plan prepared for the city.

There have been various plans over the years to build a public parking garage to ease the strain and potentially restore some paved lots to parkland. There’s currently no funding to support those ideas.

Meanwhile, the city tries to steer visitors to the Inspiration Point and Presidents Way lots, which fall outside Balboa Park’s core, but are served by green shuttle every 15 minutes between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. during the winter. Those lots tend to have more open spots but Peter Comiskey, who leads the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, said even those fill up on the park’s busiest days.

Poutre acknowledged she didn’t think of the shuttle option earlier this month. Many others don’t either.

“I think what happens with locals is we think we know, so we don’t go to the website and check out what’s new at the park,” Poutre said.

Some longtime park advocates think the city could do more to reduce parking woes if it focused more on getting people to the park sans car or encouraged them to park elsewhere. A gondola from downtown to the park has been floated.

Vicki Estrada, a landscape architect who wrote the city’s Balboa Park master plan, which included a parking garage, said the city could also cut a deal with nearby City College, which offers up parking spaces during December Nights, to provide spots on weekends.

A consistent shuttle would make that link work, Estrada said.

“There are so many spaces surrounding Balboa Park.”

Some park lands aren’t actually being used as park lands.

Drive down B Street south of Interstate 5 and you’ll come across a piece of Balboa Park entirely unwelcoming to park visitors.

Photo by Andrew Keatts
Photo by Andrew Keatts

It’s the city’s Central Operations Station, which bears a “restricted access” sign. Behind it are rows of buildings and a large parking lot.

The city’s development blueprint for the park, approved by the City Council in 1989, called for the city to reclaim the plot and make it open park land. That hasn’t happened and a city spokesman said there are no plans to change this anytime soon.

A couple miles north sits a field full of yellow wildflowers and a yard with rows of city trucks. The more than 70-acre area between Pershing Drive and Florida Drive is part of Balboa Park, too.

Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

It’s the Arizona Landfill site, where San Diegans’ trash was packed between layers of dirt for more than 20 years. The landfill closed in the mid-1970s and the city plan for this area approved years later called for a makeover. The plan envisioned trees, botanical garden areas, pathways, picnic areas and play areas for children.

None of that’s happened, either.

A 2008 report suggested it would cost $86.7 million to reclaim the area.

Here’s why, as Kelly Bennett explained in 2012:

The city’s decision to open the dump had long repercussions. Now the city pays a crew of people to monitor the site’s methane emission and to make sure no contaminated water runs off of it. An elaborate underground methane capturing system funnels the gas to that controlled combustion chamber — the “flare station” — the [nearby] disc golfers can see, and the chamber burns off the gas.

The city’s still checking methane levels at the site and says the situation has improved the past few years. But a city spokesman said methane is still present and could stress plants or trees more deeply rooted than the grasses that now cover much of the site.

Those two large plots are just two examples of City Council-approved visions for the park that haven’t been implemented.

Others include the closure of Florida Drive and a 1,000-to-1,500 spot parking garage that had been proposed behind the Organ Pavilion.

Estrada, who wrote some of those plans, estimates about half of what was laid out has come to fruition. There just hasn’t been cash or political will to support them.

That’s not to say there ever was total agreement on how the park should be developed.

Ex-Mayor Bob Filner, who represented an area that included the park when he was on the City Council, once described the process to create the Balboa Park Master Plan as “one of the most controversial and protracted issues” the City Council had faced in a decade.

There isn’t a clear leader dictating the park’s future.

Dozens of nonprofits call Balboa Park home, and many government leaders boast about San Diego’s civic gem.

Yet longtime park stakeholders confess Balboa Park has a leadership problem.

A much-cited 2008 report on the park’s future by the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land put the situation bluntly:

Unfortunately, while numerous people and institutions are interested in assuring that Balboa Park can help them be successful, there is no official body with the focus on Balboa Park and the authority to help the park itself be successful. Thus, there is no way to put the park onto solid footing for the future without a clear understanding of mission, roles, authority, responsibility and decision-making structures for Balboa Park.

That report helped inspire the creation of the Balboa Park Conservancy, a group then-Mayor Jerry Sanders and others hoped would become the city’s partner in ensuring the park’s future prosperity. The idea was that nonprofit would help the city raise cash to support the park’s steep infrastructure needs and ink a formal relationship with the city.

More than five years in, the conservancy’s still trying to prove itself. It’s organized a host of conversations about park priorities in the past couple years and recently released a public survey on the subject. Its foundational fundraising project – a plan to upgrade the Botanical Building and the area around it – hasn’t moved as swiftly as everyone hoped.

The group’s struggle to deliver on its signature project has only highlighted the park’s leadership vacuum.

Efforts to organize a year-long centennial celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the event that put Balboa Park on the map, imploded. Tales abound of the inability of stakeholders to get on the same page.

Post-2015, discussions continue about the lack of a shared vision for the park.

There’s disagreement, for example, about whether the park should embrace a Smithsonian of the West approach with a focus on its large concentration of museums, and about how much institutions in the park should be allowed to grow their footprints.

Former city architect Mike Stepner, who’s long been engaged on park issues, said the current situation leads to piecemeal planning rather than a comprehensive vision.

The park’s missing a champion to galvanize residents and city officials to address its many needs, he said.

“While everybody seems to love Balboa Park, the park just doesn’t get the attention,” Stepner said. “Nobody’s out there making the case that we need to do this or that for the park.”

Stepner hopes the Conservancy can eventually fill that void.

Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, which fought Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs’ plan to build a parking garage and a bypass bridge, largely agreed with Stepner but said he’s not convinced the Conservancy is up to the charge.

“There’s all these competing interests and goals of the organizations (in Balboa Park). It takes somebody pretty strong,” Coons said. “I just don’t think the Conservancy’s strong enough.”

Conservancy leaders caution it can take years for groups like theirs to build their operation and credibility. They’re also adamant they’re making significant progress.

“You’ve got to earn respect and trust,” Conservancy board member Chuck Hellerich said. “That takes time.”

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

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