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It is estimated that more than 17 million people visit Balboa Park annually — an amazing number for a municipal park. How can we not be drawn to this majestic park with its captivating charm and beauty? There is something intangible about its mixture of history, culture, gardens, open space and architectural splendor that combines to make one of the nation’s premier urban parks. Many of us consider Balboa Park to be the crown jewel not only of Council District 3, which I represent, but for the entire city of San Diego.

Imagine the foresight Balboa Park’s founders must have had. To reserve 1400 acres of scrub-filled land described as “apparently unfit for any private uses” — on the outskirts of town no less — for a city park required a true vision. San Diego was no burgeoning metropolis at the time either, but boasted a population of around 500 people centered in Old Town.

Think of the collective determination and leadership that must have been in place in order to pull off the 1915 Panama/California Exposition. A city of less than 40,000 people raised in excess of $5 million for the Expo and embarked on a massive construction project that was completed in four years. The Expo set the tone for the Spanish Colonial architecture presently along the Prado, including the California Tower, House of Hospitality and the Casa del Prado. San Diegans moved ahead with their plans even after Congress refused to support the endeavor.

In 1935 they did it again with the California Pacific International Exposition — which included construction of a number of new buildings in the park designed by architect Richard Requa and inspired by the native architecture of the Southwest and Central America and that of Renaissance Spain and Portugal. This time even school children got in on the act by donating their lunch money to help the fundraising effort.

There were other major milestones in Balboa Park’s history as well. It was used as a Naval Training facility for WWI, and taken over again by the Navy for WWII to expand the capacity of the Naval Hospital. Hospital beds and dormitories replaced museum exhibits, and the reflecting pond was used as a rehab pool for the wounded.

Numerous times over the years the park’s historic buildings, most of which were hastily constructed and not intended to be permanent, have been proposed for demolition due to their deteriorating conditions. Each time, the citizens of San Diego have risen up in protest to save these monuments and raise money for their upkeep and rehabilitation. This type of civic stewardship continues to this day, with citizens groups such as the Committee of 100 and the Friends of Balboa Park partnering with the city to fund park improvements and building renovations.

It is easy to fall under the spell of this magnificent park. But once you do, you soon realize that you also have a responsibility to the park — a responsibility to protect it; to preserve it for future generations; and to enhance it. There has been much debate as to the best method to accomplish this.

TONI ATKINS

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