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Balboa Park sits in the heart of the city and is one of San Diego’s biggest tourist draws. That’s why it’s a little awkward that newcomers often have a hard time finding the place.

Just ask some of the leaders who spend their days boasting about Balboa Park.

Balboa Park Cultural Partnership CEO Peter Comiskey recalls following signs on his way from Orange County to an Old Globe show years ago and ending up in a residential area.

And Conservancy CEO Tomas Herrera-Mishler, who moved from Buffalo, N.Y., confesses he nearly ended up at the Naval hospital on a visit the day before his job interview.

Both also admit they weren’t sure when they actually arrived at Balboa Park – and think getting there needs to be less complicated.

“I was really truly baffled that it was such a major park in a major metro area and the entrance was so underwhelming,” Herrera-Mishler said.

Other park stakeholders agree. There just hasn’t been cash for entryway projects or a signage plan.

The Friends of Balboa Park, a nonprofit that’s marshaled donations and volunteers for dozens of small and mid-sized park projects, recently decided to step in to help.

The group has begun the process of proposing an entryway monument on Park Boulevard near Inspiration Point.

Retired architect Jack Carpenter has led the Friends’ efforts on the project.

“Balboa Park, in my estimation, is one of the greatest parks in the world. Other parks have good entry identification,” Carpenter said. “We ought to have good entryway identification.”

The Friends want to eventually build domed, gazebo-like stucco structures on both sides of the road at five other spots to ensure visitors know they’ve arrived at the park. Other potential locations include Park Boulevard near Roosevelt Middle School and the intersection of Pershing and Florida drives.

Rendering provided by the Friends of Balboa Park and Estrada Land Planning
Rendering provided by the Friends of Balboa Park and Estrada Land Planning

They hired landscape architect Vicki Estrada, who wrote the city’s master plan for the park, to draw up initial plans. The mock-ups are reminiscent of the Museum of Man’s iconic dome and stucco arches along El Prado walkway.

The early drawings also look similar to the blue-domed information kiosks Estrada designed. Those five kiosks – which the Friends raised money to build – are peppered throughout the park and are meant to help visitors get around within Balboa Park.

Rendering courtesy Friends of Balboa Park and Estrada Land Planning
Rendering courtesy Friends of Balboa Park and Estrada Land Planning

Carpenter estimates the group will need to raise just over $500,000 for the entryway monuments. The Friends plan to fundraise as they go through the city approval process and hope to start construction within a year.

Carpenter and others acknowledge the monuments won’t solve all Balboa Park’s wayfinding woes.

For one, they won’t erase Balboa Park’s GPS problem.

An August 2007 survey at the park revealed about 65 percent of participants were first-time visitors, which means those folks are more likely to turn to GPS for help getting to Balboa Park. But plug “Balboa Park” into Google Maps – or any other GPS system – and you might not end up at one of the park’s prime destinations.

I asked readers to do some testing for me. Many GPS systems would’ve directed them to canyons.

@LisaHalverstadt @BalboaPark A lovely trail off Florida Drive near Morley Field.

— Smackentee (@Smackentee) April 6, 2016

GPS to Balboa Park

One reader’s phone directed him to Sixth Avenue near the playground. Others would’ve ended up near the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Bing pointed another reader to The Prado restaurant.

I’ve had my own GPS mishap on my way to the park.

Shortly after my move to San Diego, iPhone directions led me and a couple out-of-town visitors to the Morley Field Sports Complex.

Dealing with these conundrums is on the Balboa Park Online Collaborative’s to-do list.

The nonprofit is focused on improving the digital presence and promotions of the park and its institutions.

CEO Nik Honeysett said the GPS issues won’t necessarily be easy to fix. After all, Google results are often personalized based on past searches and behavior.

“There is a challenge of understanding what people’s motivations are searching for Balboa Park,” Honeysett said.

For example, a family from Golden Hill might regularly visit the park’s Golden Hill wing while a tourist may be more interested in the Museum of Art or the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Honeysett said his group wants to eventually figure out how to tackle the Google conundrum in a comprehensive way. The larger goal, he said, is to help Google understand the park’s institutions and its many other destinations. Last year, the group released a phone app to help visitors get around once they arrive at the park.

A later step, Honeysett said, will be to help visitors get to the park.

Yet he’s quick to point out improved signage will be crucial even once the digital frustrations are sorted out.

He’s excited about the Friends’ project.

“If you don’t know where you’re going and you’re in unfamiliar territory and you’re coming up Park Boulevard, you might miss a small sign but you won’t miss this,” said Honeysett.

More signage improvements could also be on the way.

Herrera-Mishler said he recently proposed the Conservancy invest in a plan to improve signage in and around park. He’s now looking at funding options.

Herrera-Mishler invited a San Clemente-based architect and signage expert to speak about Balboa Park’s needs at a Conservancy committee meeting.

Architect Harry Mark, whose firm has designed signage plans for other public spaces, told Voice of San Diego the Friends’ entryway monuments will be a good first step.

They’ll give visitors a greater sense of certainty that they’ve arrived, Mark said.

He recommends a broader signage overhaul inside and outside the park.

Small green signs with white lettering currently dot the roadways on the edges of the park. There are also some freeway signs. Mark thinks all those signs need to be bigger and more uniform and that there should be more of them on freeways and at the intersection of Pershing and Florida drive, a common entry point for visitors.

“Right now (the signs) actually can be confusing,” Mark said. “You slow down to read the sign – those that do exist – and frankly, you’re slowing down traffic. You’re running the risk of people potentially causing accidents.”

Or missing the signs altogether.

Mark should know. He visited Balboa Park to prepare for his presentation and missed signs directing him to Balboa Park shortly after he got off Interstate 5.

The signage expert got lost on his way to Balboa Park.

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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