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Balboa Park: A New Beginning

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Balboa Park, San Diego's "crown jewel," is a splendid, glorious place from afar but in a sorry state in so many ways -- from funding, maintenance and governance to missed connections beyond its borders and round-the-clock activation. The new mayor has the chance to reset the clock and make the park what Samuel Parsons Jr. declared in the park's first master plan of 1902:

"This great area of spreading mesas and rugged, picturesque canyons is markedly different from all other parks I have seen in Europe and America...There is nothing like it among the parks of the world."

With that in mind, here are three broad areas to consider in strengthening, embellishing and managing Balboa Park in the years ahead: Grow the park The 1,173-acre park -- down from the original 1,400 due to the addition of two schools, the Navy Hospital and highway construction -- is an arbitrary construct based on old pueblo lot lines. In fact it should bleed out into the neighborhoods via canyons, parkways and major thoroughfares. But it is also to reclaim spaces within. For example: • Convert parking lots to usable park space and concentrate parking in structures and peripheral lots; joint-use nearby parking garages in off hours and on weekends at City College and downtown; and manage existing parking through timelimits, parking meters and reserved distant lots for employees and volunteers, served by shuttles. • Develop trails from the park through connecting canyons, with rest stops, informational kiosks, ranger stations and refreshment stands. Bring to the park to the people and create new play spaces and spots to experience nature.

Governance and finance The park is buried five levels below the mayor. There is no budget for Balboa Park and hence no accountability for income and expenditures. Elevate the park's status: Various models include such things as a separate Balboa Park Department, park district, joint-powers agency. Strengthen park design: Return design and construction authority public works to the people who knows parks best -- the Parks and Recreation Department. Reinstitute the city architect's office with overview of parks and all other significant city public building and design projects. Reinstate the P&R design review board of volunteer design professionals to advise the department on park projects.

Experience shows that such oversight can save time and money. Lacking that review can result in neighborhood opposition, delay and inflationary cost increases. Encourage volunteer engagement: Champion one strong stakeholder group of volunteers to support and raise private funds for the park. Enlist students, retirees and weekend do-gooders to lend a hand. A popular park is a safe park. Secure park funding: In the short-term refocus transient occupancy tax spending on the park to stabilize park maintenance and management. Next, secure a guaranteed revenue stream from existing and future income sources that are held in a "lock box," unavailable for other city operations, no matter the rest of the city budget.

Finally, seek voter approval for a bond issue or tax increase that would benefit Balboa Park as well as all other city parks. This crown jewel is sacrosanct, San Diego's soul.

Governance and finance

The city's existing park master plan, accompanying specific plans and neighboring community plans, as well as numerous studies, reports and good ideas from the public offer many ideas for big thinking for Balboa Park. Here are just a few:

Activation: Promote day and night use of the park's public spaces through food, beverage and entertainment programming.

Security: Boost nighttime ranger and police patrols in the park.

Permitting: Streamline permitting of special events and institutions' use of spaces adjacent to their facilities.

Maintenance: Establish a core staff of Balboa Park maintenance crews who double as "ambassadors" for visitors.

Big ideas: By 2035, the centennial of California Pacific International Exposition, build major projects and public improvements. They could include include already approved projects, plus many others:

- The zoo's Promenade plan and the Plaza de Panama plan for a Spreckels Organ Pavilion lot parking garage (or one nearby)

- Reconstruction of the 1935 Firestone Singing Fountains in the Palisades

- Modernization and expansion of East Mesa's sports facilities, the reduction of golf course space and reclamation of the Arizona Landfill

- A monumental bridge spanning Florida Canyon, tying together the Central and East mesas.

- Welcoming kiosks, monuments, banners and other means to mark the entrance to the park at the

north and south ends of Park Boulevard

-"Lids" over Interstate 5 to reconnect the park to downtown.

- A "Smithsonian of the West" museum with items borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution.

- The integration of City College, San Diego High School, Roosevelt Middle School into the park via programming and concentrating facilities onto and less space to make the "found" space available for joint-use park purposes.

-- Roger Showley

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