When the federal government listed Balboa Park as a National Historic Landmark District in 1977, it recognized that the park’s history and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture had national significance.

The designation became a flashpoint in the debate about the recently approved plan to remake Balboa Park’s western entrance. That effort, led by philanthropist Irwin Jacobs and Mayor Jerry Sanders, will build a new bridge off the historic Cabrillo Bridge to divert traffic and parking away from the park’s central plazas and toward a new underground parking structure.

Opponents warned that approving the plan would jeopardize the park’s historic status. They said the changes to the Cabrillo Bridge and park’s front faç ade would knock its historic credibility so much that it wouldn’t deserve the prestigious national title anymore.

We wanted to know what would have to happen for the park to lose it — and whether losing it would have any real impact. Here’s what we found out.

What the Designation Means: It can in some cases bump a project up in ranking for grants or other funding. (The city of San Diego hasn’t applied for grants using the landmark designation.)

There are some 80,000 places on the National Register of Historic Places, but fewer than 2,500 of them rise to the level of being a National Historic Landmark, designated by the Secretary of the Interior. There are 139 in California. The landmarks include Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and Monticello.

But Balboa Park is different than those. In Williamsburg, re-enactors in period garb act out daily life in an 18th Century town. In Balboa Park, history is important, too — but so is enabling its modern uses as a living, breathing park.

Have Other Districts Lost Their Historic Status?

A landmark district has never lost its designation, but individual landmarks have. As of July 2011, the federal government had removed the landmark designation from 29 individual properties. Some historic houses and boats fell into disrepair, burned down or were demolished to make room for new development.

Chicago’s Soldier Field lost its landmark status in 2006 after modern construction and additions “eclipsed a distinctive architectural feature of the original stadium,” according to the National Park Service.

The remodeling destroyed original features including the historic bowl of the stadium.

What Would Have to Happen for Balboa Park to Lose its Status?:

After a property has been modified, the National Park Service follows a multi-step review process to determine whether a landmark still deserves the designation — whether “qualities which caused it to be originally designated have been lost or destroyed.”

The city’s environmental review says the plan violates two of 10 federal standards for historic preservation, which brought a unanimous vote against the project by the city’s Historical Resources Board. That board examines proposed projects in light of the city’s policies for preserving historic resources. But the city’s staff person that works with that board said she didn’t believe the designation would be lost.

Just because a project deviates from those federal standards doesn’t automatically trigger the loss of the designation. An addition to the San Diego Natural History Museum about a decade ago didn’t conform to the standards and hasn’t threatened the designation.

Who’s Asking for Balboa Park’s Landmark Status to Be Reviewed?

The State Historic Preservation Officer, Wayne Donaldson, and the National Park Service, which raised concerns in a letter to the city, warning the plan would have a “permanent, major and adverse effect on the integrity of the Balboa Park National Historic Landmark.” The agency recommended the city reconsider the plan and go with an alternative that would “better protect the historic integrity of this unique resource.”

The City Council decided to approve the project on July 9.

The National Park Service won’t review the project until it’s built and a representative declined to speculate on what might happen.

“I’m not going to predict the future,” said Elaine Jackson-Retondo, history program manager for the National Park Service’s San Francisco office.

Bruce Coons, director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, brought the threat of de-designation up often during the public process.

“There’s been some criticism, saying, ‘Why would you initiate something like that?’” he said. “Well, that’s the only protection that we have. If it no longer qualifies for a historic landmark district, it shouldn’t be one either. That’s not vindictive or anything else.”

What Happens if the Park’s Status Is Withdrawn?

The city would lose the prestige of having one of the nation’s top landmarks, and would have to give back its plaque.

But the park would likely still be listed on local, state and other national registers of historic places. That would still require certain extra analysis about the impacts to historical authenticity by planners and the City Council when examining new projects or plans for the park.

Losing the landmark status, though, would symbolize that the park had lost some of its authenticity and give people a false sense of history, Donaldson said.

“It’s not to say that Balboa Park will no longer be appreciated,” he said. “How much do you do before you’re changing that particular feeling of time and space and the connection with the message of that event?”

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 is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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