For years, the San Diego Zoo has wanted to expand its exhibits and build more parking in Balboa Park.

Now, the zoo is reviving its plans to build 4,800 parking spaces in an underground garage, the U-T San Diego’s Roger Showley reported Monday afternoon. And it has an idea on how to help pay for it: charging for parking.

We recently wrote about the zoo’s plan last decade to build thousands more parking spaces, along with a promenade to better connect Park Boulevard institutions.

But, as we found, even the zoo — a visitor-attracting, money-making icon — has had trouble getting the plan off the ground.

The city just hasn’t had money to pay for it. The City Council approved the plan in 2004, but warned it didn’t have the required $300 million. Then-Mayor Dick Murphy told the Union-Tribune in 2004 that “any move toward implementing the plan is ‘probably a couple years off.’”

The zoo’s latest revival of the plan involves teaming up with the Balboa Park Conservancy, a nonprofit group established last year to raise private philanthropic money for projects in the park. From the U-T:

“The park promenade project is stunning in not only what it would do to alleviate parking issues but how it would also connect all of the park,” said Carol Chang, president of the conservancy.

And the zoo’s plan would dramatically shift the ratio of parking spots that require a fee, and the number of free spots in the park. This became a point of contention in the last two years of discussions and even showed up in a lawsuit over the Plaza de Panama project, which would add 797 paid parking spaces in a new structure behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

Here’s how that ratio would look with the zoo’s plan. From the U-T:

If all these plans come to fruition, public parking space would grow from 6,586 to 9,146, but 5,597 would be paid and 3,549 would remain free.

The zoo’s president, Rick Gulley, told the U-T the revised plan should cost about $200 million, but that estimate might change with updated numbers. The zoo estimated its potential revenues based on charging $5 to park for four hours in the garage, Showley reported.

“If there’s no paid parking, this won’t go anywhere,” Gulley said, and the park’s parking problems will just get worse.

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

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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

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