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A huge section of Balboa Park, sandwiched between the golf course and the pipe organ, belongs to a giant, drab U.S. Navy hospital complex and parking lots.

How did a park, originally set aside in 1868 as a 1,400-acre natural preserve, wind up housing a federal military complex? It’s one of the major chapters in the history of big land use changes and controversies in Balboa Park. We’ve been unraveling highlights from that history in a series of posts the last few weeks as the park prepares to undergo a major remodeling.

The Navy first stuck its foot in Balboa Park’s door when it took over a few mostly empty buildings during World War I, after the park’s first exposition in 1915. (This delighted the city, which was trying to woo the giant employer.)

A few years later, the city gave to the Navy land at Inspiration Point for a hospital — the first of several land transfers for Navy expansions. By 1941, the Navy had in its control the whole 93-acre Inspiration Point, according to Richard Amero’s history of the naval hospital.

But in the 1970s, the Navy felt growing pains. It needed to upgrade the buildings to better care for patients and prepare for possible earthquakes. And being in the airplane flight path was a noisy hassle. Balboa Park wasn’t ideal for the Navy’s hospital plans.

The Navy began to talk about moving the hospital out of the park. Officials mulled a few different sites — land near the Veterans Affairs hospital in Torrey Pines, or Murphy Canyon in Tierrasanta.

City leaders, including Mayor Pete Wilson, celebrated — the acres dedicated to the hospital could be returned to park land.

But when the Navy asked for the money to buy the larger Murphy Canyon site and build its hospital, Congress scrutinized the request, questioning whether the size of the hospital was really necessary, after all.

So the Navy — not wanting to risk shrinking its operation and staff — stuck its head back down and took the Murphy Canyon plan off the table. One of the city’s congressmen, Rep. Bob Wilson, came out in support of the hospital staying in Balboa Park. Now the road leading up to the hospital is named for him.

The Navy asked the city to swap land. The Navy would surrender 37 acres of Inspiration Point land and old buildings in exchange for a larger chunk in Florida Canyon — previously intended to remain as a nature trail and preserve.

The city balked. The city charter required the land swap be put to a vote of the people, and a bitter battle began to woo voters.

Voters weren’t having it.

In 1979, only 61 percent — not the 67 percent needed to turn parkland over — voted to allow the Navy’s desired land swap.

The feds planned to just take the land anyway, over the protests of the city.

The city tried one last-ditch plan to dislodge the Navy from its central park. A parcel came available at the 11th hour near the intersection of the 94, 15 and 805 freeways. “It had plenty of room to grow, no airplanes overhead, good freeway access from all directions and no controversy,” wrote Welton Jones in the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1994.

Pete Wilson was especially excited.

But top Navy officials dug their heels in — the plan to keep the hospital in the park was final. The Navy broke ground on the Florida Canyon site for the hospital’s several multi-story buildings and plans for thousands of parking spaces and wrapped it up in 1988.

Jones spoke to park forefather George Marston’s grandson, Hamilton Marston, who was 84 in 1994. Marston said the juxtaposition was tragic.

Here’s how Jones encapsulated Marston’s point: “The Navy and the park are two great institutions forced to coexist where they each could have enjoyed room to flourish.”

Up next: Over many years in the 1980s, the city worked on a plan to majorly renovate and fix up Balboa Park. What happened to that plan, and how were officials planning to pay for it?

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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