The San Diego Zoo occupies a large northern chunk of Balboa Park, and has since 1916. Its budget — including global conservation projects and the suburban Safari Park — surpasses $200 million annually, about 10 times as much as the park’s next-largest institution.

More than 3.5 million people visit every year. The zoo even has a long-running special relationship with the city, snagging a property tax stream from all city property owners totaling more than $8 million annually.

“The zoo is the 800-pound gorilla,” said former city architect Mike Stepner. “It’s almost like the retail anchor of a shopping center.”

But despite its heft, the zoo hasn’t been able to realize its plan to redo its parking setup and build a walking path connecting it with the rest of the park. The zoo dreams of what could be. Chiefly: How it could expand its exhibit space and have more parking.

There are a lot of meticulously planned and studied projects for Balboa Park languishing on shelves, waiting for money. The recently approved Plaza de Panama project took some of those ideas, like ridding the park’s front plazas of parking spaces, a promise official plans made in 1989 and 1992, and tried to do something about them.

Though many plans have languished over the last few decades, each new one has stirred up controversy. We’ve been unraveling stories from the park’s history about big land use changes and controversies, many of which set the stage for the controversy today about the Plaza de Panama.

It’s perhaps not surprising that expensive projects, like rehabilitating the dusty surface of the Arizona Landfill ($86.7 million), or moving the city’s maintenance trucks out of the south end ($22 million) don’t have major champions.

But even the zoo, the visitor-attracting, money-making icon that it is, has had trouble getting its plan off the ground for Park Boulevard.

The zoo had come strong in the late 1990s with a plan to knock down a 50-year-old War Memorial Building. The zoo wanted to annex and convert the land it sat on to a parking garage for 4,500 cars. Then it could convert its own surface parking lots to hold more exhibits. It was the “New Century Zoo” plan.

Veterans, neighbors and environmentalists balked.

The zoo hired one of its chief opponents to come wipe off the slate and start again. After five years of community meetings and design roundtables, the zoo and a coalition of other park groups got City Council approval for its plan. Gone were the suggestions to annex the memorial, to move into Florida Canyon.

In their place, the plan featured a new four-level parking garage with more than 4,000 parking spaces underground. And planners envisioned a new landscaped walkway between the end of El Prado, where the Natural History Museum is, and the zoo.

Now, if you leave the zoo, you might never realize you could snake your way on foot, through Spanish Village, to the museums to the south.

That disconnected feeling between the zoo and the rest of the park institutions seems likely to stay for a while. The plan hasn’t been realized and likely won’t be for years. When the City Council approved the plan in 2004, council members warned people they didn’t have the money — $300 million — to pay for it. Then-Mayor Dick Murphy told the Union-Tribune in 2004 that “any move toward implementing the plan is ‘probably a couple years off.’ “

A legal challenge to the plan was struck down. Planners said they’d look to start implementing it as soon as another parking and traffic study for the rest of the park was finished. But the zoo plan didn’t go anywhere. Still hasn’t.

So when philanthropist Irwin Jacobs and Mayor Jerry Sanders came out in 2010 with a plan, and money, that addresses parking and traffic in the park’s western entrance and Plaza de Panama, the zoo was agitated. Zoo brass wrote a seven-page letter to Jacobs and the mayor, questioning the decision to spend money to add a few hundred — not thousands — of parking spaces. They suggested going with an adapted version of their 2004 plan instead.

Jacobs wrote back, saying that he and the zoo seemed to have “competing visions.”

A few months later, though, the zoo released a new, supportive, letter. “We support your efforts and look forward to assisting in any way possible,” the zoo’s top officials wrote Sanders and Jacobs.

The zoo still hopes the city and Balboa Park-oriented philanthropists will find ways to fund its plan. But it doesn’t feel the burden is its alone to bear. “The nature of the plan, it’s meant to incorporate a lot of areas that are not part of the zoo,” said zoo spokeswoman Christina Simmons.

Vicki Estrada, the land use planner who’d first opposed the plan then joined the zoo to work on it, said she still holds out hope for the zoo plan.

“Right now, when you come out of the zoo, you don’t know there’s a Prado!” Estrada said. “The zoo will be part of the rest of the park.”

Some day.

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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