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The Happy Accident : San Diego's Balboa Park Remains Both an Elegant Playground and an Undisturbed Retreat

October 06, 1985|HILLIARD HARPER | Hilliard Harper is a Times staff writer.

It is late on a Sunday afternoon in San Diego's Balboa Park. The summer breeze carries a whiff of carne asada sizzling on a grill. The cries of two capering children shatter the serenity that has settled on a verdant mesa. Two couples, arm in arm, watch while a young man takes aim and hurls a boccie ball with practiced accuracy down a packed-sand court. This northeast corner is known as Morley Field, a sports complex of football, baseball and soccer fields; tennis courts, and such unlikely sports amenities as a velodrome, fly-casting pond, archery range and 18-hole Frisbee-golf course.

But Balboa Park, about 400 city blocks of luxuriant emerald acreage, is more than a sports complex. It is San Diego's heart and soul.

A Frisbee toss from the city's center and bounded by 6th Street on the west, 28th Street on the east, Upas Street on the north and Russ Boulevard on the south, Balboa Park takes the shape of a gigantic, near-perfect square, quilted with expansive, tree-shaded lawns, lush canyons, colorful formal gardens and sprawling mesas. A visit to the park is an adventure. Youngsters--and grown-ups--can lose themselves in a walk through a palm arboretum (a densely planted semitropical canyon); ogle a Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard, at the San Diego Zoo; and contemplate the peaceful beauty of Eastman Johnson's painting, "The Cranberry Harvest," at the Timken Art Gallery.

Although Balboa Park is big enough to contain such varied treasures, it's not the largest park in a city that controls more than 26,000 acres of parklands and open spaces. Mission Bay Park, at 4,245 acres, is almost four times as large. And the new Mission Trails Park, in the eastern part of the city, will encompass more than 6,000 acres when it is developed. But Balboa Park's rich blend of theaters, museums and a foreign-folk-culture center--as well as organized sports, the zoo and "passive" park uses--symbolizes San Diego's emerging cosmopolitanism and its long love affair with the outdoors.

Landscape architect Ron Pekarek, the park's current master planner, calls it "a happy accident." In 1868, the city trustees set aside 1,400 acres of pueblo lands (property which, under the Mexican government, was designated for pasturage or other common community uses) at a time when the population was only 2,301--a ratio of about two residents per park acre.

"No one really knows why that much land was set aside," Pekarek says. It was an incredible amount. It would be comparable to San Diegans of today saying: "Let's set aside the rest of California for a park." But in 1868, the city owned more than 40,000 acres of such lands and was selling them for as little as 7 cents an acre to add property to the tax rolls. There was plenty of land to spare for park use.

Other "happy accidents," Pekarek says, are the park's square design--which keeps the bustling city far from the park's center--and its natural geographic divisions. Cutting through the park are two canyons--Florida to the east and Cabrillo to the west--that divide the park into three areas. Tours through Florida Canyon, offered by the Natural History Museum, allow a rare glimpse of what San Diego was like before irrigation--acres of stubby scrub brush, chaparral and cactus. The natural ecological systems are nearly intact; coyotes and red-tailed hawks still vie with gray foxes for a meal of fresh rabbit.

The eastern side of the park, where Morley Field is, has been developed mainly for athletics, including a 9-hole and an 18-hole golf course. The western part has been set aside primarily for passive uses, such as picnicking, strolling and sunbathing under a brilliant sky.

Unlike the rest of the park, the central section focuses on man-made rather than natural recreational opportunities. It's a city within a city--home to the San Diego Zoo--and it's paved with plazas and studded with handsome structures that house museums, theaters, meeting rooms, ballrooms, gymnasiums and artists' studios. Most of the visitors who pour into the park on weekends and holidays tend to crowd along El Prado, the broad avenue through the central section of the park, where musicians, jugglers, mimes and puppeteers beguile passers-by with their various acts.

This sprawling commons has never had a broader appeal. It attracts about 12 million visitors a year, half of them from out of town; as many as 65,000 people a day flock to this urban preserve to enjoy its oceanic and woodland vistas or to visit one of the park's dozen museums or the zoo.

Yet, all is not well with Balboa Park. The post-Proposition 13 era has brought about changes in the park's management. Californians have mandated more conservative fiscal practices, and park maintenance is suffering. Some of the clues are less apparent than others; the park's gardens once were a year-round profusion of color. "It's not that obvious, but we plant fewer annuals than we used to," says Gary Stromberg, manager of grounds maintenance at Balboa Park.

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