With Balboa Park's historic buildings sagging and Mission Bay Park's beaches eroding into its oft-contaminated waters, San Diego leaders are asking residents to absorb more property taxes to pay for at least $73.9 million in improvements to the city's two premier parks.
Voters will respond Nov. 3 when at least two-thirds of them must approve either Proposition B or Proposition C to allow the city to borrow the money needed to shore up two of the city's most popular recreation spots.
History shows that their reply is often unkind. It has been 17 years since two-thirds of the electorate agreed to allow the city to sell general obligation bonds. Ten requests have failed since 1970.
Hoping to Buck Trend
Nevertheless, a campaign committee hoping to buck the trend has raised about $150,000 in the hope of persuading voters that the tourist and recreation meccas need attention now.
"There has just been general neglect. The money hasn't been there in the past to provide for major restoration and preservation measures," said Bob Wickers, campaign manager for Friends of the Parks, the campaign committee.
"I think San Diegans are the ones who use (the parks) more than tourists, more than visitors. A lot of the folks in San Diego are realizing they're going to have to pay for the years they've been using the two parks," Wickers said.
Opponents see it differently, arguing that parking fees should be charged to make tourists pay for part of the improvements and that the city should slowly fund the work out of its budget instead of spending as much as $93.5 million in borrowed money over the next six years.
"The city has allowed deterioration to happen in the parks that they shouldn't have allowed," said Jack Sanders, president of United Taxpayers of San Diego, a small citizens' group. "Now they're declaring that there's a crisis in the parks and that they have to be helped out. It's like the orphan who throws himself on the mercy of the court after killing both his parents."
The Two Propositions
City voters will be asked to vote on both Proposition B, which seeks authority to borrow $93.5 million, and Proposition C, which asks for approval to borrow $73.9 million. The larger sum would pay for all the improvements listed under Proposition C plus another $19.6 million from a park improvement "wish list," Wickers said. If both pass, Proposition B funding will be used.
Proposition C includes $31.5 million to renovate or improve Balboa Park buildings, such as the 72-year-old House of Hospitality, the House of Charm, the Museum of Man and the Old Globe Theater complex; $13 million to reclaim beachfront that has been eroding from Mission Bay shores at a rate of four to seven feet every year; and $12 million to install a new system to prevent sewage contamination of Mission Bay, along with other projects such as upgrades to restrooms, bike paths and pedestrians walkways.
Proposition B would fund the same work and add money for projects including improvements to Fiesta Island, a new municipal gymnasium near Balboa Park, and parking and circulation work in both parks.
Without the bonds, proponents argue, Mission Bay, which has been at least partially closed for 700 days since 1980, will continue to be shut down because of sewage contamination. And Balboa Park buildings such the House of Charm, which is mostly off-limits to the public, will remain that way for some time.
"I think we're going to have a terrible time, particularly in Balboa Park, in keeping a lot of the buildings open," said John Leppert, assistant to the city manager for Balboa and Mission Bay Parks. "If we don't have a lot of the funds necessary to repair them or rebuild them, we really are up against it.
"In Mission Bay Park, we are going to have a much slower program in improving the water quality and we're going to continue to lose shoreline," he said.
"It's real simple," said Paul Downey, spokesman for Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who has taken an active role in supporting the propositions. "They are two of our civic treasures. People love both Balboa and Mission Bay parks and they have fallen into a state of disrepair."
Statistics support Downey's contention. Fourteen million people used Mission Bay Park last year (three million of them to visit Sea World), and another 12 million visits were made to Balboa Park, according to city officials.
Polls taken by Friends of the Parks show improvements to historic buildings and upgrades in access for the handicapped and senior citizens are the Balboa Park projects that voters like most, Wickers said. In Mission Bay Park, sewage spill containment projects topped the list.
Curiously, a recent poll of 400 likely voters taken by the group showed that 72% would support Proposition B, the more expensive initiative, and 58% would support Proposition C. Wickers speculated that voters may have misunderstood the ballot items, thinking that Proposition C would be added to Proposition B.