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The Balboa Park Palisades

The new vision for Balboa Park's Palisades -- home to Starlight Bowl, Municipal Gym, Air & Space Museum, Automotive Museum and San Diego Comic-Con Museum -- is car-free and alive with green space, trees, people and activity yet to be imagined. The stage is set with the September 2020 completion of Parks and Recreation's Phase One of the Palisades rehabilitation project. That removes half the cars and replaces them with green space, people space and shaded tree space.


The 2020 coronavirus epidemic brought new attention and need for safe outdoor people spaces, outdoor dining and open-air theater. Starlight Bowl has new ADA access to the coming concession stand that will bring food and beverage to the Palisades. Just imagine if we could open the gates and go inside Starlight and see a new bowl re-imagined. Imagine too, Starlight on Pan-American Plaza with food trucks, vendors and theater in the round.


The Palisades rehabilitation began five years ago when The Balboa Park Committee of 100 President Mike Kelly decided to begin with reconstructing the murals and ornament that were originally on the California State Building (today's San Diego Automotive Museum) at the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935-36. The murals depicted California’s scenic beauty, agriculture, commerce and industry. The ornamentation was part of expo architect Richard Requa’s vision to represent all of the Americas in the architecture around Pan-American Plaza including Maya and Aztec cultures.


With no known color photographs available of the original polychrome painted fiberboard murals to guide the design work, the first three years focused on the tile murals and figuring out how to turn black and white images into colorful ceramic tiles. RTK Studio in Ojai was commissioned to create the artwork and glazed tile. A digital model of the Auto Museum was created to show the tiles and the ornament on the building.

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Project Timeline

2015 Murals project begins

2018 Palisades project plan begins

2019 Automotive Museum restoration plans approved

2020 Pan-American Plaza first phase restoration completed; Auto Museum painted; tile murals and ornamentation installed

2021 Design and development of California grizzly bear statues, ornamentation for Municipal Gym, and relief sculpture; Comic-Con Museum painted

2022 Municipal Gym painted; grizzly bear statues completed; installation of sculptures and flagpoles atop the Auto Museum; structural analysis and final design plans for Municipal Gym

2023 Completion and installation of new elements at Municipal Gym

Mayor Todd Gloria addresses a crowd celebrating the nearing completion of the Muni Gym pai

The next two years focused on the Palisades itself -- removing the cars and reconstructing the historic look of Pan-American Plaza that contained the Firestone Singing Fountains, radial gardens in the north plaza and two kiosks that house loudspeakers.  C100 commissioned WET Design in Sun Valley, known for fountains in Las Vegas, Dubai and other cities around the world, to conceptualize a reconstruction of the three-part fountains. All this was depicted in a digital model of a Palisades that could be.


C100 also met with Parks and Recreation staff and was reminded that the loss of parking was going to be an issue.  So, in the summer of 2018, Vicki Estrada , author of the city's park master plan, helped design a plan to add 140 more parking spaces behind the Air & Space Museum. She broke the plaza conversion project into two phases, leaving the existing parking in the north part of plaza for the second phase.


The city completed Phase One  in September 2020 -- removal of parking in the south half of the plaza and construction of a landscaped, pedestrian-only space and a new park shuttle stop. The Balboa Park Conservancy also convened a task force to plan the activation of the newly usable park space. The Friends of Balboa Park committed to a fund-raising drive to install several dozen park benches in the new space.


The process for that re-imagining the new space continued in February 2020, when Estrada and C100 board member Michael Stepner brought in NewSchool of Architecture & Design students to develop concepts for Starlight Bowl, the Municipal Gymnasium and the plaza itself. Ideas included improved accessibility, public art, green space and food and beverage opportunities. The students suggested a landscaped cultural feature recognizing the Kumeyaay Indian nation, night gardens, a farmer's market, food hall, a much expanded gym and landscaped elements inside Starlight. "The Palisades: A Vision For Tomorrow" represents a roadmap for the Palisades in coming years.


C100's board member and architect Robert Thiele prepared building permit plans for the ornamentation, tile installation and lighting on the auto museum.  Through the COVID-19 crisis, the city managed to keep the wheels of Development Services moving and completed its review of the permit plans.  


In May, the C100 partnered with city facilities crews to cover the roughly $15,000 cost in repainting the Automotive Museum. Local historic researcher William Chandler and Susan Buck, a nationally recognized expert in historic color analysis, confirmed the original color of the building as SW 6144 Bagel. This set the precedent for repainting other Palisades buildings in the future (with the exception of the Air & Space Museum, which had a different color scheme).


During the exposition, two California grizzly bear statues at the northeast and southeast corners of the Auto Museum roof overlooked the plaza. Two flag poles with special finials rose 18 feet over the entrance The next stage in this ambitious project aims to bring back the bears and flagpoles, flying the American and California state flags, in 2021.

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