SAN DIEGO — Nerves are fraying this summer in Balboa Park, the vast, green expanse at the heart and soul of this city. Traffic jams weave slowly past the steamy canyons. Winnebagos from Arizona dodge natives in the parking lots, vying for a rare space.
And behind the creamy walls of the park's museums and meeting halls, a debate is brewing over the future of one of the nation's great urban parks. At stake, many believe, is who will lay claim to Balboa Park: Will it be San Diegans or the tourists the city so avidly courts?
The crux of the controversy is a master planner's proposal to guide the 120-year-old park into the 21st Century. Under his plan, new restaurants and museums and an amphitheater would be developed in the park. Parking garages would spring up among the canyons.
The city's only large inner-city gym would become a museum, as would several historic halls now used by square dancers and round dancers and table tennis leagues. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts would have to break camp. The archery range would disappear.
"The reality is that Balboa Park is nationally known," argues Ron Pekarek, the author of the proposal, set for public hearings this fall. "It's a huge park. Its juxtaposition next to downtown is one of the most unusual in the world. It's too big to be a community park."
But local park users have banded together, some of them turning out in full folk-dance regalia for once-quiet meetings of the park's Citizens' Advisory Committee. They have already begun fighting back, saying that their pastimes are "cultural" and significant too.
There are dire forecasts of the "museumification" of the park. Others say restaurants and parking structures violate the public spirit of the place. Still others admit a sneaking suspicion that tourism, the city's third-largest industry, is finally edging them out.
"It's community uses versus the museums, which I think would cater to the tourists more than the local people," said Bob Wells, who has played badminton in one park building since 1938. "There again, it all depends on what type of person you want to attract."
"The essential purpose of a park is to make the density of a city tolerable," said Hamilton Marston, whose grandfather came to San Diego in 1870 and helped plan the park. "That puts a very strong emphasis on the use of the park as open space."
Covers 1,200 Acres
Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre urban playground, home of the famous San Diego Zoo and the Old Globe Theatre. It is a great, green rectangle of wild canyons and trim mesas topped with Spanish Renaissance temples built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
There are nine museums, three theaters and two golf courses. There are horticulturists and lunchtime joggers and mounted police. There are pepper tree groves, forests of palms and the world's largest outdoor organ. And there are 12 million visitors a year.
All of which costs the city $3 million annually, including more than $300,000 for water just to keep the spread green. So when city officials asked Pekarek to update the master plan several years back, they asked him to see if the park could bring in money.
"We can't take care of it the way it needs to be taken care of unless it has more resources," George Loveland, director of San Diego Park and Recreation Department, said last week. "So we're trying to develop resources all the ways we can."
What emerged in Pekarek's master-plan amendments (which city officials are quick to point out are only proposals) are a wide range of suggested "revenue generators." Among them are new restaurants, pay parking and maybe even overnight docking of RVs.
Pekarek proposed intensive development of the site of the old Navy Hospital--35 acres overlooking downtown on a grassy promontory called Inspiration Point. He suggested two new 50,000-square-foot halls, a large restaurant, two pavilions and a garage.
Another parking structure might replace the park's archery range. There could be another 13,000 square feet for restaurants in the park's imitation Spanish Village. Pekarek also proposed a 4,500-seat bowl and an upgraded golf course, restaurant and clubhouse complex.
"It's a way of providing services for people who have the ability, desire and wherewithal to pay for lunch, as opposed to those of us who want to bring our bologna sandwich," Loveland said. "We both can enjoy the park, in a way we can afford."
Moving the Scout Camps
Pekarek also suggested the eventual relocation of so-called "special uses" no longer appropriate to a park "of national significance." That would include moving the Scout camps to other parks and converting several heavily used halls into museums.
Those halls--designed for the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition and reminiscent of ancient Mayan and Pueblo Indian buildings--are used by thousands of square dancers, clog dancers, wheelchair hockey players, Olympic volleyballers and others. Many have used the buildings free for decades. Now their time may be running out.