Pricey fixer-upper

Posted: August 11th, 2017 | Balboa Park, Communities, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

Balboa Park’s extensive repair bill now exceeds $140 million

Fixing up long-neglected Balboa Park, San Diego’s crown jewel, will cost in excess of $140 million — a huge outlay of money that the city doesn’t have lying around in a rainy day fund.

Many of the park’s 33 buildings are plagued with leaky roofs, outdated electrical wiring and plumbing, inadequate heating and cooling, unrepairable fire-suppression systems, disintegrating sewers and a myriad of other problems. Important cultural facilities, including the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Man, would sustain incalculable damage should an earthquake of 6.9 magnitude or greater strike on nearby Rose Canyon.

(l) Casa de Balboa shows signs of wear and tear; (top right) the California Tower at the Museum of Man needs a seismic retrofit and (bottom right) the Starlight Bowl is vacant and vandalized. (Photos by Ken Williams)

But the actual cost to restore Balboa Park to its full glory has not been calculated, city officials say, because they are still working with figures that were estimated as long ago as 1989. This drew a gasp from some participants at the Aug. 1 meeting of the Balboa Park Working Group organized by District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward. Last year, in an interview with San Diego Uptown News, Ward estimated the real cost may be around $300 million.

This was the second in a series of meetings planned by Ward to assess the needs of Balboa Park, come up with a list of priorities, and look for funding options to complete the work that’s sorely needed.

If one thing is crystal clear, the participants preferred fixing what already exists as opposed to supporting the controversial Jacobs project that will spend $78 million to construct a bypass road off the historic Cabrillo Bridge, build a parking structure behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and remove vehicles permanently from Plaza de Panama.

Vehicles would be banned from Plaza de Panama if the Jacobs project happens. (Photo by Ken Williams)

“Fix the roofs that are leaking with the money that we have now,” said Michael Kelly, president of the Committee of One Hundred volunteer group that is devoted to preserving Balboa Park’s historical architecture, gardens and public spaces.

David Lundin, president of the Balboa Park Heritage Association, urged the setting of rational goals and priorities for the next 100 years. He quoted the late Ada Louise Huxtible, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The New York Times: “We will not be remembered for what we build, but for what we preserve.”

“The one project the park doesn’t need is the Jacobs project,” Lundin said. “The worst thing, it introduces paid parking for the first time in the park’s history.”

Lundin warned that a whole host of visitors would be unable to afford to pay the parking fees, including young families, lower-income earners, seniors and retired Balboa Park volunteers.

“We should just forget the Jacobs project!” Lundin said, drawing sustained applause.

None of the participants who spoke during the public comments segment voiced support for the Jacobs project, which is facing at least two pending lawsuits.

Attorney Corey Briggs is questioning the legality of the city’s proposed sale of $49 million in bonds to pay its capped portion of the project. The bonds would be secured by the city’s general fund for a specific purpose — something Briggs contends would need voter approval. That legal case faces a pre-trial hearing in September and is set to be on a fast-track priority schedule, Lundin told Uptown News the day after the meeting.

California Tower (Photo by Ken Williams)

Briggs is also suing over the cooperation agreement signed between the city and the Plaza de Panama Committee, which must raise $30 million in private money. A hearing is scheduled on Aug. 25 and a trial on Sept. 29.

Another lawsuit filed by Save Our Heritage Organisation, which argued that the project failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, failed in court. On Aug. 8, Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack ruled that the city did not have to file a supplemental environmental impact report. SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Aug. 9 that an appeal of the ruling is possible.

The Plaza de Panama project — aka the Jacobs project — has a 26-month construction schedule, said Jeff Van Deerlin, program manager of the city’s Park and Recreation Department.

Van Deerlin said the current timeline — which could be impacted by the two lawsuits — calls for construction to begin in March 2018 with a May 2020 completion date.

This project will happen about the same time as major construction throughout Balboa Park to replace water mains. That will take place from 2018 to 2020, he said.

The Museum of Man’s California Tower seismic retrofit, estimated to cost $4.1 million, is scheduled between September 2018 and May 2019.

The West Mesa comfort stations — one at Sixth and Thorn and another at Sixth and Nutmeg — will be modernized as the result of a settlement agreement due to a 2014 ADA lawsuit. The $1.7 million project will run from January to June in 2018.

The Museum of Art elevator modernization project, costing $1.1 million, is expected to be finished in November.

The $2.5 million renovation of the Thompson Medical Library is budgeted for fiscal year 2019.

The $1.5 million renovation of the Bud Kearns Memorial Swimming Pool at Morley Field is estimated to be completed by fiscal year 2021.

The $2 million project to add nine International Cottages is scheduled between September 2017 and August 2018.

Mingei Museum’s $26 million remake is expected to begin in November 2018.

The iconic Botanical Building is due for a major face-lift, said Sarah Beckman, director of external relations for the Balboa Park Conservancy. She said the project is “deep into the planning stage.” The goal is to enhance the visitors’ experience and re-create gardens between the Botanical Building and the much-photographed Lily Pond that once wowed visitors. The historic building is reputed to be one of the largest lath structures in the world. Beckman said the project, as well as the creation of an endowment fund, would total $10 million.

Will a bypass bridge be built on the right side of this structure? (Photo by Ken Williams)

Balboa Park has partnered with Onyx Renewable to build a solar farm on Inspiration Point. The agreement calls for the city to purchase the solar power for 20 years. Onyx will install, operate and maintain the solar canopies. That construction is expected to run from September 2017 to February 2019.

Friends of Balboa Park plan to raise $500,000 to build gateway monuments on Park Boulevard and at state Route 163. The timeline for that project hasn’t been determined yet.

The Committee of 100 is budgeting $500,000 to re-create and install four murals that graced the California State Building for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. The building now houses the Automotive Museum. Construction is expected to start in 2018.

Also, a new grassroots group called Save Starlight has organized to restore the 3,000-seat Balboa Park amphitheater, which shuttered in 2012 when the Starlight Bowl organization filed for bankruptcy. Steve Stopper, who is spearheading the campaign to bring the amphitheater back to life, lamented that vandals have damaged the property and looted the equipment. But city staff members say the complex can be saved, and have recommended spending $4.5 million on the Starlight Bowl.

At Ward’s meeting, Stopper said his group hoped to restore the concession stand and the ticket booth as soon as possible, as a way to start generating revenue.

And finding a dedicated stream of income for Balboa Park — and identifying revenue options to pay for all the needed repairs — will be the topic of the next meeting of the Balboa Park Working Group. Ward said he would announce the time and date for that meeting in the future, suggesting it would be in the fall.

—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

Leave a Comment