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A park for a heart

Updated: Jan 14, 2022



The City of San Diego is in the process of adoption for a new Parks Master Plan to replace the long forgotten Parks Plan adopted in 1956. San Diego was a very different place then with different public space needs.  


The City of San Diego Balboa Park Committee is underway with the preparation of a “Ten Year Vision for Balboa Park”. And the public/private partnership The Balboa Park Conservancy is currently re-evaluating how it best can serve Balboa Park and its role in the broader community.


“San Diego is a city with a park for a heart... Balboa Park is not finished. Neither is San Diego. -Lew Scarr San Diego Union, 1969 


The Pandemic has put a spotlight on a number of issues including the importance of parks and the public realm. To meet these needs cities are not only looking at traditional parks but also on shared streets, repurposing of non-traditional sites and different ways of meeting our health and recreational needs. The Parks Master Plan addresses these options.

Balboa Park is the city’s Crown Jewel, the city’s heart. Over the years it has been required to serve two recreational purposes; the great city park that attracts people from all over the region and as the neighborhood park for adjacent neighborhoods in the Uptown, North Park, and Golden Hill communities.

These neighborhoods are growing as is the entire region. This puts additional demands on Balboa Park—and at the same tome Balboa Park continues to shrink because of non-park uses.

Is there a way to “Grow the Park”? Has this become the optimum time to answer this question?

In 2013 students at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design were asked by then Mayor Bob Filner to suggest ideas about the future of Balboa Park. The students began by asking themselves three questions;

  1. How do we remove parking from the park and at the same time improve accessibility?

  2. How can we Grow the park?

  3. How do we reconnect the park to the adjacent neighborhoods?

This, as would be expected, led to additional questions.

-how do we address the large parking areas and return them to places for people , not cars?

-what kind of entry should there be from East Village to Balboa Park? It is currently a left turn arrow at President’s way.

-and where does the park begin, the freeway, City College, or at the bayfront? The terminus of the John Nolen Parkway.

-can we grow the park by incorporating Maple and Switzer Canyons?

-can we connect the park to the bay thru Laurel Street, Park Boulevard and Harbor Drive?

The questions the students raised and their follow-up work begin to answer the question of how to grow the park and meet the needs of the adjacent neighborhoods.

Perhaps as an implementation of the Parks Master Plan and our renewed understanding of the importance of Parks and the public realm to the health and well-being to the individual and the community, the scope of the Ten Year Vision for Balboa Park should be expanded. And perhaps this Vision could be prepared as a collaboration of the Balboa Park Committee, the Balboa Park Conservancy, the Uptown, Golden Hill and North Park Community Planning Groups, with the City of San Diego.

The foundation for developing this Vision is in a number of plans, policies, and proposals that have been discussed in recent years.

In addition to the NewSchool study [“Flood Balboa Park” Roger Showley SDUT 19jul13].  There is an earlier study prepared by the University of Oklahoma and the NewSchool  , Linking the Park to the Bay, Realizing the Vision of John Nolen, that explored connecting the west Mesa to San Diego Bay by making Laurel Street a Green Street Promenade. And connecting the Park to Mission Valley through a series of canyon connections.[San Diego is UOK , Roger Showley, SDUT 9aug09] .

This work reflects the ideas of the 2006 Canyonlands study that proposed a series of green streets to connect canyons and “bring them into the neighborhoods”. It also reflects an even earlier study [1994] by UCSD Environmental Artists in Residence, Helen and Newton Harrison, “A Grand Round for San Diego” which proposed a series of parks, plazas and promenades that would connect Balboa Park to the Bayfront, Mission Bay Park and Mission Valley. [A Grand Round for San Diego. Ann Jarmusch, SDUT 27mar94].

In the 1908 San Diego: A Comprehensive Plan for its Improvement , John Nolen advocated; “The people of San Diego will do well if they recognize today that the two great central recreation features of the city, now and always, are the city park [now Balboa Park} of 1400 acres[now 1100] and the Bayfront; and that the value of both will be increased manifold if a suitable connecting link, parkway, or boulevard can be developed, bringing them into direct and pleasant relation.”

Projects that build on Nolen’s Vision include:

-the extension of the Park Boulevard Promenade from C street across I-5 and into Balboa Park. And renaming it the John Nolen Parkway. [an action approved for Harbor Drive by the City Council in 1936]. In 2013 the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of architects conducted a design competition , Balboa Park Centennial Gateway, which developed a number of solutions for the extension of Park Boulevard.

-Heal the Gash. The Centre City Community Plan recommends the decking of I-5 to reconnect downtown with Balboa Park and the adjacent neighborhoods of Uptown and Sherman Heights. This has been a topic of discussion almost since the construction of I-5 through Downtown. The initiative is now being moved forward by the non-profit San Diego Commons.


“We should not be so concerned with encroachments on the park as how we can make the park encroach on the neighborhoods.”   -James Hubbell, artist/architect

-The San Diego Commons Group is also the leading advocate for the 14th street Promenade. The proposed promenade would begin at Inspiration Point in Balboa Park, continue over a new bridge through City College and San Diego High School along side Balboa Stadium, continue down 14th Street to National Avenue to Chicano Park in Barrio Logan. The city will shortly begin construction of a portion of the 14th street segment of the Promenade .

-a third project that implements the vision of John Nolen to connect Balboa Park with San Diego Bay is the “Park to Bay Link”. In the early 1990’s then Mayor Susan Golding retained Adele Santos, then Dean of the UCSD School of Architecture to look at a reimagining of Nolen’s Vision of parkways, Boulevards and promenades as a means of providing parks and open space to underserved communities. The project titled CITYLINK included a link along 25th street and Cesar Chavez Parkway connecting the Park and the Bay.

In 2017, Newschool student Noura Bishay took the development of this link for her Thesis project. Her proposal would reconnect the communities of Golden Hill, Barrio Logan and Logan Heights which have been separated by I-5 and I-94 with a series of parks, plazas, and public spaces. She continues to work with the affected communities on implementation.

-San Diego Highschool. The high school sits on a portion of Balboa Park leased to the San Diego Unified School District. The extension of the lease was recently approved by voters. As a condition of approval the School Board agreed to look at how to make the high school part of the park, not a school taking up parkland. [Choose Parks and Schools, Not One or the Other. Howard Blackson and Michael Stepner VOSD 50t16]

The list of projects can be the foundation for answering the questions how do we Grow the Park and how do we provide neighborhood parks for the adjacent neighborhoods.

An expanded Vision for Balboa Park prepared as a collaborative effort of the Balboa Park Committee, the Balboa Park Conservancy and the adjacent Community Planning Groups could be an initial implementation of the Parks Master Plan.

Michael Stepner

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