San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has been quite the optimist about what the city will be able to do in coming years. It will build a new Convention Center (perhaps the most expensive facility it has ever built). It could build a new City Hall. Maybe a stadium.

But it won’t be able to help Balboa Park. That’s what the mayor declared during a sunny press conference Sept. 14 in the middle of that park.

“The city simply doesn’t have the resources to provide the level of care that this magnificent park deserves,” Sanders said.

Admissions about the state of the city rarely get more jarring than that.

But the press conference wasn’t meant to be depressing. The mayor was there to offer a solution: The city may not be able to take care of the park. The nice men and women standing behind him that day would.

It was the climax of three pieces of news about Balboa Park that came this summer. And in coming years, these three issues will change the park forever.

The first bit of news isn’t really news. In 2015, the park will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the defining Panama California Exposition, which largely made the park what it is. The city hopes to do this occasion right.

The second bit of news, made possible in some ways by the first, is that philanthropist Irwin Jacobs has proposed something grand and ambitious that may free the park’s central Plaza de Panama from the automobile.

The third bit of news is what the mayor was in the park discussing that sunny day: Foundations and park activists have agreed to form the Balboa Park Conservancy. It sounds like it will be a vehicle for philanthropy to flow into the park. A way to turn to residents to fund what their tax dollars, apparently, will never.

(A note of disclosure: Many of those stakeholders, foundations and activists support, including Jacobs, who is a major donor.)

It’s an important time for the park. As much as residents and visitors might enjoy the vast green landscape, the arts and architecture and the canyons, Balboa Park is sick. Its historic buildings have long lists of needs. A giant swath of it is a wasteland spewing methane from a landfill underneath. Much of the land within the park’s official perimeter is playing host to drab city buildings and assets.

It’s a world class park with world class problems. Not the least of which is that it has been crippled by the automobile.

The Plaza de Car

The other day, I asked’s photographer Sam Hodgson if he had a picture of the Plaza de Panama. It is, after all, the heart of the park. It has a fountain in the middle and it is surrounded by some of the city’s most distinctive architecture.

He reported back that he had more than 1,000 pictures of the park. Not one of the Plaza de Panama.

I couldn’t blame him. The Plaza de Panama is ugly. Hodgson didn’t have a photo of it because when you go to the park, you instinctively avert your eyes from this embarrassment of civic planning.

See for yourself: Go to Balboa Park with fresh eyes, walk across the Cabrillo Bridge. Walk into the Plaza de Panama. Cars everywhere. Cars and the things that cars need: stop signs, crosswalks, parking lot markings. All of it around a fountain — a piece of public art that might be nice to stand next to or eat a lunch by — except that it’s basically a traffic nuisance now. And it’s roped off.

For years, I’ve followed the talk about throwing the cars out and returning the plaza to a public gathering space worthy of the magnificent park. While the price tag to do this was always much lower than some of the grand public projects the city’s leaders coveted, a big shot never owned this civic cause. Nobody powerful enough obsessed over it — the way some did the new library downtown or the vested interests pushing a new Convention Center.

And the plans languished.

But this summer was not a typical San Diego one in politics. Major announcements and confounding twists and turns were a daily affair.

So it shouldn’t have been that surprising, though it was to me, to hear that the city’s most prominent philanthropist may have advanced the cause of throwing cars out of the Plaza de Panama more in a couple of months than committees and activists had been able to do in decades.

Irwin Jacobs unveiled a grand vision for the Plaza de Panama. Put simply, the cars and their accoutrements would be moved out of the plaza. Incoming traffic would be rerouted to a parking garage.

As it is now, the Plaza de Panama serves as a kind of roundabout and parking lot for the historic park. Traffic from the west comes in over the Cabrillo Bridge. You circle around the fountain. You might be lucky to find a spot right to the north — free for two hours. If not, you head down the hill to one of the larger lots.

Jacobs’ idea would be to take out the cars and their parking spots and push the road to the south.

Courtsey rendering
Courtsey rendering

Jacobs said he’d been approached about supporting other ideas including one that would not have totally rid the plaza of cars.The road would veer through the Alcazar Garden parking lot and take motorists directly to a new parking structure. In Jacobs’ vision, the new garage would lie behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. He sees it with a garden of its own on top. It actually adds 200 spots to the park. And to help people with disabilities who would be now parking farther away from the hub, a tram could ferry them back up to the Plaza de Panama, reclaimed from the Plaza de Car.

“You can’t do a partial job. It’s a system — you have to do the overall plan,” he told me in an interview. But a comprehensive plan is a much more expensive one.

Though he has not said whether he would invest in the project himself, Jacobs already has paid for the consultants to illustrate and carry out the vision. Given his $15 million in support for the new library downtown, it’s not hard to imagine he’d be willing to help the city get the financial obstacle out of the way. The plan as it stands could cost as much as $33 million.

Jacobs told me he imagines the city funding at least part of the construction of the new parking garage — perhaps by borrowing money and paying it back by charging visitors to park there.

Or that might be managed by a new group: The Balboa Park Conservancy.

The Dissolving City

I asked Alex Roth, a spokesman in the Mayor’s Office, what the mayor was referring to when he said the city couldn’t afford to pay for what Balboa Park deserved.

He pointed me to this report (scroll down to page 139, he said).

On the list are some big dreams like a plan to wipe a city facility off of the corner of 20th and B Streets and return the area, which is inside park limits, to the park.

But the list is also a depressing history of what’s happened to the park since it was set aside as an urban oasis. One of the biggest projects on the list would reclaim a large swath where city leaders decades ago decided would be the best place for a landfill.

That’s the problem with the park. Yes, it’s an oasis, but it’s been chopped up, bifurcated by freeways and roads, used as a dump, a prime spot for a major hospital and a convenient place to set up city facilities and store excess equipment.

We have stopped dismembering Balboa Park but we have a long way to go to reverse the trajectory. We could start at the top of the list the Mayor’s Office provided: reclaim the Arizona Landfill. Right now, 77 acres of the park cover up a landfill from the ’50s and ’60s that is still belching out methane. Though some useful attributes of the park, like the Morley Field Disc Golf Course, sit atop of it, the rest is a true wasteland.

In 2007, city officials estimated the cost of turning this area into true parkland at $87 million. How in the world could a city, struggling as San Diego is, afford that?

The answer, apparently, is in a new nonprofit being formed that’s known as the Balboa Park Conservancy.

“The promise of the Balboa Park Conservancy is in its potential to help the citizens of our city fulfill our long-range vision for Balboa Park,” said Coucilman Todd Gloria when the inaugural board members of the new conservancy were introduced to the public.

The mayor agreed.

“We want an organization with the talent and credibility to makes sure Balboa Park gets all of the resources it deserves and to make sure that those resources are spent wisely,” the mayor said at that September press conference.

It’s become obvious that if you care about something in the city, like a park or library, you really need to think about forming a group to pay for it yourself. The city, so burdened by long-term liabilities, has allowed philanthropic groups or hyper-local pseudo-governments like business improvement districts to pick up where the city leaves off.

In this case, the people coming together to pay for Balboa Park are led by three local foundations: The Parker Foundation, the Legler Benbough Foundation and the San Diego Foundation (full disclosure again: all three of these groups have supported

When I asked, at the press conference, if this conservancy would actually end up taking over management of Balboa Park from the city, I was met with immediate stern reaction. “No.”

City leaders were determined to assure residents they weren’t handing over San Diego’s jewel (landfills and all) to private hands. Land-use decisions would still have to go through the city and its public process, they reassured me. And the park would still be managed by the city. I asked if the conservancy would manage, say, a new sprinkler system for the park.

“We might raise funds for sprinklers but we’re not going to deal with sprinklers,” said Vicki Granowitz, a member of the new board.

So, the conservancy would serve as a vehicle for philanthropy — for citizens who care about the park to start funding what the city cannot. The conservancy might identify a project, say the Arizona Landfill, and become the champion for getting a plan approved by the city and raising money from donors — maybe setting up a match where the city pays for half and donors the other half.

Gloria said the Balboa Park Conservancy ultimately would be “assuming the lead role as the city’s partner in planning, fundraising and governance in Balboa Park.”

Gloria and others are anxious. They want to get a lot done by 2015.

A Party

That year will mark the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Gloria and others want to throw a big party and they want a lot of things to be better by then.

The Plaza de Panama, in fact, was created just for the crowds that came for the exposition. To return it to a place people might actually want to gather, in time for the anniversary, would truly be something to celebrate.

“When you have a deadline, it helps focus the mind,” Gloria told me.

The deadline has also helped create nonprofit organizations. There are now, or will soon be, three new nonprofits concerned with Balboa Park. The first is the Balboa Park Conservancy. The second is in charge of the 2015 celebration. The third is the Plaza de Panama Committee, the group formed by Jacobs.

The guiding plan for the Plaza de Panama now is Jacobs’ plan. And he’s not shy about the fact that, largely with his own advisors, he came up with it.

“One way of handling the process is to come forward with no plan at all and construct it in a committee. I’ve never found that’s a good way to get things done,” he said.

View more news videos at:


San Diego Explained: Balboa Park’s Future. In partnership with NBC 7/39.

That may not disillusion him but it could leave others with a bad taste. Vicki Granowitz agreed that “everyone wants cars out of the plaza” but there were a number of things to think about. Shortly after Jacobs released his plan, she and others complained about the idea that traffic would no longer go both ways on the historic Cabrillo Bridge. Cars could use it to come in to the park, from the west, but they’d have to leave the park to the east (this idea has since been scrapped).

Granowitz also worried that the Plaza de Panama was being designed without knowing what it would be hosting.

“I have concerns that they have started to design the plaza and no discussion about how that plaza should be programmed for the largest number of our citizens and tourists to enjoy and appreciate,” she said.

In her vision, a diverse citizenry would decide what kinds of things might take place on the plaza — art, concerts, events, etc. — and then the architecture and design of it would be shaped around that plan.

“As we go through the process, we’re going to be continuing to look for suggestions and we’ll keep the information as public as possible so people can provide those suggestions,” Jacobs said.

And, he pointed out, the public will need to feel invested enough in this to actually want to donate money. Remember, the future of Balboa Park is apparently no longer in the hands of the government.

The city is dissolving and the future of Balboa Park is being handed to these new nonprofits. It’s hard for me not to worry that this will only validate the decision to let the city continue to focus on massive investment in downtown construction projects. Or does it validate the current state of affairs at the city? “Look, folks, we can be dysfunctional, have chronic budget deficits AND still have a great park, thanks to these nice people.”

What are the other priceless city treasures the city has decided it simply can’t provide for any longer but no endowments or hyper-local governments are coming in to save?

I don’t know.

But it appears that people who care about a priceless community asset, one of the largest urban parks in the world, are coming together to protect it.

“In 1915, San Diegans at that point in time saw it fit to give us something special,” Gloria told me. “What are we going to give future generations of San Diegans?”

Correction: The original version of this post claimed the park was turning 100 in 2015. Later, we wrote that it was just the anniversary of the 1915 Exposition. To clarify, the park is actually 146 years old. The upcoming celebration is for the Exposition’s anniversary. We regret the error.

You can contact me directly at or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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