When highway planners have a road to build, they look at where they want it to start and where they want it to end.

Then they try to draw a line, straight as possible.

But what happens when that line goes through Balboa Park?

When the Cabrillo Freeway first came up in the 1940s, lots of San Diegans cheered. Civic leader George Marston told the San Diego Union newspaper in 1941 that he considered the Cabrillo Freeway the answer to “the extreme necessity of another broad modern thoroughfare from north to south.”

Such enthusiasm wouldn’t always endure for the highway through the park, especially as it threatened to grow in future decades. The city had taken its park, which began as 1,400 acres, and sliced off dozens of acres here, dozens more there. The park today features two freeways — the State Route 163 coursing through it and Interstate 5 slicing off the southwestern corner.

“A freeway through the park? I mean, come on,” said Nancy Carol Carter, a law professor at the University of San Diego who has studied the history of Balboa Park. “There is not one place in the park where you can’t hear traffic.”

But the idea wasn’t always controversial. We’ve been unraveling tales from the park’s history since it was set aside in the 1860s, tracing back controversies and big changes in the city’s crown jewel.

The current reason for debate in the park is a plan, approved in July, to remake the park’s western entrance. The plan’s supporters describe a romantic central plaza, free of cars, in front of many of the park’s iconic structures. Its detractors focus more on the new road that diverts the cars and a paid parking garage.

“Although there have been many individual uses proposed and granted on park property, none stirs up more controversy than roads,” wrote San Diego Union reporter Michael O’Connor in 1963. “However, in most cases the park land has been turned over by a vote of the people.”

Over the years, city leaders wanted to add roads and private buildings, but they needed at least two-thirds votes in a public election.

Voters overwhelmingly agreed to let the city deed about 38 acres to the state Division of Highways for the freeway in 1941. The highway builders broke ground in 1946, replacing lily ponds and bridle paths under the iconic bridge leading across the Cabrillo Canyon.

Cars could pass under the arches, and landscaped hillsides bore trees and plants, making the highway a beautiful route. Even JFK may’ve agreed when he traveled down it in 1963. It was the first freeway in San Diego County.

Private uses and roads had eaten up 249 of the park’s original 1,400 acres, according to a 1963 estimate in the Union.

Highway planners, however, weren’t done eyeing the park. San Diego’s population had boomed after the World Wars, and traffic built up on the freeway. By 1965, Caltrans revealed it planned to double the freeway’s width, to eight lanes.

A civic group called Citizens Coordinate passionately opposed the widening. Referred to as “politically inexperienced urban conservationists” at the time by San Diego Magazine, the group published a report called “Highwayman Stop! This Is City Park” and went head-to-head with the Chamber of Commerce and a pro-highway association. Clare Crane describes their strategy in her book, “Citizens Coordinate and The Battle for City Planning in San Diego.”

The group organized a big “Explore Balboa Park Day” in 1967, and while people were listening to organ concerts, going on nature walks and watching puppet shows, Citizens Coordinate members fanned out throughout the park to educate people and ask them to sign a petition against the freeway.

From the petition:

Economics as well as an emotional attachment to the Park reinforce our belief that additional highway encroachment, by damaging one of this city’s major assets, would be a disservice to the general well‐being of San Diego. We ask you not to sacrifice any more of the space, the clean air, the greenery of Balboa Park to expediency.

With thousands of signatures on their side, the Citizens Coordinate group caught the ear of the City Council. The state changed its widening proposal from eight lanes to six. By the end of 1968, the state highways chief said the department would abide by any city decision.

The group reminded the council they didn’t want any widening at all, not even the revised plan. And then in 1969, the federal government gave the freeway a commemorative citation for its beauty.

The council turned down any widening and the whole event bolstered the group’s confidence that they could have a voice in planning issues.


Another road-related controversy that has come up in the current debate over the new bridge and parking structure: Cars once could travel east and west through the park.

You could enter the park on Laurel Street, drive all the way down El Prado and connect to Park Boulevard. When the city proposed closing the eastern end of El Prado to cars in the early 1970s, many people disagreed.

The architect for the project, John Henderson, described the opposition to KPBS recently.

But, Henderson said, people got used to the change.


Now that the 163 does run through the park, its aesthetics seem to be more important to people than the traditional freeway.

A couple of years ago, we looked at why there are so many weed-looking plants in the median upon the urging of our readers.

Caltrans told us that they’d built new guardrails to keep cars from veering across the medians into oncoming traffic, and had switched up the landscaping strategy in the middle.

“People are used to the manicured look,” Caltrans spokesman Edward Cartagena said. “The unkempt look, people are hesitant to accept. But it was planned.”

Up next: A fight for park land escalates to the federal level, as the Navy plans to expand its hospital.

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 is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment
We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.