It’s easy to get lost in Balboa Park – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Very few signs lead visitors to the tourist mecca, and no monuments let visitors know they’ve arrived. Visitors are often unaware of parking or trams that are available, helping fuel Balboa Park’s reputation as a parking nightmare. And once they do find parking, park-goers can have trouble finding amenities like bathrooms, trails and museums.

Two leading park advocacy groups and outside experts who visited Balboa Park are convinced a signage overhaul could chip away at more prominent complaints about park accessibility.

The Balboa Park Conservancy recently had a consultant inventory dozens of signs in and around the park in hopes of kicking off a discussion this fall about improvements.

The Friends of Balboa Park, meanwhile, have presented a proposal to build gateway monuments at the park’s most popular entrances to several city boards. The Friends of Balboa Park and city officials have recently talked with Caltrans about improved signage on area freeways and at the park’s Pershing and Florida drives entrance, where signs are scant.

Designers behind the Plaza de Panama overhaul have also sketched out plans for more comprehensive parking and way-finding signage in the park’s core.

For now, though, the city’s got limited options to help visitors navigate the park.

The city’s official plan for Balboa Park’s core, known as the Central Mesa Precise Plan, includes strict rules about the type and size of permanent signage, and where signs can go. While the plan aimed to inspire more uniformity in the park’s historic core, what’s resulted is signage that can bewilder drivers and pedestrians – or that’s just nonexistent where it’s needed.

Here are a couple examples.

Photo courtesy the Balboa Park Conservancy
Photo courtesy of the Balboa Park Conservancy
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Small, temporary signs that tend to be less noticeable are also attempting to fill some needs now.

Vicki Estrada, a landscape architect who wrote the 1992 plan, admits it helped foster some of the park’s way-finding woes. She’s now involved in efforts to improve park signage.

The city and Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over signs on and near freeways, haven’t invested in new signage on the park’s edges.  A Caltrans spokesman said the agency recently sent city officials an array of signage options that could be added in those areas so they can suggest improvements.

Under the current conditions, many folks get confused as they enter Balboa Park, and about when they’ve entered it.

Conservancy CEO Tomas Herrera-Mishler and Peter Comiskey, who leads the nonprofit Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, both confessed earlier this year that they got lost on their way to the park before they took their current gigs.

A Naval Base spokeswoman said the lack of signage at one of the park’s most popular entrances leads many out-of-town visitors to mistakenly turn into the Navy hospital driveway on Florida Drive, forcing security to help them turn around. That’s what nearly happened to Herrera-Mishler more than a year ago.

Many TripAdvisor and Yelp reviewers who’ve visited Balboa Park have vented about their frustrations.

Balboa Park sign comment
Balboa Park sign comments
Balboa Park sign comments

Multiple commenters suggested printing maps to help, though Andrew from Colorado added this on TripAdvisor:

Balboa Park sign comment

San Diegans can have trouble finding their way, too.

A few Sundays ago, I asked a friend who’s lived in San Diego for more than a decade to meet me in the parking lot behind the Hall of Champions, an area where there’s lots of parking and a tram stop. She got lost and confessed once she arrived that she hadn’t known about the tram.

She probably missed these parking and tram signs on Park Boulevard, which actually aim to lead visitors to another lot with a tram stop. Here’s a street view, which helps you understand how it’d be easy to miss those signs:

Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Many people who could benefit from the trams miss those signs and more nondescript ones at the tram stops.

“The tram signage is either nonexistent or is absolutely so small that you don’t notice it,” said Harry Mark, a San Clemente-based architect whose team has studied signage in Balboa Park for the Conservancy.

Indeed, I recently talked to several people with accessibility issues who told me they weren’t sure if the free trams could accommodate their needs. Many also told me they didn’t notice small signs about the tram.

One of them was Kathie Legenza of Clairemont, who visited Balboa Park recently for the first time in years. Legenza’s friend Dale Roybal, a frequent park visitor who also lives in Clairemont, had dropped Legenza and her walker off near the Mingei Museum, parked south of the international cottages and then walked back to the Prado area rather than rely on the tram.

Legenza and Roybal weren’t sure whether the tram could accommodate people with disabilities. They didn’t notice the small sign near the Plaza de Panama tram stop.

Legenza later called to update me after she rode the trams. She raved about them and said they’ll make going to Balboa Park easier for her.

“Guess what, I’ll go to the park more often,” Legenza said.

Mark’s looking at other Balboa Park signage issues, too. He’s now preparing a report that would recommend ways to simplify overwhelming pedestrian signage like this:

Photo courtesy the Balboa Park Conservancy
Photo courtesy the Balboa Park Conservancy

Mark’s firm is also mulling how to address the lack of signage directing Balboa Park visitors to parking.

Amid all the complaints about the dearth of parking there, Mark and other experts who’ve visited the park believe it’s crucial to improve awareness of parking that does exist. Much of it’s not fully visible from major roads in the park.

A 2004 city-sanctioned study of parking and circulation at Balboa Park zeroed in on this problem, too.

“Clear signage at park entry points should make it clear that parking is available in the park, relieving parking pressure in adjacent neighborhoods, and direct visitors to short-term and long-term parking areas,” consultants wrote.

The city’s since invested in some new signs but the challenges remain.

A couple experts I talked to recommended simple signage, branding of individual lots to increase awareness and signs that direct visitors who can’t find parking at their initial destination to other lots.

Planners behind the controversial Plaza de Panama project have incorporated some of those concepts in their vision for the makeover of the heart of the park. They’ve laid out plans for displays on all three floors of a proposed garage to show how many spaces are available, more visible signage for the tram that shuttles people around and several other signs to direct visitors to parking and attractions.

Pasadena-based graphic designer Wayne Hunt, whose firm’s clients include the San Diego Zoo and many public parks, suggested taking the next step with numbered or lettered lots geared toward certain park users or visitors of certain attractions.

“You could do whole parking signage strategy that would make it much more clear for visitors and perhaps locals whose behavior you could change over time,” Hunt said.

Patrick Siegman, a San Francisco-based parking and transportation planner, emphasized the importance of simpler signage than exists today – and fewer signs.

He said the park should have a limited number of straightforward signs for drivers and then more detailed ones for pedestrians.

“The main goal of signage for the arriving driver has to be, ‘This is the way to the park and here’s where you can stop your car,’” Siegman said. “Once you can get them stopped, then you can start giving them more information.”

Some visitors are already openly lobbying for parking signage that’s easier to follow.

Take Abe, who visited in January and commented on TripAdvisor.

Balboa Park sign comment

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Vicki Estrada as a former city official. She has worked on city projects, including Balboa Park planning efforts, as a private landscape architecture consultant.

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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