In 1953, people who lived in San Diego mulled whether to let the Padres build a baseball field in the city’s central park. The Union newspaper’s Joe Brooks penned the news with a haven’t-we-seen-this-before air:

“San Diego is expected to resume one of its favorite indoor sports — squabbling about the development of Balboa Park,” Brooks wrote. The baseball bid was unsuccessful, but it wasn’t the first or last time private interests proposed parceling off sections for their own use.

Brooks continued:

The whole history of the park is one of civic controversy dating back almost of May 25, 1868, when the City Council authorized acquisition of 1400 acres of hard pan and chaparral as site of a park.

History shows San Diegans have been proud of their park and jealous of its uses since then. Almost every proposal to locate something in the park has met with opposition — even the things that today are regarded as the park’s prime assets. Sometimes public opinion has prevented use of the park property for whatever plan was being considered at the moment; other plans have been adopted despite the opposition.

Fifty-nine years later, people who live in San Diego are mulling the latest plan, and “squabbling” is a nice word for the discussion the plan has sparked.

The idea is to remake the park’s western entrance in order to remove traffic and parking from the park’s Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California, which front structures built for the park’s 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The City Council gave its approval two weeks ago, handing a victory to Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs.

It did so over cries that the remodeling would destroy the park’s historic features and public access. Opponents described Jacobs and his committee as the latest interests to exert private influence over a public park. Though his plan doesn’t carve out parkland and restrict it from the public in the manner of the hospital or the landfill, the iconic park’s rocky history hangs heavy over the debate.

It’s the latest in a long history of passionate and sometimes hyperbolic discussion over what is one of the city’s best assets.

Some of the fighting was about preference: Architecture for the 1915 expo that’s being fought so vehemently over was itself contentious to people who thought the park should remain natural and open.

Other arguments dealt with big footprints for puzzling uses. The park lost more than 100 acres to freeways and more than 90 to the naval hospital. In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s we thought it’d be fine to dump garbage in it. Now the Arizona Landfill is closed but unstable, yet to be reclaimed for the park.

I’ve been perusing the excellent archive that Richard W. Amero compiled of Balboa Park historical events and articles, and talking to people who’ve followed the park many years longer than I have.

Over a series of posts over the next week or two I’ll be digging up interesting tales and pondering the big things the city has done in and to the park since it was dedicated in the 1860s. Perhaps this history will help explain some of the vehement, heated debate over who gets to say what happens there.

“Yes, San Diego got a park in 1868, but from that day forward the question of whether or not we can keep it has been on the table,” said University of San Diego law professor Nancy Carol Carter at a luncheon last year, telling stories from her Balboa Park research.

“The number of assaults on park land over the past 143 years is nothing less than shocking,” she continued. “Some of the schemes for converting the park for other uses were outlandish and others are so brazen and avaricious as to take your breath away.”

Stay tuned as we dig up the stories of Balboa Park’s transformations over the years and compare them to the events of today. And tell us: Which stories should we be sure to include?

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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