If the Pacific Ocean is San Diego’s swimming pool, Balboa Park is our backyard. When we want to get out of the house, Balboa Park is where we go, 11 million times per year.
And we don’t just go because it’s there. Balboa Park is a unique assembly of 85 public and private institutions clustered on 1200 acres of dedicated landscape. You can visit the park to shoot arrows, play chess or golf, see an Apollo 9 command module, join a drum circle, look at Picassos, run your dog, feed some ducks, feel cool spray from a fountain, catch an IMAX film, and experience the opulence of roses, the austerity of cactuses, menageries of animals, and the stately grandeur of a pipe organ.
Balboa Park is owned by the city and operated by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Two official bodies contributeadvisory input: the San Diego Park and Recreation Board and the Balboa Park Committee. A number of individual philanthropic organizations provide support, including the Friends of Balboa Park, the Committee of 100, and various foundations.
On top of this, dozens of nonprofit park lessees provide services and recreational activities, a few for-profit restaurateurs and food vendors pay rent, and many more special festivals and events are scheduled throughout the year within the boundaries of the park.
But is this becoming a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Should Balboa Park become a more unified entity?
One reason why it might be time to address this question is because Balboa Park needs hundreds of millions of dollars of attention. Everything from seismic retrofitting of buildings to renovating an old landfill.
And according to a recent study, the time to address this question is now, before it becomes an urgent one.
The 187-page study, The Soul of San Diego: Keeping Balboa Park Magnificent in Its Second Century, was financed by local civic philanthropic organizations and produced by the Center for City Park Excellence of the Trust for Public Land. Supporting documentation was provided by the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California and by the Morey Group.
The first 18 pages — an introduction, background, summary of studies, questions raised, and a conclusion — are followed by three appendices of varying lengths: the Morey Report on Balboa Park usage, examples of capital and maintenance needs, and then the Keston Report on Management and Funding Options.
The study is full of colorful graphs, hard facts, and beautiful sentences.
“Balboa Park is in many ways the physical and psychological soul of the city and even the region — an economic, ecological and spiritual engine that continuously pumps life into the metropolis,” the introduction states. “Other than the Pacific Ocean itself, there is probably no more universally beloved feature in San Diego.”
The study goes on to tell a relatively complete tale of Balboa Park’s history — from its birth in 1848, thanks to Alonzo Horton, through the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which contributed most of the Spanish architecture, through the creation of the zoo and museums and the unfulfilled planning efforts of the ’80s and ’90s and the past few years.
Finally, the study states: “Most San Diegans believe that it is important to assure that Balboa Park does not go through the kind of collapse that at one time or another befell New York’s Central Park and many other great urban gathering places.… The purpose of these studies and this study is to provide the factual basis that is necessary to have an informed and robust public discussion about the future of the park.”
The study is careful to state then that its purpose is not to make recommendations but only to provide information in three specific areas: usage, examples of capital and deferred maintenance needs, and “analysis of current management and planning issues…including governance alternatives and funding options that could be considered for the future.”
Councilmember Toni Atkins had this to say about the document: “The information provided in the study gives us a basis to begin. It’s a reflection of the reality of our overall financial ability to maintain a world-class park for San Diegans and visitors to enjoy.”
In an email, Atkins was careful to add the following important point: “What may be hard for people to garner from the study who aren’t intimately familiar with the park is how well the park is actually maintained by staff given the lack of adequate resources available.”
Balboa Park is currently looked after by thousands of volunteers who spend their days pruning rose bushes, guiding tours, manning desks, and cleaning up. In 2003, the cultural institutions alone had 7000 volunteers working for them. It’s apparent that without these unpaid assistants donating their time, the park would either fall into quicker disrepair or be considerably more expensive to maintain.
“I’m here about once a week,” said one member of the Rose Garden Corps, who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s therapeutic, being out here in a beautiful garden like this.” The Corps is a group of 50 or so volunteers who attend regular horticulture classes and help care for the park’s 2000 rose plants.
“Volunteers are the backbone of the park,” said David Kinney, director of the House of Hospitality Association within the park. “From the Balboa Park Committee to the thousands of volunteers at the cultural institutions and volunteer groups like the Friends of Balboa Park and the Committee of 100. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so many volunteers that keep this park going, I think that whatever governance structure is created for the future needs to incorporate volunteers.”
Added Councilmember Atkins, “Clearly the issue of financing is key — but the direction we take to try and secure the resources to preserve and maintain Balboa Park is what leads us to the broader discussion of governance. I want the stakeholders and the citizens who care about Balboa Park to work with the City to determine how we proceed.”