If you wanted to make a rhetorical point about commercialism clashing with a public place, you might imagine aloud a beloved park, all full of tranquility and fun, interrupted by the deep-fried scent of the first fast-food place that came to mind — say, McDonald’s.

This scenario was actually considered in Balboa Park in the late 1980s. It’s one of the more peculiar chapters in the city’s long-running challenge to pay for the park’s needs.

As the city created its park blueprint calling for better-planned parking and traffic control, officials wanted to start a tram system to ferry people from outer parking lots into the center of the park. But they needed money to pay for it. City lawmakers directed parks staff to look for ways to raise around $400,000 to cover the tram yearly. The idea was that a big corporate sponsor might pay for the service in exchange for advertising and logos on the tram itself.

City parks officials wrote letters to a couple of dozen large national advertisers like Pepsi and Kellogg’s. They heard back from two. One of them, McDonald’s, tweaked the proposal. The burger behemoth offered to pay for the trams as long as it could open up shop in the concession stand near Spanish Village.

Assistant park and rec director Dave Twomey said city staff talked with McDonald’s decision-makers about how the franchise could blend its operations into the park’s landscape. No golden arches, for example.

“They were interested,” he said. “How you dealt with smoke, the smell of hamburgers cooking, all of that.”

Twomey said the department was just following what it thought was City Council direction — to find revenues in the era following Proposition 13, a statewide tax-limiting overhaul passed in 1978 that left the city struggling to cover services.

But when Twomey’s team presented its idea to the City Council, the deal didn’t go over well. The plan sparked fears that the park would become over-commercialized. Opponents included the Sierra Club and a local businessman whose concessions selling burgers and shakes would’ve been supplanted.

Then-City Councilman Bob Filner took special exception. A 1989 Los Angeles Times story described his reproach:

Filner delighted in lampooning the possible ramifications of allowing fast-food providers to gain a foothold in the park.

Noting the Old Globe Theatre’s plans for an expansion, Filner worried about the production of “Burger King Lear.”

“The Casa del Prado. Think of it: Casa del Taco,” he added.

Twomey’s boss, parks and rec director George Loveland, didn’t get the fuss.

“We’re talking about people who have the capability to provide a food service,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Wholesome, quality food, delivered at a reasonable price and in a clean environment. That’s what fast food is all about.”

We’ve been digging up stories of controversies and big land use changes since the land for Balboa Park was set aside in 1868. The city has long struggled with how to pay for the maintenance and infrastructure needed in the park.

Those underlying conditions, which fomented the debate about the McDonald’s, still exist today and continue to cause conflict. Where the city sought private, corporate money in the 1980s, it’s asking for philanthropic donations now. The current Plaza de Panama remodel plan, which the City Council approved in July, would remove parking and traffic from the park’s central plaza. It relies on millions of dollars from private donors and includes a paid parking structure with fees, which are projected to provide the revenue to pay for a new tram service.

The McDonald’s plan didn’t win City Council approval. Filner saw it as setting a precedent for “selling off the park, piece by piece.” He made a similar argument again when Mayor Jerry Sanders’ and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs’ plan went before the City Council this July. (Filner since said he wouldn’t oppose the plan if elected mayor.)

But even as it turned down McDonald’s offer, the 1989 council still wanted to decongest the park’s center. Parks staff launched pilot projects to see how a tram would work, but the council faced a budget crisis and delayed the service. The council called McDonald’s again, but once spurned, the restaurant chain declined.

“While McDonald’s Corp. has lost interest in sponsoring a tram,” the Tribune newspaper wrote in 1990, “its name arose repeatedly during yesterday’s committee discussion as members groped for ideas to shift the costs to the private sector.”

Finally, in December 1990, the city agreed to begin paying for service with the Old Town Trolley Tours company, using revenues from hotel-room taxes. The city still contracts with the company to operate the free tram in the park today.

In future posts: What happened to a big-ticket parking plan last decade and the San Diego Zoo’s role in the park’s evolution.

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 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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