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For decades, a mostly forgotten corner of Balboa Park known as Inspiration Point has been one of the park’s least inspiring destinations. Now city officials are turning to the area – currently home to hundreds of parking spaces, a storage depot and a dried-up fountain – as a potential moneymaker.
The city is preparing to issue a request for proposals to redevelop the area once part of the Naval Hospital campus, a prospect that’s already riling some park activists.
City park officials say they are open to a variety of cultural, recreational and performing arts concepts – everything from shops and museums to hotel or restaurant space – they hope will complement and activate the space.
“The city is seeking proposals that serve the best interest of the public while maximizing the economic viability of the property and ensuring a sustainable revenue source to the park,” city Park and Recreation Department spokesman Tim Graham wrote in an email.
The call for proposals is a response to the park’s long-running funding woes.
Balboa Park advocates have long agreed that the park needs a sustainable source of cash for infrastructure repairs and park maintenance.
Some activists and city bureaucrats have eyed Mission Bay Park’s funding model, which has helped bankroll a planned $40 million makeover.
Hotel and commercial leases in Mission Bay Park generate tens of millions of dollars annually. Most Balboa Park institutions, on the other hand, pay little to no rent despite the park’s lengthy list of needs and repairs.
Now the city is looking to see what prospectors envision for an area of Balboa Park that falls under the San Diego airport’s flight path and includes a parking hub, activity center, a tram stop and the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park, which operates out of the former Naval Hospital Chapel site.
Lesser known are the former hospital building east of the museum that’s been converted into a space for Park and Recreation employees or the picturesque walkways and fountains around it that are now surrounded by buildings.
Park and Recreation Department vehicles, park storage and weeds largely dominate the rest of the space – save for the empty fountain steps from the city’s dirt parking lot.
The request for proposals focuses on the latter areas, plus the portion of the Inspiration Point parking lot closest to downtown.
City officials see the process as a chance to reimagine a part of the park that’s now largely under the radar. They say they expect to have proposals to review by mid-summer and intend to involve park stakeholders in the process.
“This is an opportunity to breathe new life into Balboa Park and the community is going to play a key role with stakeholder representation on the (request for proposal) selection committee,” said Christina Chadwick, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, in a statement. “The city looks forward to working closely with the community and Balboa Park organizations to invest in Inspiration Point and ensure the park remains an iconic destination for generations to come.”
Yet a city parks official’s announcement at a Balboa Park Committee meeting earlier this month that the city would explore Inspiration Point’s redevelopment possibilities caught even park insiders off guard.
A few activists quickly seized on the likely conflict between the Balboa Park master plan’s vision for the space and the expected proposals to redevelop the area.
The 1989 document called for the city storage area and southern-most parking lot to be “returned to open park land” and for the historic buildings and outdoor areas to be restored and maintained.
Any changes will require City Council approval.
Longtime Mission Bay and Balboa Park advocate Judith Swink and Mike Kelly, president of the Balboa Park Committee of 100, say they fear what could come next for Inspiration Point.
“I disagree with giving away what should be free and open parkland that there’s an increasing need for as populations grow,” Swink said.
Kelly said he’s particularly concerned about the possibility of a hotel.
He pointed to decades-long frustrations about San Diego High School’s failure to move out of the park as evidence of the challenges the city has had forcing tenants out once they settle.
San Diego High opened long before Balboa Park became a tourist magnet and park activists for years pushed for the school to relocate once the school district’s lease for the property expired in 2024. Then a successful 2016 ballot measure all but ensured San Diego High will remain in the park.
If a hotel or other commercial business moves into Inspiration Point, it’s likely to become a permanent fixture too, Kelly said.
“I really want to see the details,” said Kelly.
Others said they welcomed the city’s attempt to make the most of an underutilized area of the park.
All emphasized that they want to ensure any redevelopment plans fit into the current fabric of Balboa Park but were eager to discuss concepts that could bring in new money.
“If it could be done in a way that is really compatible with Balboa Park, and it can create a permanent revenue stream, it would be a phenomenal idea,” said Tomas Herrera Mishler, who leads the Balboa Park Conservancy.
Those tied to the park’s institutions are already worried any redevelopment efforts might affect parking availability. Other park insiders note that Inspiration Point’s lower parking lot often accommodates students at City College and San Diego High rather than park visitors.
Balboa Park Committee Chair Katherine Johnston, a former Faulconer staffer who oversaw the mayor’s park initiatives, said she expects concerns about the impacts of any proposals to revamp Inspiration Point to be aired at multiple public workshops and forums.
Johnston said the committee will also review those plans and will focus on whether they match up with the park’s identity.
“There’s such an interest in Balboa Park that I think whatever moves forward will be something that makes sense for the park and protects the economic vitality of the park and protects the iconic nature of the park,” Johnston said.