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Make San Diego High, City College, an "Education Park"

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

San Diego High School and City College could become the nucleus of an "Education Park" as the city moves to renew a lease for the high school, according the Balboa Park Committee of 100 (C100).

The City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee recommended on July 23 that the full council approve a 99-year lease for the 34-acre site at the southwest corner of Balboa Park.

The lease requires no lease payments and offers about 12 acres in two distant properties that are worth a fraction of what urban parkland costs to acquire and develop.

Several members spoke in favor of increased public access to the school and linking it to the rest of the park and East Village to the south.

But the committee declined to recommend any changes to the lease.

"The city has a once-in-a-century opportunity to make the school an integral part of Balboa Park, not just a squatter in the park," said Roger Showley, C100 president.

C100, founded in 1967, is the park's oldest stakeholder and champions restoration of historic buildings and grounds and advocates for park improvements, guaranteed funding and better governance.

At the committee hearing, John Parker, vice president of City College, described a new college master plan that would tie the college to East Village and San Diego High. C100 believes the same approach should apply to San Diego High and its connection to the park.

The full council is expected to take up the lease in a few weeks and C100 intends to press councilmembers to use this opportunity to make the school and park better than ever.

A position paper is attached below

- Roger Showley, President

San Diego High School Lease 2021: Opportunities Await

A position paper from the Balboa Park Committee of 100 - July 2021

Issues: Both the City of San Diego and San Diego Unified School District have had problematic real estate dealings in recent years (San Diego Stadium, 101 Ash Street, Normal Street redevelopment, Scripps apartments etc.) Now a 99-year lease is proposed for the 34-acre San Diego High School, a fixture on parkland since 1882. Is this the best deal available to benefit both the city and district?

Background: Balboa Park, established in 1868 and 50 percent bigger than Central Park, has been whittled down from its original 1,400 acres to just shy of 1,200 acres for worthy but nonpark purposes — schools, freeways and a hospital. SDHS was built on the present site in 1882, rebuilt in 1907 and rebuilt again in the 1970s. Its current 50-year lease, approved in 1974 through court action, was structured to allow the rebuilt school to be fully amortized and then relocated outside the park by 2024, since school uses are not a permitted park use.

Opportunities: Balboa Park faces hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance with countless projects contained in its master plan and specific plans that have yet to be implemented, decades after the plans were adopted. But as the population around the park grows, the park should grow with it, both in terms of attractions on the 1,200-acre footprint but also beyond its borders along the streets and finger canyons that emanate from it. The S-curve of Interstate 5 and state Route 163 introduced noisy, polluting and dangerous roadways that diminish the park as a refuge from the hub-bub of the city.

SDHS lease: The new lease for SDHS includes what might be described as a mini-master plan for the next century in terms of building replacements and parking lots. A district appraisal places the value at $33 million, although current land prices in the downtown area suggest a value between $550 million and $887 million. Instead the district proposes only the transfer of about 12 acres of distant properties, valued at less than $4 million. The lease also promises a minimum of just $30 million in district investment over a century. It says nothing about joint planning of this city property, reducing the building footprint to increase public open space and integrating it within the rest of the park, downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Once the lease is signed, the city will have essentially no role, as the landlord, in the property's future use. The district justifies the unprecedented 99-year lease as necessary to satisfy bond holders and claims the city will get the buildings back in 2120 at the end of the lease, although the district clearly expects the school to be retained there forever.

San Diego City College: At the same time, City College is embarking on a revision to its master plan which envisions a landscaped linkage along 14th Street and up to SDHS. Unlike SDHS, voters approved the transfer of former parkland to the college years ago, principally for athletic facilities. The campus includes a large structured parking garage that remains virtually empty outside college operating hours. Why couldn't that garage be available for overflow use by park visitors with shuttles taking them to the heart of the park?

Interstate 5 lids: In the distant future, I-5 may be bridged and the top made available for additional recreation, parking and new facilities and attractions for park visitors. How could such a physical link between downtown and the park be maximized to the benefit of both the park and SDHS?

Neighborhoods near and far: Finally, the neighborhoods around the park, particularly to the west, are being densified and new city rules no longer require developers to provide a minimum amount of parking for renters and owners. Will those residents and nearby businesses simply take over the free parking spaces in West Mesa and squeeze out legitimate park users every day and night of the week? How will residents of other neighborhoods and tourists access and move within the park? How will the Naval Hospital face the future in the park, given likely changes in medical treatment and technology? All these issues should be addressed in a joint planning effort.

Proposal: Even as the City Council and school board move to approve the lease for SDHS, they should also agree to a joint planning effort, along with the San Diego Community College District, to rethink this whole area of the city and park. What should be the vision in 2120 when the new lease comes up for renewal — a century from now when the physical plant of education and commerce could look quite different? How can both educational establishments and Balboa Park develop in the decades ahead, physically and programmatically, to benefit students and park users?

The past is not prologue. The future can offer a different, more inclusive, expansive and unique experience for all.

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