The Botanical Building in Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

For years, Balboa Park advocates and civic leaders have wrung their hands over the park’s challenges.

Many of the iconic Spanish Colonial buildings that line the El Prado walkway are crumbling, as are many other buildings throughout the park – and advocates have long estimated close to $300 million in needed fixes. Meanwhile, many of the long-range plans to develop now underutilized areas of the park are yet to be implemented – or financed – and thousands of the park’s trees have died.

And despite the many organizations and boosters who champion the park, Balboa Park still lacks a clear leader guiding how to attack its problems.

The Balboa Park Conservancy, founded eight years ago to fill that leadership role, has yet to deliver on its overarching mission – and has struggled to earn the trust of both philanthropists and park stakeholders.

Advocates and power brokers who rarely unite on park initiatives have quietly agreed on the need for change in the weeks since philanthropists abandoned their effort to revamp the park’s central mesa and the city announced plans to redevelop another corner of the park.

The demise of the Plaza de Panama project and the revelation that the city is eying development opportunities for Inspiration Point reignited the long-running conversations about the park’s massive infrastructure needs, lacking resources for repairs and upgrades and confusion over how projects get prioritized.

Prominent civic leaders are also wading in. Real estate developers Malin Burnham and David Malmuth, Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi and Legler Benbough Foundation president Peter Ellsworth have for weeks consulted with park stakeholders.

“I’ve talked to many people and I don’t recognize any momentum,” said Burnham. “There’s no organization that’s set up to take any leadership.”

So Burnham and the others have begun talking to stakeholders about a potential path forward.

“It’s gonna take a real army that we pull together from all directions to come up with a plan and move forward,” Burnham said.

There are many options on the table – and most aren’t new.

Park activists have long talked about bonds or tourism tax hikes to pay for park projects and some are buzzing about 2022 or even 2020 measures. Joint powers authorities or new government entities to oversee the park have also been floated, as has the idea of a Balboa Park czar.

Nearly a decade ago, community leaders decided a conservancy focused on parkwide needs and fundraising – like New York City’s Central Park Conservancy – was the best cure.

Eight years into the experiment, the Balboa Park Conservancy’s chair is advocating a closer look at how the nonprofit could be reformed to act as the leader it was envisioned as all along.

“We already do have a Balboa Park Conservancy so the question is: What does it take to get it into the space everyone believes it should be?” said Joyce Gattas, a founding board member and longtime San Diego State executive.


A decade ago, a comprehensive analysis of Balboa Park’s challenges by the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land declared that the park’s lack of funding and clarity on its leadership “represented a powder keg” that could explode without intervention.

Neither the funding nor the leadership has materialized since then.

The Plaza de Panama plan for years dominated discussions about the park’s future and in some ways, exacerbated the leadership problem. All eyes were focused on the lawsuit-plagued project and some early conservancy supporters and even board members backed away when the organization endorsed the project.

Nearly a decade ago, after a recession highlighted the city’s inability to bankroll park projects, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders and others backed the creation of the Balboa Park Conservancy in hopes that it could become the city’s partner in ensuring the park’s prosperity. Supporters thought the nonprofit could help the city raise cash to support the park and ink a formal relationship with the city.

The conservancy’s foundational project – a plan to upgrade the Botanical Building – has yet to break ground.

Gattas and Balboa Park Conservancy CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler report that the nonprofit has raised millions of dollars for park projects, created inventories of the park’s trees and signage and convened stakeholders on key challenges. The conservancy says it has increased its donor base from just 35 people or organizations five years ago to more than 470 today.

They also say the conservancy is quietly making progress on the Botanical Building project, though both declined to say how much more has been raised since a 2016 disclosure that the organization had brought in just $457,000 for the more than $10 million project.

Gattas and Herrera-Mishler noted that conservancies have taken years to gain footing in other cities.

“We’re playing the long game here,” Herrera-Mishler said.

Yet park advocates – including some who served on a key committee that set the stage for the conservancy – say the organization’s initial projects and its early decision to hold off on the formal relationship with the city hampered its ability to become the park champion.

Judy Swink, an early conservancy board member who resigned after the group backed the Plaza de Panama plan, is among those disappointed by the organization.

“The conservancy was formed to raise money and undertake capital improvement projects so the city can focus on upkeep and maintenance and the deferred maintenance projects,” Swink said. “I really don’t know what the conservancy is doing.”

Gattas defended the conservancy’s track record but said she supports conversations about how the organization can have a more dramatic impact. She said she has studied other conservancies’ contracts with their city partners and would like to explore a formal agreement between the city and the conservancy laying out the group’s responsibilities.

Gattas acknowledged the lack of clarity about the conservancy’s charge has compounded confusion and frustration about who the park’s real leader is.

“You have a lot of people already who are doing good things in the park so if you’re coming in without a clear and strong mandate, and a consistent mandate and message, then it’s hard to take ownership,” Gattas said.

Leadership problems aren’t the only issue.

Balboa Park has long lacked both a reliable funding source and agreement on which of its needs – or new projects – should take priority. The park’s 30-year-old master plan doesn’t offer guidance.

Some Balboa Park advocates, including the 1989 plan’s author, believe that plan needs to be updated to reflect today’s realities, particularly increased environmental concerns.

City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents the park, held a series of meetings in 2017 and 2018 to try to nail down current park priorities. He said he believes the park needs an implementation schedule for the priority projects.

The surprise announcement this spring that the city will soon seek proposals from outsiders who might overhaul Inspiration Point only solidified Ward’s resolve.

Ward believes the updated project list could set the stage for both a future ballot measure and more philanthropic donations – and lessen the pushback and delays common with Balboa Park projects and initiatives that send chilling signals to park donors and taxpayers.

“Then we stop having arguments about decision-making because it’s been decided,” said Ward, who has unsuccessfully pushed the mayor to fund such a plan. He is now running for state Assembly and will leave office late next year.

Christina Chadwick, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, criticized Ward’s focus on that plan rather than the Plaza de Panama project, which Ward essentially killed this spring when he told philanthropists he wouldn’t support a scaled-back overhaul.

“Councilmember Ward refused to show leadership when it mattered the most on the Plaza de Panama project – the largest proposed investment in Balboa Park in decades – and now wants to develop a plan,” Chadwick wrote in a statement. “The needs in Balboa Park have been well-documented over the past few years and the only thing a new plan would do is run the clock out so he doesn’t have to make any hard decisions before he leaves in 2020.”

Balboa Park Committee Chairwoman Katherine Johnston, who previously served as Faulconer’s point person on the Plaza de Panama project, said she believes agreement on park priorities is crucial and appreciates both Faulconer and Ward’s efforts.

“It’s incumbent on park stakeholders to come to agreement on what shared priorities are,” Johnston said. “We need to work together if we want the city to invest in the park.”

Whatever the solutions, stakeholders across the park agree that change is needed.

Balboa Park’s needs will only increase as its iconic buildings continue to age and activists and civic leaders say the current governing structure and funding situation won’t cut it.

Faulconer recently acknowledged that his commitment last month to reallocate $9.3 million that had been set to support the Plaza de Panama project to other park projects was only a down payment on the park’s much longer needs list.

A group of advocates, buoyed by an analysis by retired Navy systems analyst René Smith, has urged Faulconer to invest that money in upgrades for dilapidated park restrooms and roofs.

Smith has estimated that the cost to reverse the deterioration in Balboa Park’s 118 buildings increases by millions of dollars each year – and that the backlog will hit at least $285 million by next year.

In a park where consensus is rare, activists agree the current financing and governance can’t address that gap.

“Status quo isn’t gonna get Balboa Park where it needs to be,” Terzi 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...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.