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In recent months, the city of San Diego and some of its prominent philanthropic groups have been mulling the creation of a private conservancy to run Balboa Park. An article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times shows some of the pitfalls these efforts could face.

Much of the momentum behind talk about Balboa Park’s future have been fueled by a study, funded by the Legler Benbough Foundation, that pointed to New York’s privately run Central Park as a model for how the future governance of Balboa Park could be structured. The study painted a very positive picture of arrangements, though the Times reports that it also raising concerns that the moneyed few are now taking over public places:

But in New York, a city squeezed for open space, some activists worry that the public parks are becoming too private. They say wealthy donors may have influence over who gets access to park facilities, and efforts to make parks self-supporting can turn them into commercial developments. Civil libertarians worry that parks — New York’s most democratic places — are becoming fiefs where political gatherings are discouraged.

Corporate donations, concession fees and funding plans linked to commercial development are feeding New York’s most expansive park-building boom in decades.

Central Park — which gets five times as many visitors as the Grand Canyon every year — is the prototype. It is tended by a private conservancy with a staff of 300, aided by 1,300 volunteers. Donors raised $300 million to refurbish its 843 acres, and contribute $23 million a year to pay for upkeep.

With all that renovation, park planners also built in a double standard, activists say.

To protect the park’s new grass, officials denied permits to antiwar groups that wanted to use the 13-acre Great Lawn for protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention, prompting lawsuits and public hearings. The New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, however, use the same space for free summer concerts every year.

Some local groups — particularly, the cultural organizations that use Balboa Park — and the city say the icon faces a major bill for long-term infrastructure improvements and maintenance, even as the city projects serious budget shortfalls and likely cuts in its services. The private conservancy is being looked as a way to bring in private money to fund at least some of these efforts, though one academic quoted in the story suggest similar arrangements have proven to be a double-edged sword.

“Some people claim this is a bargain with the devil,” Harvard University urban design expert Jerold Kayden said. “Some people say we need the devil.”

VLADIMIR KOGAN

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