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Balboa Park has lots of needs – and its leaders field lots of ideas about how to address them.

The Balboa Park Conservancy is now settling on a process to help it decide which projects should jump to the front of the line.

The Conservancy, a nonprofit created five years ago to raise cash to help address the park’s many needs, gathered about 180 park stakeholders on Monday to hear the results of months of outreach and surveys – and get more feedback.

It was the latest step by the Conservancy to try to etch out its place as the city’s chief partner in addressing major park needs, a mission that hit speed bumps in recent years amid controversies surrounding the failed Centennial celebration and the death of a plan to revamp the Plaza de Panama.

Now the group’s trying to establish trust among key Balboa Park advocates and set top priorities before it doubles down on fundraising for big projects, including a Botanical Building overhaul that’s gone slower than planned.

The goal, Conservancy CEO Tomas Herrera-Mishler said, is to lay the groundwork for many future projects and a long-term relationship with the park’s many stakeholders, including the city.

“This is not a one-night stand,” Herrera-Mishler said. “This is a courtship, a marriage ‘til death-do-us-part.”

A consultant kicked off Monday’s discussion by sharing top values both longtime park advocates and residents agreed on based on November stakeholder meeting and more than 500 responses to a survey that aimed to identify guiding principles for future Conservancy projects.

The most resounding message was a desire for greater park accessibility, including more convenient parking. Financial and environmental sustainability and preservation of Balboa Park’s unique historical offerings were also named top concerns.

Jennifer James of Harder + Company Community Research, a consultant working pro bono for the Conservancy, detailed a yet-to-be-finalized process the Conservancy will use to score projects.

Projects that address the Conservancy’s highest priorities, such as accessibility or preservation, will get higher scores, James said.

The new process will help the Conservancy decide which projects to get behind, whether financially or philosophically, said Conservancy projects committee chair Rick Gulley.

“We needed a practical way to evaluate projects here in Balboa Park,” said Gulley, former chairman of the San Diego Zoo.

The 25-member Conservancy project committee has reviewed many recent park project proposals without formally recommending whether the group should support them.

The weighting process will change that, Gulley said.

A handful of attendees voiced concern about whether the feedback-shaping priorities came from a diverse range of park users and potential users.

“The question is can you make engagement with different communities more thorough,” said Joe Nalven, former chair of the San Diego Art Institute.

Nalven said the Conservancy – which didn’t collect demographic data during the survey process – might want to get more clarity on diverse communities’ major priorities for the park.

Conservancy leaders said the group reached out to more than 150 community organizations across San Diego to try gather a broad swath of perspectives.

Ozzie Monge, a San Diego State University lecturer, said he looked forward to hearing more about which community groups were surveyed. Without that information, he said it wasn’t clear whose values were reflected in the Conservancy’s prioritization process.

(The group’s list of outreach contacts, released to Voice of San Diego after the meeting, include local college alumni organizations, environmental groups and more than three dozen community planning groups.)

Herrera-Mishler said the discussions about Conservancy priorities and the requests for input will continue. The group will hold at least two conceptual discussions annually, he said.

Conservancy board chair Carol Chang had a similar message Monday.

“This is not meant to be the end of the discussion,” Chang 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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