The Prado in Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Balboa Park is a major tourist draw that inspires lots of questions from first-timers planning a visit – and San Diego residents who frequent it.

I decided to round up questions we’ve received about the park via our People’s Reporter tool, which allows readers to submit questions for Voice of San Diego to investigate.

Why did Balboa Park Zoo remove its city of San Diego lower-cost admission fee for folks who could prove residency, and does their mandate allow this?

Zoo-goers ride the Skyfari aerial tram. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

I’ve gotten this question many times since I began writing about Balboa Park a few years ago. Many longtime San Diegans, including the North Park reader who submitted this question, recall once receiving discounts to visit the San Diego Zoo after proving their residency.

The zoo says Southern California residents (rather than just San Diego residents) can still take advantage of some discounts, but its prices have escalated considerably over the years for both residents and for out-of-town visitors.

Zoo spokeswoman Christina Simmons said there have been a number of promotional programs for San Diego residents over the years, making it difficult to pinpoint what may have changed and when.

But all visitors are now paying more than they have in the past – and San Diego’s zoo is one of the priciest in the nation.

As the Union-Tribune has reported, children under 16 visited for free until 1977. By 1983, children’s tickets were $1.50 and adults paid $4.95.

Today, according the zoo website, an adult day pass is $54 and a children’s pass is $44. An annual membership for a Southern California family of four sets you back at least $275.

Simmons noted that two reduced-price annual pass programs are available to residents of San Diego, Imperial, Orange and Riverside counties and that, starting next year, seniors in those ZIP codes can save 15 percent on annual passes. She said the zoo also offers free and discounted education programs for local schoolchildren, among other offers and programs.

Readers like Barb, who inquired about past discounts, question whether San Diego residents should get steeper discounts.

After all, the zoo leases from the city and paid just $92,000 in rent last year. It also reported pulling in $342 million in revenues, $73 million more than its expenditures.

Plus, the zoo benefits from a city property tax that now brings in about $13 million annually.

Yet the zoo’s lease with the city doesn’t mandate discounts. It simply states that the zoo “shall have the right to charge reasonable fees for admissions.”

Simmons said the zoo’s hefty admission prices help support its overarching mission.

“San Diego Zoo Global is a private non-profit organization whose mission is to save species from extinction,” Simmons wrote in an email to VOSD. “Admissions, on-grounds sales, memberships and donations comprise the main ways that we fundraise to support our mission which includes maintaining sustainable populations of endangered species at our facilities as well as work in the field.”

What would it take to have the portion of property taxes allocated to the zoo dedicated instead to all of Balboa Park?

balboa park
Balboa Park has an estimated $300 million in repair needs. / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

About that property tax I mentioned earlier: The San Diego Zoo has received a share of city property taxes since it successfully persuaded city voters to back a permanent tax measure in 1934.

The tax, which was added to the city’s charter, has pulled in about $13 million annually in recent years.

That funding source has repeatedly drawn the interest of Balboa Park advocates who note the park’s long list of repair needs and the fact that the zoo is the park’s most prosperous tenant. They believe the money should be used on park-wide needs.

But city attorneys have repeatedly concluded it’s not possible to force the zoo to spread the wealth elsewhere in the park. Thus, a city charter amendment – and another public vote – would be necessary to direct property taxes to the rest of Balboa Park.

How can a disabled person get around in Balboa Park?

The parking lot in the Palisades area of Balboa Park.
The parking lot in the Palisades area of Balboa Park / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Balboa Park isn’t the easiest place to get around, but it’s got some amenities meant to help visitors with disabilities enjoy the park.

The Balboa Park Visitors Center says it works with San Diego-based Mobility Source to keep a few motorized scooters and wheelchairs on hand at its office in the House of Hospitality building so visitors can easily rent them.

The city also has a free tram system to ferry riders in from far-flung parking lots and from the Air & Space Museum area to the Plaza de Panama. From November through May, the tram runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The trams can carry up to two passengers in wheelchairs at a time, and the city has said drivers are trained to help disabled people board if they need help.

There’s a catch for now: The tram doesn’t stop at the Organ Pavilion lot, now the largest disabled parking hub in the heart of Balboa Park.

The Plaza de Panama project, which may break ground next year, could improve access in the center of the park. 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.

How much do the Balboa Park museums and other organizations renting space in Balboa Park make, and what rents do they pay?

The Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Most of the institutions using city-owned buildings in the park pay little or no rent to the city.

We recently found that the Museum of Art, Model Railroad Museum and Automotive Museum are among nearly two dozen entities renting space in the park that operate rent-free.

The Zoo, Air & Space Museum and Boy Scouts are among the 16 organizations that do pay rent at a significant discount.

We compiled a full list of annual revenue and lease payment amounts for the park’s major leaseholders.

The subsidized rents are rooted in the fact that Balboa Park buildings were constructed for the expositions in 1915 and 1935. After the expositions, the city decided to fill those buildings with nonprofits that would provide cultural, education and recreational experiences for San Diegans. The nonprofits could avoid steep rents but had to cover utilities and maintenance costs.

City leaders and Balboa Park boosters say the rent subsidies are defensible because the institutions help drive tourism to the region and have, in many cases, made substantive investments to maintain their facilities.

But the city’s saddled with major structural and exterior maintenance bills that total at least $120 million – and perhaps far more.

Why is the Museum of Man no longer going to be anthropological nor a museum? How many employees have been fired or have quit?

San Diego Museum of Man
The San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Let’s clear this up quickly: The premise of this question is incorrect. The Museum of Man says it intends to remain a museum focused on anthropological issues.

The confusion came up after the museum’s announcement that it’s searching for a new name.

The museum says it wants its new name to “better reflects our values of inclusivity, equity, and love; better describes all the people we serve and the stories we want to tell; and fully embodies our mission of inspiring human connections by exploring the human experience.”

Basically, it wants to be called something like the Museum of Us – or something similarly less man-centric.

Shannon Fowler, the museum’s communications director, recently told VOSD that the Balboa Park institution “will continue to be a museum rooted in the field of anthropology and its values.”

She also said no employees have quit or been fired as a result of the name-change process, and that change has the full support of museum staff and leaders.

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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