Pete Wheeler looks at the mounds of trash in a forgotten corner of Balboa Park and sees a potential sanctuary.

Wheeler, a wealth manager who lives in Point Loma, wants to build an elaborate 40-acre peace garden on the former Arizona Landfill plot, which has been filled with rows of city trucks and fields of yellow wildflowers and grass since the landfill shuttered more than three decades ago.

Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

“It frankly is a disgrace to such a beautiful city,” said Wheeler, who’s been quietly pushing the project for more than a year.

Wheeler envisions 12 spiritually themed gardens, a large meeting center, an outdoor amphitheater and a space for at-risk youth programs. He wants to call it the World Peace Sanctuary San Diego and have several religious groups maintain the gardens.

Wheeler believes the former landfill site, which boasts views of downtown and the Pacific Ocean, is an ideal destination for San Diegans and tourists to reflect and find support, whether they’re religious or not.

Wheeler’s idea was hatched after Mary, his wife of 48 years, died of cancer two years ago. Wheeler isn’t religious but a Tibetan lama and other religious leaders provided moral support before his wife’s death. Wheeler and that lama, Lhanang Rinpoche, once talked about a peace garden in San Diego.

The conversation’s since gotten more serious. Wheeler’s recruited a prominent Balboa Park advocate to help.

Vicki Estrada, the landscape architect who wrote the city’s master plan for the park, has produced concept maps and accompanied Wheeler to meetings with city officials and park stakeholders.

Estrada, who is doing the work on a volunteer basis, acknowledges the peace garden proposal faces significant obstacles. Wheeler does, too.

The city’s continuing to monitor methane levels at the landfill site, and plants die in many parts of the plot once their roots descend below grasses that have thrived there. The most recent estimate suggested it could cost $86.7 million to reclaim the area, though the city says methane levels have fallen in some areas since then.

Wheeler guesses he’ll need to cobble together about $40 million in private contributions to move forward with his project, which would cover about half of the 77-acre plot. Wheeler’s also looking into planting options that may not be hampered by the site’s methane issues.

Estrada says they’re set to learn more about the plot’s current condition at a meeting with city officials next week.

Then there’s the complex city process necessary to make the project happen, which Wheeler has yet to officially kick off. A city spokesman said officials aren’t certain the proposal is in keeping with the city’s formal plan for the park’s east mesa, which could mean additional regulatory hurdles. (That plan calls for open meadows, trees, botanical garden areas, picnic areas and children’s play areas.) Yet Estrada, who’s shepherded several successful park projects over the past three decades, remains optimistic.

“I would not have agreed to do this if I didn’t think it had a chance,” Estrada said.

Lisa Halverstadt

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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