Prioritizing Balboa Park’s many needs

Posted: June 2nd, 2017 | Feature, News, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Ken Williams | Editor

District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward promised voters that he would make Balboa Park one of his main focuses during his inaugural term, along with homelessness and affordable housing.

Timken Museum is reflected in the lily pond at Balboa Park, where $300 million in repairs and upkeep are needed on many of the buildings. (Photo by Ken Williams)

To date, Ward has thrown himself head-first into the homeless issue, landing a key role as vice chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. Ward has also issued a manifesto on possible strategies to solve San Diego’s growing homelessness problem. The councilmember also dominated a panel on homelessness presented April 26 by the North Park Community Association at the Lafayette Hotel.

On May 30, Ward kicked off a series of conversations with the public to begin prioritizing the needs of Balboa Park, the city’s crown jewel. Almost 100 people showed up for the community meeting held in the auditorium off the May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

Suffice to say, the public had a whole lot to say to Ward following a fascinating PowerPoint presentation about the history of Balboa Park, made by Vicki Estrada of Estrada Land Planning. For years Estrada has been a consultant on potential update plans for Balboa Park and is considered an expert on historical matters. She said the roots of Balboa Park began in 1835 when authorities with Alta California — when the area was a territory of Mexico — set aside 1,400 acres of pueblo land to be used for the public’s recreational needs. Then on May 26, 1868 — the year San Diego became an American outpost — the city’s board of trustees dedicated 1,400 acres for City Park, becoming the forerunner of Balboa Park.

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition launched the construction of many of the buildings that remain today in Balboa Park, especially those along the Prado. And the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition expanded the park’s attractions.

Unfortunately, many of the buildings were originally conceived as temporary structures. And over the decades that have passed, the structures have suffered serious neglect. Ward explained to the audience that the cost of repairs and updates today would likely exceed $300 million — money that’s not available in the city budget.


What the people want

Overwhelmingly, audience members told Ward that the top priority must be placed on maintenance. Mat Wahlstrom, a member of Uptown Planners who said he was speaking as a private citizen, said he wanted to emphasize the urgency of focusing on maintenance. “Hear, hear!” a woman spoke out, and the audience applauded loudly.

A man named Tony reminded everyone about the need for earthquake retrofits for older buildings as mandated by the state. The Rose Canyon fault line cuts through the west side of Downtown and Uptown, roughly along Interstate 5. Another fault line follows along Florida Street into Balboa Park. He said the Museum of Art and the Museum of Man are the top two structures that need retrofitting.

“A 6.9 magnitude could take down these important museums,” he warned.

A majority of the audience appeared to oppose the controversial Irwin Jacobs plan to build a bypass bridge off the historical Cabrillo Bridge and construct a largely underground parking garage south of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. This would allow Balboa Park officials to ban traffic from Plaza de Panama — something most people favored — and reimagine the space in new ways.

This graphic shows some of the potential project priorities for Balboa Park. (Courtesy of Vicki Estrada and Estrada Land Planning)

A woman named Judy said she was “deeply opposed to the bypass bridge” and added that “new projects should take less of a priority than existing ones.”

Rita said the future is self-driving cars and car-sharing, so why spend $80 million to build a garage and a bypass when they will be obsolete in 20 years.

“I’m appalled that the Jacobs project has come back with additional costs,” Nicole Larson said. “That money can be used in much more appropriate places.”

A man named David said other transportation enhancements could negate the need for a parking garage. He pointed to the planned garage approved for the San Diego Zoo. Another man noted that U.S. Navy has approved a parking garage — which could be shared by Balboa Park visitors — at the Naval Medical Center San Diego site on the east side of Park Boulevard near Presidents Way.

The Jacobs plan is currently tied up in litigation, after the preservationist group Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) sued the city in December in San Diego Superior Court. This is the second time SOHO has sued over the project. SOHO contends that a more substantial environmental study is needed, among other concerns.

Three fans of the Starlight Bowl, which closed in 2012, said the outdoor amphitheater should be restored to its former glory. Ed Hollingsworth, a board member of the Save Starlight organization, told the crowd that the renovation of the Starlight would bring life back to the south side of Balboa Park.

Several people associated with the International Cottages complained that the park’s south side, which they called “the lower end,” is often left out of promotional events at Balboa Park.

Andria, with the Puppet Theater in the Palisades Building, said “everything is pushed to the Prado area,” citing the Food Truck Friday event and a reopened Starlight would benefit the “lower end.” She said the loss of the Hall of Champions has hurt, but was encouraged that its replacement by the Comic-Con Museum would help.

Vicki Granowitz of North Park, a new appointee to the city’s Planning Commission, said it was time to think out of the box and find a way to get a dedicated stream of income for Balboa Park. She said a boutique hotel, for example, could bring money that could be directed toward maintenance and improvements.

“We need to be creative in finding a dedicated revenue stream,” she said.

Steve Hon, president of the North Park Historical Society, expressed concern about the neglect of Morley Field. He said the grass was so lush and green after the rainy season, but no longer. He said he doesn’t understand why the city hasn’t fixed the irrigation system. Hon said the Jacobs project would require the digging of tons of earth and the dumping of that dirt in Morley Field at the site of the old landfill, where there are outlets to burn off the methane. Not only was he bothered by the safety issue, but he said the plan would “destroy one of the most peaceful areas in Morley Field.”

Several people advocated for the closure of Florida Drive between the feeder road to the zoo and the intersection at Morley Field Drive.

But David Swarens, chair of the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee, reminded everyone that Balboa Park was the only park for residents of his neighborhood. He opposed the closure of Florida Drive because of mobility reasons.

“We have zero parks,” he said. “Our access to Balboa Park must be preserved.”


Other concerns

  • County of San Diego should contribute to Balboa Park.
  • Restrooms are filthy.
  • Safety issues for the elderly.
  • Use of chemicals endangers the public.
  • Cars on Plaza de Panama “is an accident waiting to happen.”
  • Find creative ways to utilize the state Route 163 corridor for bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • Should the nine-hole Balboa Park Golf Course be repurposed for other active recreational uses?
  • Homeless are living in the park and some are committing vandalism.
  • Why isn’t there a statue of Vasco Núñezde Balboa in the park named after him?


What’s next?

Ward said the next community meeting on Balboa Park is tentatively scheduled for July 25 at a location to be determined.

—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.

One Comments

  1. See
    Helen Rowe Allen FB Timeline. I was there. I spoke. I took photos & commented.

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