balboa park
Balboa Park / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

San Diego’s next mayor wants a private entity to help manage Balboa Park.

In a Friday mayoral forum about issues facing the park, Councilwoman Barbara Bry and Assemblyman Todd Gloria both said they’d like to see an outside group provide more significant park oversight, though neither specified how much that entity should defer to the city.

The mayoral candidates’ comments followed an announcement that the park’s two largest philanthropic groups – the Balboa Park Conservancy and Friends of Balboa Park – are in serious talks to merge, a move that could supply more backing and bandwidth to execute a formal partnership with the city.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders and others pushed for the creation of the Balboa Park Conservancy in 2011 in the hopes that it could become the city’s operations and fundraising partner, similar to New York City’s Central Park Conservancy.

Years later, the Balboa Park Conservancy hasn’t taken on that role, and concerns about the park park’s challenges have only grown.

“We need to take the love that San Diegans have for the park, harness that for the purposes of philanthropic investment and partner with the city to accomplish big projects,” Gloria said. “That was always the vision of the Conservancy and as you mentioned, the Friends have been doing this for years. To combine these efforts makes that goal more achievable.”

Bry also cheered the news.

“I think this is a great step forward,” she said. “One of the issues in the park has been that there’s a lot of different organizations speaking with many different voices. It’s been unclear to the public and to philanthropists who speaks for the park.”

Bry acknowledged she hadn’t decided how a formal partnership should look, though she said any future park manager must collaborate with the city and county. She pledged to hash out how that should look if she is elected and also expressed interest in exploring other models, such as a joint powers authority or a financing district that might help support the park.

“As mayor, I want to lead a thoughtful, strategic process on what the future of Balboa Park looks like in terms of governance, in terms of oversight and in terms of funding,” Bry said.

Gloria said he was inclined to follow the model etched out by civic leaders years ago that had a conservancy taking on more park responsibilities and philanthropic work as it gained support and a reputation for getting things done.

“I think they could play probably a lead role in helping us to prioritize and identify projects, not just in terms of need, but matching those needs with philanthropic partners who will actually help fund and execute those projects,” Gloria said.

Gloria also said he hoped to consider an array of other options to help bring more money to the park.

At the same time, both Bry and Gloria said they would hold the line on commercial enterprises or advertisements in Balboa Park.

Bry said that she supports restaurants in the park but noted that she opposed the now-defunct Plaza de Panama plan to overhaul the park’s central mesa and build a paid parking garage, and another abandoned plan to redevelop the area known as Inspiration Point.

“I’ve been adamant that I am against commercialization in the park. When the mayor released his (request for proposals) about wanting to build a hotel, I immediately stood up and said that is the wrong way to go,” said Bry, referring to the city’s initial openness to pitches from hoteliers. “Balboa Park is the people’s park.”

Gloria said he also disapproved of the city’s initial plan to redevelop Inspiration Point, which the city had hoped might pull in more revenue for the park, as commercial leases do in Mission Bay Park. Gloria for years backed the Plaza de Panama plan, though he said Friday he would not give it another go if he’s elected.

If an outside entity does take on more park responsibilities on his watch, Gloria promised to ensure philanthropists and companies who make donations don’t fill the park with gaudy ads or monuments.

“What I would envision is tasteful recognition of philanthropic contributions,” Gloria said. “When you look at other conservancies across the United States, they’ve been able to have, I think, a tasteful balance recognizing those who are helping to make improvements happen without overly commercializing or creating visual pollution, if you will, in a place as special as Balboa Park.”

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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