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Over the centuries, our county’s streams and rivers have gradually carved the mesas and given us a special gift – our canyons.
Our canyons provide a sheltered place where native plants and animals can live and thrive. They give us unrealized opportunities to connect with one another, connect with nature and provide a unique sense of space and place.
In the center of Balboa Park lies one of these beautiful canyons, Florida Canyon. When our city leaders set aside 1,400 acres for a park in 1868, the land was essentially natural, undisturbed land consisting of grasslands and coastal sage scrub. In 1902, landscape architect Samuel Parsons was hired to prepare a plan for City Park (as Balboa Park was known prior to 1910). He originally wrote that Powder House Canyon (later renamed Florida Canyon), should remain in a natural condition.
“The convenience of vehicles is enticing enough, but a realization of the deep-seated, inherent charm of the place may be had only by loitering along edges of great declivities, and losing oneself in inner folds of canyons, where roads may not be made to go,” he wrote.
To the surprise of everyone, however, Parsons ultimately recommended that a road be constructed through Florida Canyon to connect the communities to the north with downtown. This became Florida Drive.
The 1915 Panama-California Exposition accelerated the humanizing of the park by planting thousands of non-native trees, constructing roads and placing buildings on the previously undisturbed natural landscape. In 1960, the Balboa Park Master Plan prepared by Harland Bartholomew and Associates also recommended that Florida Canyon be preserved in its native state. This recommendation was reinforced in 1975, when landscape architect Steve Halsey’s Florida Canyon Master Plan also proposed that the canyon be preserved and Florida Drive be closed at the north and south ends.
The Balboa Park Master Plan, prepared in 1989 by my office, Estrada Land Planning, and the 1992 East Mesa Precise Plan, prepared by WRT, both recommended that Florida Drive be closed between Morley Field Drive and Zoo Place. Both plans recommend that the paving be removed and the canyon be restored to a native condition. The plans also suggest that parking lots and trailheads be constructed at the north and south ends.
So why did these plans recommend preserving Florida Canyon and closing Florida Drive? Several reasons: First, if Florida Drive remains open, the degree of restoration and subsequent biological quality would be negatively affected and the quality of the sensory experience of people using the canyon would be degraded. Second, it reminds us what the park used to look like before it was “improved.” The third reason is that the canyon provides a safe and functional environment for many of our local plant and animal species, including the endangered black-tailed gnatcatcher. Finally, providing trails in a natural native environment allows us to connect with a quality nature experience. These opportunities need to be increased, not decreased.
Why then does Florida Drive remain open? Who drives this stretch of road? Along with Pershing Drive, it is a very quick and convenient way to drive between North Park and downtown. Ever since the closure was proposed, there’s been some concern that the current Florida Drive traffic would adversely affect Park Boulevard and Pershing Drive.
Both streets would be able to easily handle the additional traffic without any significant negative impact. The added vehicles would be an acceptable trade for preserving the last remaining native canyon in the park.
Cabrillo Canyon has been altered by constructing Highway 163 and also by planting thousands of exotic plants. In addition, a golf course now dominates Switzer Canyon. Fears of closing Florida Drive are unwarranted.
I propose the following test: After a public notice, barriers should be placed on Florida Drive at Zoo Place and Morley Field Drive on Saturdays and Sundays only. Traffic could then be monitored on Pershing Drive and Park Boulevard to evaluate whether the additional traffic is detrimental. If this first test passes, the closure could be extended to seven days a week with further real world traffic analysis.
Permanent parking lots, trails and removal of asphalt paving would not occur until after the closure is deemed acceptable.
Public sentiment on this issue is all over the place. The concept is deemed absolutely necessary by some and ridiculous by others. Admittedly, closing Florida Drive would be an inconvenience to some folks. They claim that it would take longer to get to downtown from North Park and vice-versa.
Others claim that they will never be able to hike or bike through the canyon and driving through it is a valid way to experience this unique natural resource.
Now that sustainability and the link between environment and health has been thoroughly documented, however, a growing number of people are advocating for the closure and subsequent restoration. The Friends of Florida Canyon, San Diego Canyonlands and many other environmental groups are strong advocates for closing Florida Drive.
For the sake of providing a much-needed quality, native experience, Florida Drive must be closed. After 55 years of talking and reading about it, it’s time to take action.