In the late 1970s in Balboa Park, the place was falling apart. A city engineer said the 1915-era House of Charm, which now houses the Mingei International Museum, resembled a “house of cards.” The bellows in the giant pipe organ were deteriorating and the pipes were clogged. The fire marshal closed down six of the park’s wood-frame buildings, including the municipal gym, and relocated clubs and organizations until the city could install sprinklers.

But it didn’t appear likely the city could afford to do much to burnish its gem, even with a new national historic designation. Proposition 13, a state tax-cutting overhaul, had just passed, leaving a wake of cuts to services across the city, including the park.

City leaders nonetheless commissioned a long-range plan for Balboa Park — which buildings needed renovations, how parking and traffic should work, what organizations and businesses should be allowed in and how to expand the park’s green space. They also asked planners to find ways to make the park bring in some revenue to support itself, perhaps by bringing in new restaurants or paid parking.

What resulted was one of the many periods of controversy in Balboa Park’s history. We’ve been cataloguing stories from the park’s past about big land use changes and controversies, many of which set the backdrop for how desperately the 1980s-era planning process was needed.

That process of creating a roadmap, which took the better part of the 1980s, stirred up long-running debates that continue today. Cars and parking versus pedestrians loomed large, and still does. And so did the question about how to balance the park’s emphasis on serving the museums and cultural institutions while still attracting community groups like clog-dancing troupes and badminton teams. Is the park the Smithsonian or the neighborhood gathering spot?

Today, a plan to remake the park’s western entrance and remove cars and parking from the Plaza de Panama has roused debate over many of these same topics. Opponents are suing over that plan, spearheaded by philanthropist Irwin Jacobs and Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, traffic and parking were also top priorities. To the chagrin of museum directors worried about reducing the number of steps their patrons had to take from their automobiles to the front doors, the city’s contracted landscape architect, Ron Pekarek, wanted cars out. The idea of extracting cars from the park’s center had been around since the last master plan in 1960, but was always controversial.

“I remember over the years the perception always was, if you block traffic, it’s the death knell for the museums in the central plaza,” said Dave Twomey, former Park and Recreation director for the city.

Pekarek wanted to close the Cabrillo Bridge to cars, route cars out of the Prado and Palisades areas (near where the Starlight Bowl Theater is) and build a new parking structure behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

“Cars smell funny,” Pekarek told the Union newspaper in 1983. “They don’t match the quality of the architecture and the huge investment of the city to reconstruct all the Spanish-Colonial buildings. It’s like parking your car in your living room.”

Eventually, after many iterations and compromises, the City Council passed what it called the Balboa Park Master Plan in 1989, and a more specific Precise Plan for the park’s center in 1992.

“The Balboa Park Master Plan has been one of the most controversial and protracted issues that the San Diego City Council has faced in the last decade,” wrote then-councilman Bob Filner, whose district included the park, in a memo to his council colleagues.

The planners drew up four-year phases for accomplishing things like rebuilding the House of Charm and House of Hospitality, instituting a shuttle tram service, building a Japanese-style garden and a new gym. And they envisioned a parking structure behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion that could hold 1,000 to 1,500 cars. Ultimately they called for removing the parking spaces from the Plaza de Panama, but keeping the Cabrillo Bridge open for pass-through traffic.

The council even came up with a way to pay for the improvements, estimated to cost more than $100 million. They’d tap a recently increased hotel-room tax, and one cent out of the nine-cent tax would go to improvements in Balboa Park and Mission Bay. It’d bring in a potential $65 million in just the first five years, they figured.

The days of crumbling buildings without money to fix them were over, declared Herb Lawrence in the evening Tribune newspaper in 1991.

“That situation is now behind the city,” he wrote.

That seemed true. The city borrowed money for the improvements and continued to count on the one-penny hotel-room tax to cover the payments. Big-ticket projects included reconstructing and building a new basement for the replicated House of Charm, and scraping and reconstructing a replica of the House of Hospitality.

The parking garage was supposed to begin in the first phase of improvements. The city even designed a poster calling for architects to submit their ideas, and asked artists to start imagining what could go atop it.

The structure called for a grass-covered roof, a popular feature now but one that was groundbreaking at the time, said its designer, Vicki Estrada. Estrada used to work for Pekarek, and ran much of the public process to bring people together for it back in the 1980s. Estrada has joined the team to plan the landscape for the current plan.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Vicki Estrada

But that parking structure wasn’t built. It was delayed, then people forgot about it. Now, some 20 years later, it’s a central tenet of the new plan.

There are lots of other things still technically on the books from the master plan that didn’t happen. Among them, Florida Canyon still has traffic through it even though the plan calls for part of the road to be closed. And the former landfill hasn’t been converted to open meadows.

It’s unclear exactly when the city’s commitment to sending hotel-tax money to Balboa Park infrastructure and building projects waned. The recession in the early 1990s and a reorganization of the hotel-tax fund to send a bigger share to the general city budget likely contributed.

Other projects elsewhere in the city drew on the same pot of money, too. By the late 1990s, the city mulled plans for a new library, ballpark and convention center expansion. Each could be realized, various leaders imagined, with that hotel-room tax revenue. Mel Shapiro, a longtime civic activist, told the Union-Tribune in 1998 he thought the city had over-promised from the fund.

“All these organizations come to them and say, ‘Give us money, give us money,’” Shapiro said. “And they say, ‘Sure, we’ll give you part of the hotel-room tax.’ “

By 2010, the city had declared it didn’t have enough money to fix deferred maintenance in the park, and asked for philanthropic help.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone over at the city who knows about what we thought was an iron-clad commitment to Balboa Park that has subsequently been siphoned off for the General Fund,” said Ron Roberts, a county supervisor who sat on the City Council in the early 1990s. “Money is, I guess, the key to a lot.”

Next up: One of those plans to bring revenue into the park included a familiar fast-food juggernaut, a prospect that outraged park lovers.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.

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

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

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

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