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Patty O’Reilly of La Mesa has visited Balboa Park regularly for more than seven decades.

These days, the 77-year-old usually schedules her visits around when she thinks she’ll find handicapped parking in the small lot next to the Alcazar Garden, not far from the Old Globe Theatre she loves.

“Sooner or later you learn,” said O’Reilly, who felt sore for days after parking farther away.

And twice a week, 28-year-old Alex Perez circles the lot near the municipal gym in Balboa Park, where he plays basketball, in search of a disabled spot. If he doesn’t find one, he’ll have to propel his manual wheelchair up the hill behind the Hall of Champions before a two-hour practice – and carefully down after that.

“It’s a hassle,” said Perez.

Their stories aren’t isolated. Balboa Park isn’t always an inviting place for people with mobility limitations despite city efforts to improve accessibility.

The park’s parking woes can be more confounding for disabled people who rely on a limited number of handicapped or close-in parking spots. There’s also scant signage directing visitors to disabled parking or ways to get around within the park. The latter can leave disabled visitors uncertain where they can find parking and unsure if a free tram meant to help them get around is actually free and meant to help them get around.

Some avoid Balboa Park altogether.

The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, which relies on lots of senior volunteers, including many with disabilities, acknowledges it’s sometimes struggled to hold onto them.

“Like anybody else, they’ve gotta find a place to park,” said Melvin Weekley, who serves the House of Pacific Relations board.

Easing that challenge and improving accessibility has been central to discussions about making over Balboa Park’s central mesa.

The recently revived project – known as the Plaza de Panama plan – would clear the park’s central plazas of cars. Backers wanted to replace lost close-in parking with a parking garage and another lot dedicated to disabled parking, valet and visitor drop-offs. They also incorporated a tram system to shuttle visitors who park in the new garage behind the Organ Pavilion to other areas of the park.

When that project stalled in court, Balboa Park’s parking challenges festered.

Ex-Mayor Bob Filner ordered city workers in 2013 to remove parking from the Plaza de Panama. The city later replaced lost disabled spots and installed additional ones next to Alcazar Garden, behind the Organ Pavilion and in the larger lot behind the Hall of Champions.

The result, a city spokesman said, is that Balboa Park actually has more accessible parking spaces than it did in the past and exceeds federal requirements for handicapped spots in multiple lots in the park.

It also instituted a tram system that ferries riders from parking lots and from the Air & Space Museum area to the Plaza de Panama.

But the tram doesn’t stop at the Organ Pavilion lot, now the largest disabled parking hub in the heart of Balboa Park.

That means those spaces often sit empty, in an otherwise packed lot.

Disabled spaces in the Alcazar lot and others in the park are regularly full, while the Organ Pavilion regularly looks as it does in this shot from Google Maps.

Image via Google Maps
Image via Google Maps

Disabled park visitors say that’s because it’s too far from the Prado, where most of them are trying to go, doesn’t get tram service and is too hard to traverse.

“That surface is terrible, absolutely terrible,” said Beverly Weurding, CEO of the Wheelchair Dancers Organization, which hosts regular classes in Balboa Park.

Weurding, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a manual wheelchair, said she’s feared falls due to the uneven surface. Getting onto the sidewalk from the parking surface can also be challenging.

The task isn’t over once a person with mobility problems gets onto the sidewalk. Others told me the long, gradual slope from the Organ Pavilion lot to the Prado can be cumbersome. The other options? The stairs or another slope directly behind the Organ Pavilion.

O’Reilly, who uses a walker or cane depending on the situation, has tried the stairs and came away sore and regretting her decision.

“It’s hell to park there,” she said.

The status of that lot came up during discussions about the Plaza de Panama project, said Susan Madison, who once led city efforts to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and offered input on the Plaza de Panama project.

Madison, who uses a wheelchair herself, said city staffers and advocates for the disabled urged the committee pushing the Plaza de Panama project to add accommodations or regrade the area before putting more parking there.

Years later, the long, gradual slope outside the Organ Pavilion lot remains but there’s no garage or tram stop.

The city decided against adding one after it bought the trams in 2013.

Adding a stop there would require removing many parking spaces in the lot and city staffers concluded it would also slow tram service overall, city spokesman Tim Graham wrote in an email.

That means changes are unlikely unless the Plaza de Panama project is implemented.

The Plaza de Panama project, which will likely go forward as long as there’s cash to pay for it, would add a garage that houses two accessible elevators and 16 disabled parking spots, which would be free despite charges for other users. The project also recommends a tram stop just outside the garage. (The project would also add even more disabled parking to the Alcazar Garden lot.)

Supporters of the Plaza de Panama project have said frequent tram service accessible to people with disabilities was a crucial element of the project.

But the tram service the city’s got now isn’t drawing as many fans as it could.

O’Reilly, Weurding and others acknowledged they’ve never tried the Balboa Park tram. They all said they’re unclear how it works. After all, the sparse signage that directs visitors to the trams only highlights that they’re free, not who can use them. Small signs at the tram stops, however, do feature small accessibility icons.

“There’s the question of, ‘Are you capable or not of getting on and off the tram?’” O’Reilly said.

Louis Frick, executive director of San Diego-based nonprofit Access to Independence, was frustrated last week when he pulled up the Balboa Park website to learn more.

Frick, who uses a power wheelchair, found details on disabled parking near the trams but no word on whether drivers assist those getting on the trams or if both he and his wife, who’s also in a wheelchair, could ride the tram at the same time. (The city spokesman later told me the trams can carry up to two passengers in wheelchairs at a time and that drivers are trained to help disabled people board if they need help.)

Folks who have tried the trams give them positive reviews.

David Decelles of Pacific Beach, who uses a wheelchair, said the trams have made it easier for him to get from the Prado area to museums farther south.

Kathie Legenza of Clairemont, who uses a walker, tried the Balboa Park trams for the first time this week. She initially worried whether they’d accommodate her and later told me she was impressed by the ramps to get onto them and drivers’ willingness to help her.

“I was just so thrilled to be able to get on and be met with somebody so nice, as both these gentlemen were really nice,” Legenza said.

James Jett of Vista, who carries an oxygen tank and relies on disabled parking, also dubbed the tram service excellent. He said he’s found it easy to get on and off the tram and appreciates the quick transportation option from outside the park’s core.

Jett and his wife Lynne often give up on finding handicapped spots in the park’s center and look for space at Inspiration Point, a lot farther away.

The tram’s made that option work for them – for now.

“The need for more handicap spots is quite apparent to us,” Lynne Jett said.

Others who rely on disabled parking agree and believe the lack of parking is keeping some disabled folks who’d otherwise come to the park from visiting.

Weurding is one of them.

“It is a shame you don’t see more people at the park in wheelchairs and it’s mainly because of the parking issue on weekends,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said signs at Balboa Park tram stops don’t offer accessibility details for disabled visitors. Each sign features a small accessibility icon.

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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