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Cars or Cloggers? Space War Splits Balboa Park Hall

July 27, 1986|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

On the surface, it hardly seems a building to go to battle over: A long, low-slung white elephant covered with peeling tan paint, housing a huge hall like a high school auditorium left over from an era of higher birth rates.

But the Conference Building in Balboa Park is at the center of a growing war over the future of one of the world's most remarkable downtown parks. At issue is who will have access to the park in the future--who will find a home there and who will be eased out.

On one side of the Conference Building controversy is a phalanx of square dancers, round dancers, folk dancers and cloggers, backed by Ping-Pong, badminton and volleyball players, and jugglers who have used the building and others near it for years.

On the other side is an assortment of car buffs and collectors, backed by some park planners and administrators of park museums. They have grand plans to turn the Conference Building into an auto museum, replete with Adolf Hitler's Mercedes-Benz.

"A rich man's garage!" the dancer faction growls scornfully.

"Mom and apple pie!" the car people grumble back.

The dispute exemplifies a broader debate over the evolution of Balboa Park, a debate likely to intensify as population growth increases the demand and pressure for space. For some, it is also a debate over the future of the city: Will the park, and the city, be for San Diegans?

Some, like Ron Pekarek, who is revising the park's master plan, say Balboa Park is no longer a community park but a park "of regional and national significance." So the city can no longer afford to subsidize space for dancers, Boy Scouts and amateur archers, he says.

Pekarek and City Council members suggest that the park must become more self-supporting in these times of restrained public spending. Museums generate people, income and tax revenue, they say, which can be used to make the park thrive.

But others counter that parks should no more be self-supporting than schools; they are a public service that the public should be willing to support. They quote Balboa Park's 120-year-old mandate as "free and open park space." They put the emphasis on free.

A park's essence is its diversity, they say, and that diversity will be lost if what they call the "museumification" of Balboa Park continues. They say culture should not be defined narrowly--it includes square dancing, clogging and table tennis.

"There are, of course, many different uses for the park and many people see the park differently," said Robert Arnhym, chairman of the Balboa Park Committee, which must begin deciding the Conference Building's fate at a hearing Aug. 4. "The people that come here from New York see this as a national park. Someone that drives in from the county sees it as a regional park. Those that live across the street see it as a neighborhood park."

"You have to decide what the ultimate land use of the park should be," said Ann Hix, a member of the city's Park and Recreation Board, which will take up the debate after Arnhym's committee. "And that's an impossible task."

The Conference Building is part of a cluster of buildings in the so-called Palisades area of the park. Built for the 1935 Pan-American Exposition, they include the municipal gymnasium, Federal Building and Palisades Building near the Aerospace Museum and Starlight Bowl.

After World War II, the buildings went empty, aching for tenants and falling into disrepair. The city had to go out and hunt for tenants, officials remember. Gradually, square dancers and badminton players began filtering in.

The special attraction of the Conference Building is its 16,000 square feet of unobstructed floor space--room for a passel of dancers and a fleet of Ping-Pong tables. It also contains the park's only large cement and tile floor, the only kind of floor that can survive clogging, a form of folk dance in which the dancers wear wooden clogs to tap out the rhythm.

Dancers say that as many as 30,000 people regularly use the buildings, including Olympic volleyball players, the San Diego Table Tennis Assn. and pickup basketball players. On Sunday nights, the giant Conference Building clatters with cloggers.

"It's hard to find anything bad about any tenant in any of those buildings," said Bob Wells, who has played badminton in the Federal Building since 1938. "The dancers were saying, 'We keep people off the streets. It's wholesome.' With badminton it's the same."

The 1960 park master plan designated the buildings for demolition--a proposal many people still support as a means of retrieving lost open space. But before the buildings could be removed, they were declared historic monuments. Now they are there to stay.

So Pekarek, in his controversial 1983 master-plan amendment proposals, suggested that the Palisades area buildings be turned into museums. They would be consistent with the activities in the adjoining Prado, forming "a truly unique cultural complex."

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