New Balboa Park Leader Has a Lot to Tackle

Balboa Park UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

New Balboa Park Leader Has a Lot to Tackle — Including, Possibly, Déjà Vu

At his last job, the new head of the Balboa Park Conservancy dealt with a spate of issues remarkably similar to those he’ll face in San Diego — just not always to everyone’s satisfaction.

If you set out to pick a new leader for the Balboa Park Conservancy, you might want someone who’s learned how to tastefully honor donors, deal with road construction projects near the park, manage parking and have good working relationships with park tenants, including museums and a zoo.

Thomas Herrera-Mishler, who took over as director of the conservancy this month, has dealt with them all — just not always to everyone’s satisfaction.

Photo courtesy of the Balboa Park Conservancy
Photo courtesy of the Balboa Park Conservancy

As head of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy in Buffalo, N.Y., Herrera-Mishler encountered a remarkably similar spate of issues. Some critics in Buffalo and even Herrera-Mishler himself say he didn’t always handle them perfectly.

Take Herrera-Mishler’s campaign last year to put up paid corporate signs in local parks. The signs would tell visitors where they were but would also bear corporate logos.

He pushed so hard, Buffalo amended its city charter to allow the signs. But the Buffalo Preservation Board, which had final say, was skeptical. The proposed banners were tasteful, board members said, but they opened the door to further commercialization of the parks.

One preservation board member asked why Herrera-Mishler’s proposal only included signs for parks in Buffalo’s poorer neighborhoods. Was that unjust?

The real injustice, Herrera-Mishler replied, would be failing to acknowledge those corporate donors, which were Blue Cross Blue Shield, the insurance company, and Delaware North, the hospitality company.

“It is about justice,” Herrera-Mishler told the board. “I mean, here’s an organization that’s sponsoring this park at the tune of $100,000 a year for 10 years.”

The Preservation Board soundly rejected the plan.

“We were all kind of taken aback that an organization that was the steward of this historic landmark would think that that was a good idea,” said Tim Tielman, a member Buffalo’s Preservation Board and head of the preservationist Campaign for a Greater Buffalo.

Herrera-Mishler started earlier this month at the Balboa Park Conservancy, a four-year-old nonprofit that last summer merged with another park advocacy group, Balboa Park Central.

Some park supporters say Balboa Park needs to think about more public-private partnerships to raise money for park operations, just like Buffalo did. There’s long been tension over how far to take that, though. Back in the 1980s, then-City Councilman Bob Filner memorably worried that commercialization would lead to productions of “Burger King Lear” in the park. Commercial signage is still prohibited in the park, a city spokesman said.

Herrera-Mishler acknowledged the controversies in Buffalo.

“The banner idea was mine, I own that and it didn’t fly – it didn’t – and you don’t always get it right,” he told me. “But my heart will always be about preserving and celebrating this amazing landscape with our partners, the city and the cultural institutions and the zoo.

In San Diego, park supporters say we’re in a critical era for Balboa Park. It needs more money and more parking, they’ve said.

Even though the Olmsted and Balboa Park conservancies have similar names, the two groups have different powers and missions. In Buffalo, the conservancy actually manages the city’s system of six parks.

In San Diego, the city’s parks department owns and manages Balboa Park. The park conservancy here is simply an advocacy group that works with the city, though it is trying to do more.

In San Diego, Herrera-Mishler needs to find a lot of money for Balboa Park, which he said is being “loved to death” – or running the risk of getting rundown from so much use.

“I know what neglect looks like, and that’s not what I see at Balboa Park by any means – it’s an astoundingly attractive place,” Herrera-Mishler said.

He’s been willing to get creative to find money in Buffalo, though that’s also what generated controversy.

“I’m not afraid of controversy,” Herrera-Mishler said. “I don’t love it; who does? Honestly it’s just something that comes with the job.”

In Buffalo, Herrera-Mishler also took heat for an expansion of the Peace Bridge, the transnational bridge to Canada that runs near one of the Olmsted Parks known as Front Park.

Kathy Mecca, president of Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Neighborhood Association, said the Olmsted Conservancy had not done enough to object to the bridge expansion. More truck traffic could decrease air quality, which she believes is already bad enough to have caused serious health problems for her and her neighbors.

“This isn’t just about planting trees and blades of grass, you have to stand up to the special interests and the elected officials,” Mecca told me. She called the plan that was adopted to expand the bridge “insane and unconscionable.”

Herrera-Mishler said the conservancy had to deal with various bridge expansion plans for decades, including the seven years he was at Olmsted. He said the final plan ended with a “pretty positive outcome for the park.” During a public hearing, he said parts of the plan were “overly intrusive” and “not historically appropriate,” but he was glad to get back nearly two acres of land that had been made a road decades earlier.

That might sound familiar: In Balboa Park, a fight over a plan to build a new ramp and an underground parking garage was recently brought back from the dead. It’s unclear if anyone intends to pursue that plan, and it may depend on the willingness of philanthropist Irwin Jacobs to put up money for the plan, which he came up with and has been dubbed the Jacobs Plan.

Herrera-Mishler said two projects weren’t all that comparable. In Buffalo, he had to deal with the state and a bridge authority, both outside forces – and he got back park land that had been taken decades ago. In Balboa Park, the proposed changes were initiated by the park’s owner, the city itself.

He was cautious when asked about the Jacobs Plan, which the Conservancy has supported. After all, it’s been a hot button for a while and involves one of the city’s biggest donors.

“It’s certainly an exciting concept and parking is a huge issue at Balboa Park that needs to be resolved,” he said. “I look forward to learning about how the Conservancy can help to improve the parking and traffic situation in the park.”

Some of his colleagues in the Buffalo culture world said they did not have a great relationship with Herrera-Mishler, including Donna Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo and Mark Mortenson, president of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

When the park museums or the zoo held big events, some of their donors would park their vehicles on park grass. Conservancy staff – who had battled efforts to keep cars out of the park – called the police to ticket those cars.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t sit well with some people.

“You’re having a big black-tie or fundraiser, the last thing you want is a donor to get back to their car and have a $35, $40 ticket,” Fernandes said.

Herrera-Mishler said there were disagreements over parking but he didn’t remember personally calling the police or instructing his staff to.

“That doesn’t sound like something I would do, but it could have happened,” he said.

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

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