San Diego Believe it or not, the 800-pound gorilla may not sit down exactly where it pleases. In the middle of last week, there was a sudden consensus shift indicating that the gorilla -- the San Diego Zoo -- would bow to some of the wishes of smaller attractions at Balboa Park, as well as to its neighbors in areas such as North Park and Golden Hill.
The zoo has been pushing for approval of an underground parking garage for 4803 cars, along with a separate parking lot for its employees. The plan, called the Park Boulevard Promenade, would do many other things, such as expanding the zoo's footprint from 99.43 acres to 124.67 acres, as it takes over the surface land that is now an above-ground parking lot.
But the zoo's plan enrages many other institutions at Balboa Park. The underground lot would impinge on other attractions' property, eliminating some current smaller parking facilities, thus impacting attendance.
The underground lot is intended to serve all park facilities. But if it were financed in part with a substantial parking fee, some of the attractions that are free, or low-priced, might not attract visitors who would have to shell out big bucks to park.
Also, a two-year period of construction disruption could damage attendance at such institutions as the nearby Natural History Museum, which, appealing to a more cerebral market, has had to battle economic squeezes.
Employees of the zoo, represented by a strong labor union, make more money than employees of other attractions. Thus, the proposed 450-space parking lot exclusively for zoo employees would exacerbate an already difficult situation.
The other attractions complain that the Park Boulevard Promenade may serve the zoo's purposes, but what's needed is a plan that serves all the attractions -- a park-wide solution, not a zoo solution.
The City of San Diego hired a consulting firm, Jones & Jones, which is looking into park-wide solutions -- particularly, distributed parking, or a number of lots that would be connected with a shuttle service that would transport visitors and employees to the park.
At a meeting of neighborhood planning groups on Wednesday, September 3, Mario Campos of Jones & Jones reported that the zoo appears willing to deal with its critics. "The zoo has expressed its willingness to work with all the entities at the park," says Campos.
That night, he talked of a preliminary plan that could reduce the size of the underground lot and include a number of other lots strategically connected by a shuttle system, with an above-ground lot at Inspiration Point (north of Interstate 5, where it makes an "S" curve and east of Park Boulevard). That lot would serve employees as well as visitors. Campos also proposed more community park land, or green space.
He thinks the zoo will buy into a significant part of the plan. The zoo's board is made up of the elite of San Diego's establishment, but the institution is sensitive to public opinion.
Jay Hyde, spokesman for Preserve Our Park, which represents neighborhoods, attended the evening planning session September 3. After hearing Campos and a representative of the city, Hyde was upbeat. "The zoo is seeing that, without drawing in the support of the community, it isn't going anywhere," he says.
On the afternoon before that meeting, the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a group representing park attractions, held a meeting, attended by zoo officials. "It appears that a park-wide vision is emerging. Now on the table are other concerns, rather than just the zoo's project," says Michael W. Hager, executive director of the Natural History Museum.
Jeffrey Kirsch, executive director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and president of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, is also optimistic. "I have seen it happening for quite a while: the zoo changing its position -- seeing the importance of working collaboratively, not only with other cultural institutions, but with other Balboa Park stakeholders such as neighbors."
Kirsch believes the zoo will address problems raised by attorney Courtney Ann Coyle in her devastating critique of its preliminary environmental impact report. The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership and, separately, the Natural History Museum sent letters to the city sharply criticizing the zoo's proposals.
Coyle's report shows, among many things, that the zoo's proposal is sadly lacking in specifics, stealthily shifts major parking costs from the zoo to the city, and proposes that the zoo expand its space greatly without paying more rent. Also, "we need more green space," she says -- a suggestion heartily endorsed by neighborhoods.
The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership will "support the Park Boulevard Promenade plan as an element of a larger park-wide plan," it said in a letter to the city. However, the group notes, the zoo wants the city council to amend the Balboa Park master plan before the Jones & Jones study comes out. That would be foolish.
Douglas W. Myers, executive director of the zoo, would not comment, but Christina Simmons, public relations manager, insists, "The zoo all along has been flexible." The plan has been developing over the past several years, and the zoo, which has suffered setbacks, has gathered and considered input from other groups, she says.
However, since early this year, the zoo has acted like a shark -- a card shark, keeping its cards to itself. It has never said how the project -- which could cost $250 million to $350 million, by various estimates -- would be financed.
"Financing options have not been discussed with Balboa Park institutions, and financial information has not been shared," said Hager in his letter. "There has been no discussion of park-wide financing with the [other] institutions nor a discussion of who will maintain the parking structure, at what annual cost, and who will pay for it."
"How is this going to be paid for?" says Norman Roberts, a La Jolla investment banker who is on the board of the Natural History Museum but was also chairman of the committee that years ago proved the feasibility of the zoo's Wild Animal Park in North County.
First, one thing is clear: There is nothing wrong with public money going into this project. Balboa Park and its zoo are perhaps San Diego's most precious assets. The park draws tourists and helps boost the economy.
But the city keeps wasting funds for pro-sports facilities. In the 1960s, Roberts was chairman of the committee to raise money to build the stadium that is now named Qualcomm. However, "I go to a baseball game every two or three years, and I haven't been to a Chargers game in a decade," he says. "But I go to Balboa Park every week." The park draws 12 million people a year from across the economic spectrum for a wide variety of attractions.
But there are several financing questions. One option is for the city to sell revenue bonds based on a parking fee. But that parking fee would hurt other institutions. Another option is for the city to sell general obligation bonds. But if they were only for the zoo's project, other attractions would suffer, point out critics.
On one point there is unanimity: Lack of parking is a critical problem at Balboa Park. Public funds should provide some of the solution. But there is a big snag: the city is already in bad economic shape, facing a huge deficit and suffering with an eroding infrastructure and a woefully underfunded pension plan needing monetary infusions. But the people deserve the opportunity to choose how their funds will be parceled out and how.
One critical issue that is barely being discussed is the cerebral quality of attractions. Many people believe that the zoo and other Balboa Park institutions have already dumbed down to attract visitors. Too much pressure to bring in visitors, particularly at a higher price, could ruin the flavor of Balboa Park, if it has not done so already. Roberts and others are concerned about what the zoo might do with its additional acreage. "I don't think the zoo should be a Disneyland," says Roberts. "Already, it is too interested in feeding children junk food."