On Feb. 26, the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum is putting on the ritz at a champagne reception at the historic Long-Waterman House. It's an unusual--but very special--event for train aficionados, who are using the occasion to unveil their proposal to establish a railway museum in Balboa Park.
The railway museum sees the move by the Navy Hospital to Florida Canyon and the city's acquisition of Inspiration Point as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move into a prime Balboa Park location. In the coming months, they will engage in a fierce competition to win space in whatever old hospital buildings are left standing when the city acquires title to the land in 1988, or in any new ones that might be built on the choice 34-acre site.
The railway museum leadership is hardly alone in kicking off an early and organized public relations pitch to win the space in the soon-to-be-acquired parkland. For several months, veterans' groups from across the nation have been inundating City Hall with post cards stating their support for a plan to convert the chapel on the old hospital grounds to a veterans' memorial and restore the original hospital building, a longtime San Diego landmark, as a museum celebrating the history of the military's presence in the city.
Supporters of a proposal to build a performing arts center for local community theater groups on the site have undertaken a similar orchestrated letter campaign.
"I don't envy the City Council when it comes time to make a decision on who gets in and who is left out," said Ann Hix, chairman of a City Council-appointed committee forming a land-use plan for the part of the Navy base that is being turned over to the city.
"There are tremendous pressures pulling from all directions. There's a strong sentiment that all of the land should be turned into open, unstructured park space, because it's the last opportunity we'll ever have to add to the open space in Balboa Park. But if that happens, there would not be any new space for all of those groups who want to move into the park, and this might be the last time to accommodate them, too," Hix said.
"It's going to be difficult to balance both interests," said acting Mayor Ed Struiksma, who is heading the drive for the veterans' memorial and military museum at the site. "We're all aware of the importance of getting back as much open space as possible after the loss of Florida Canyon. And I realize my proposal is going to leave some of the other groups feeling left out. Making the final decision is going to be very difficult for the council, and I'm sure there will be some very strong debate before we get to that point."
Diane Barlow, a longtime local political aide who is active in the environmental group Citizens Coordinate for Century III, said there will be "a very concerted push to create as much open space as possible on the old hospital grounds.
"To a great many people, that is the top priority in Balboa Park, and the key to maintaining its integrity in the future," she said. "We can't lose sight of the fact that we lost some very valuable undeveloped land when the Navy started building in Florida Canyon, and that the land should be replaced," Barlow said.
In addition to the railway museum, performing arts center and veterans' memorial and military museum, there are almost 20 other groups on record requesting space on the old hospital land. Vying for space are proposals for a new children's museum, a doll museum, a puppet museum, a Combined Health Agencies Drive (CHAD) office center housing various health services groups and a health museum, a home for battered women, a day-care center for the children of city employees, the New School of Architecture, a folk dancing organization, a fly fishermens' group and the city park and recreation staff working in Balboa Park, which would like new office space.
The Friends of the Library had proposed that a new central library be built at the site, although their focus has turned to the abandoned Sears store in Hillcrest. And a group including 1968 Olympic gold medal winner Bob Seagren has approached the committee about a proposal to open a major training center for Olympic athletes in the park.
"That list probably will get longer and longer because, after all, we're still pretty early in the decision-making process, and there will be many more public hearings before the council ultimately decides what to do," said Hix.