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Big Year Coming for Balboa Park

The coming year promises lots of conversations about Balboa Park funding and needs, plus some new projects.

If promises are kept, 2017 could be the year city leaders start etching out plans to address Balboa Park’s many needs and break ground on a controversial project some believe will chip away at a long-running park problem.

Here’s a guide to the public pledges and projects expected to play out in 2017.

New Focus on Needs

Recently released consultant’s assessments of city-owned buildings in Balboa Park concluded would take about $200 million to get park buildings in tip-top shape. City officials have since suggested it would cost $79 million to get those buildings into good condition.

City Councilman Mark Kersey, Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin and city staffers who attended a Dec. 7 infrastructure committee meeting emphasized the consultants’ surprising takeaway that many Balboa Park buildings were in better condition than expected.

But they also zeroed in on what that new estimate didn’t factor in. It doesn’t include the potential for expansions or code upgrades. Nor does it include significant seismic issues that could be crucial to keeping Balboa Park’s iconic buildings intact in the event of an earthquake.

An engineering consultant who’s previously worked with the city on California Tower seismic upgrades told me retrofits for the Museum of Man and the Museum of Art buildings alone could total $5 million to $10 million each.

“These are both unique historical buildings with significant challenges, collections and logistical issues,” structural engineer Tony Court wrote in an email.

The new estimate also doesn’t account for yet-to-be started projects and expansions envisioned in the park’s master plan. Kersey, who chairs the council’s infrastructure committee, said the outstanding questions should force a conversation about Balboa Park’s infrastructure and maintenance needs.

Now that the city has more data about basic repairs, Kersey said, it’s important to have “a more in-depth discussion just on this particular topic.”

Kersey’s chief of staff told me the councilman hopes to schedule that discussion in February or March.

Identifying Priorities

City Councilman Chris Ward pledged on the campaign trail to assemble a group to assess the park’s top priorities and needs, as well as sustainable funding options, is his first 100 days in office.

That conversation would likely complement the infrastructure committee’s review. There’s currently no dedicated funding for the park despite its status as a tourism mecca. Nor is there anything official indicating which Balboa Park projects should go to the front of the line.

A handful of Balboa Park advocates say Ward has already chatted with them about his plans for a working group that would look at both issues.

In a statement, Ward said he’s interested in addressing infrastructure needs and continuing to implement the park’s master plan.

“I want to have a robust public discussion that brings stakeholders together to find agreement on the needs, prioritization, and funding of park improvements – not just to address deferred maintenance but to implement many of the long-awaited improvements to the East Mesa and Golden Hill neighborhoods,” Ward wrote.

Vicki Estrada, a landscape architect who wrote the Balboa Park master plan, said she was excited about Ward’s enthusiasm and informed questions about the park’s needs after a meeting last week.

“I’ve got hope for Balboa Park that he’s going to do the right thing,” Estrada said.

Bruce Coons of the Save Our Heritage Organisation and Tomas Herrera-Mishler of the Balboa Park Conservancy were also optimistic about Ward’s commitment to Balboa Park’s needs – and what might result from his convening of Balboa Park stakeholders.

“We’re really looking forward to meeting with (Ward) and his staff and continuing this conversation,” Herrera-Mishler said.

The Plaza de Panama Project

Philanthropists have long pushed a plan to make over the park’s central mesa with the goal of clearing the park’s core of cars and adding additional parking. They decry forced interactions between cars and park visitors and say there’s a need for more close-in parking.

A lawsuit stalled their plan to address those concerns for years.

Then Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and other supporters announced they were reviving it. In November, the City Council approved a new financing plan for the project that largely relies on proceeds from paid parking at a new partially underground behind the Organ Pavilion. The city’s committing up to $50 million for the Plaza de Panama project while philanthropists will be working to raise about $25 million. Two foundations have already collectively pledged $6 million.

San Diego Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick, who serves on the committee backing the project, said additional fundraising will likely begin in early 2017.

If the city issues bonds for the project as expected and construction planning goes smoothly, the project could break ground next fall.

But a new lawsuit could complicate matters.

The Save Our Heritage Organisation sued the city on Dec. 21, alleging officials failed to undertake necessary environmental reviews for changes to the project since it was first approved in 2012. A spokesman for City Attorney Mara Elliott dubbed the suit “an unjustified attempt at delay.”

David Lundin, who leads the fledgling Balboa Park Heritage Association, has said he’s weighing next steps too.

Those challenges could delay construction and create fundraising challenges.

Spotlight on Starlight

For more than five years, the Starlight Bowl has sat vacant and abandoned. Wedged between the municipal gym and the Air & Space Museum, the amphitheater had until recently been caught in limbo by a lease held by a now-defunct nonprofit.

It could get new life this year.

Steve Stopper, a former Starlight contractor who once sued the city, claiming it was wasting taxpayer resources by letting the venue sit dormant, has since helped marshal a movement to save it. He’s created a group called Save Starlight that’s drawn more attention to the venue.

More than 400 attended the group’s August clean-up effort and a spokeswoman said it’s received about $375,000 in donated sound and light equipment to help execute Stopper’s vision to host events there once again.

Now Save Starlight and the city are in talks about an arrangement that would allow the group to take further steps to try to revitalize the Starlight Bowl, a city spokesman said.

Stopper said he’s thrilled with the progress and excited about the wave of support he’s gotten from more established Balboa Park groups, such as the Committee of 100 and the Friends of Balboa Park, plus others in the arts community.

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

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