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The word is out: we won’t be allowed to hold the 24th annual Earth Day Fair in Balboa Park’s Central Mesa, and this news has hit hard.

We’ve looked at every possible alternate site. We have the square footage requirements and the maps. We understand the access needs of our groups and the public. We’re good at what we do.

We work with a fantastic and dedicated set of volunteer team leaders to put on the Fair each year. And we’ve pulled it off without significant incident for more than 20 years.

The original design of the Central Mesa was for exactly this kind of large public exposition. It has a hub-and-spoke structure that allows people to visit all the attractions with a reasonable path of travel. More important, it enables efficient logistics for the support staff. A different lay-out (for example, a long, rectangle on the west side of Balboa Park or east side of Mission Bay Park) just wouldn’t work because attendees paths of travel would be excessive and average emergency response times would be increased. In other words, moving the event would increase liability.

Also important – we have a right to be there. The Master and Precise Plans governing this area state that “affordable special events” are a key goal for the Park’s Central Mesa. But somehow the city has lost sight of this.

Why is this happening? Many folks have offered suggestions…

• Filner vs. Chase – I’ve offended him, and it’s personal. Not so… I’m not that important. I supported his campaign. He was fine with me in our recent meeting.

• The city wants to teach environmentalists a lesson over the CEQA park permit lawsuit. There’s an element of truth here, but Earth Day didn’t have a dog in that fight, Earth Day qualifies for a CEQA exemption.

• The City’s official reason: Earth Day is a liability threat during construction, so Earth Day must move. After meeting with us, Mayor Filner issued a statement saying in part:

It is my belief that the best choice is to follow the advice given to relocate the event in order to protect the city from any possible liability due to construction that might be going on at the time of the event. I have however, also agreed to review the situation once more after meeting with the event organizers in order to give it every consideration possible.

This is the good news. The construction project in question is the “Plaza de Panama Project.” There’s no construction scheduled on Sundays when Earth Day takes place. Set-up needs are minimal, and construction areas are fenced off. We’ve worked around significant Park construction projects throughout the years.

Also, with a 23-year unblemished record of no liability claims, we’re able to comply with the city’s insurance requirements. If we can’t get insurance, there won’t be an Earth Day anywhere. We’ve asked the city’s Risk Management Department to tell us about any additional insurance requirements. The silence is killing us.

Thousands of people and cars will be moving in and out of the “construction site” throughout the project’s two-year duration. Earth Day is people only. We provided a plan showing how, with changes, the Fair would work just fine.

In hindsight, we were foolish to take the city at their word. Their official memo to park permit seekers from July 2012 stated:

“…the City of San Diego will make every effort to work with event organizers, Applicants for Facility Use and Park Use Permits, and the construction contracting team to successfully implement Special Events and other activities during construction, and to stage construction in order to minimize its impact on the public and accommodate a wide variety of concurrent activities.”

Time passed. An election happened. We found out from a memo requested by the Filner Administration (dated December 21, 2012) that the real policy was to allow no events in the Central Mesa whatsoever. These policies were evidently created by city staff behind closed doors without input except from “museums and restaurants” in Balboa Park. So “Park & Rec” is picking winners and losers, and events are the losers.

What’s it really about? Competition for public resources… This story is as old as the story of city parks. This competition has to be managed fairly, and the Master Plans set out how uses are to be balanced. The “museums and restaurants” have publicly-subsidized space. And the policy balance for having such special, day-to-day access and benefits – is to allow access to common public spaces by special events under reasonable conditions. In fact, this is why December Nights exists — once a year when the public is invited inside and out, for free. In fact, these events bring new people to the Park to discover the museums and return on other days.

Beautiful park space is limited and coveted. It draws people in and therefore there is money to be made. This is a good thing. Earth Day benefits from that setting and is required to operate on a cost-recovery basis. Dozens of non-profit groups, small businesses, and agencies have this one chance a year to access this site. And the public has this chance to enjoy using the park as an exposition site for free.

For 20+ years, we had few problems with permitting because the park staff managed access to the public spaces as a balance. But in the past few years, events have been pushed out. They denied the Earth Day 2012 permit, until our City Council questioned “Park & Rec” staff directly during a public hearing. This year we’re being told we can’t use the Central Mesa in essence because a parking lot is being closed.  With no construction scheduled, that’s the only construction-related impact during Earth Day. The Organ Pavilion lot has 387 spaces. Nearby are 1049 spaces. During the year, these lots are never full, except during special events. During EarthFair, we run free shuttles to thousands of additional spaces.

Closing parking lots is routine for large events and should not be a reason for having no events. The construction project is being used as a whipping boy to push Earth Day out. Worst of all, there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever be allowed back in. If construction is the excuse, construction will still be happening in 2014.

Other impacts?  The position of the Sanders administration was that “Earth Day attendees get in the way of others.” Yet the “museums and restaurants” have not been required to quantify any impacts so they might be mitigated – or to acknowledge the benefits of bringing thousands of new potential customers right to their doorsteps for free.  

The support letters for Earth Day have made me cry. They are a bright spot in an otherwise very hard time. This is one sums it up best:

Dear Mayor Filner:
Balboa Park is shared by the people of San Diego, and is meant to be used for gatherings such as EarthFair. EarthFair is a happy gathering that reminds us to think green. Times are hard, and we need FREE happy events in central locations that can be enjoyed by friends and families.
Respectfully, Nancy R. (Resident of San Diego since 1982)

We call upon Mayor Filner to be the Earth Day Hero. Stand up for free public events for the people in Central Mesa of Balboa Park. Issue the Park Permit so that the Citywide Permit process can proceed to address the insurance, policing and all the other requirements.

Carolyn Chase is one of the founders of San Diego EarthWorks, the non-profit organizers of the annual Earth Day Fair in Balboa Park and Rose Creek Fest in Mission Bay Park on February 9th. She also served as a Planning Commission for the city of San Diego and was named of the “Top 100 Alumni of UCSD” for their 50th anniversary. You can contact her at info@earthdayweb.org.


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