Fact Check: The Zoo's Untamed Beast — Its Parking Lot
Tomas Herrera-Mishler, who took over as CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy in June, said a lack of parking spaces hurts the bottom lines of the park’s major institutions.
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.
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.
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.
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.