The Botanical Building in Balboa Park is one of the city’s most photographed icons.

But look closely and you’ll see it’s falling apart. Some of the wood framing on its domed roof is popping off and splitting. The water feature on the west side of the building’s been out of commission for years. Rust lurks behind elaborate plant displays.

In late 2013, the Balboa Park Conservancy announced plans to restore and upgrade the facility. The effort was billed as the fledgling group’s foundational project – something that would prove its mettle as the park’s chief fundraiser.

The Conservancy envisioned a nearly $3 million, donor-backed restoration would be finished before the 2015 Centennial Celebration. That didn’t happen. Now, more than two years in, the group reports it’s raised just $457,000. The rust and cracks continue to fester – and the group’s still working to build its track record.

Conservancy leaders point to a handful of roadblocks, from intense fundraising competition and struggles in the lead-up to the Centennial to an initial reliance on volunteers to help sell a project that wasn’t fully sketched out.

“Our story wasn’t adequate,” said Carol Chang, the Conservancy’s board president.

There have been distractions, too.

Most pivotal, Chang said, were the reverberations associated with the failed Plaza de Panama project, largely driven by the vision of Qualcomm founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs. That project was struck down by a judge but the decision was later overruled. The project remains at a standstill for now.

“It was a chilling effect to the philanthropic community to find the city’s largest donor wasn’t able to get a project done in Balboa Park,” Chang said.

Chang and other Conservancy leaders believe they’ll make more dramatic progress soon. They’re now hoping to get the Botanical Building project finished in 2018, the 150th anniversary of Balboa Park.

The Conservancy recently picked an architecture firm to illustrate an expanded vision to sell philanthropists, and says it has invested in staffers to help make the case.

One of them is Tomas Herrera-Mishler, who became the Conservancy’s CEO last summer. The group’s also hired a full-time development staffer. Herrera-Mishler called for the Conservancy board to bolster the Botanical Building project shortly after he took the helm.

Initial plans mostly focused on revitalizing the 100-year-old Botanical Building and installing new water and energy-saving systems. Now the Conservancy’s also looking to reconstruct the archway that shaded the grassy area west of the building in 1915 and to invest more in landscaping and plants to surround and fill the facility.

The Conservancy expects to have the plans – and an estimated sticker price for the project – within six months.

San Diego-based RNT Architects, which was selected earlier this month after a competitive process, is preparing to survey the Botanical Building’s needs and history and to get visitors’ feedback. The initial money the Conservancy’s raised will cover those costs.

Kotaro Nakamura, the principal architect set to work on the project, said he’s excited to propose ways to improve visitor experiences in that corner of the park.

“Once you go through, there’s not much of a reason to come back again,” Nakamura said. “That’s something I’m trying to fix.”

Nakamura, who designed the new pavilion building for the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park, said his firm’s work will be crucial for fundraising efforts. Over the years he worked on the Friendship Garden project, Nakamura said, he accompanied fundraisers to many meetings with philanthropists and showed off models and renderings.

Chang and Herrera-Mishler believe those additional resources – and lessons learned the last few years –will help the Conservancy find more success.

They say the Botanical Building project must lay a framework for success that the Conservancy can follow in the future.

“We’ve got a lot riding on it. There’s no question,” Herrera-Mishler said. “Now it’s time to knock it out of the park.”

(Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego.)

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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