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New San Diego park was 35 years in the making

Lloyd and Ilse Ruocco set aside funding for the park in 1977, but it took 35 years for the project to come to fruition.

September 22, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Roman de Salvo's abstract artwork of eucalyptus branches seems to float over the entrance to Ruocco Park, San Diego's newest waterfront park, at Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway. The park is named for the late local architect Lloyd Ruocco and his late wife, Ilse.
Roman de Salvo's abstract artwork of eucalyptus branches seems to… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — Architect Lloyd Ruocco and his wife, Ilse, an art professor at San Diego State, had a dream for their adopted city: a downtown park to incorporate their vision of "thoughtful urbanism."

In 1977 the couple established a trust fund to pay for such a park.

Last week, 35 years after the Ruoccos provided the money and, they hoped, the inspiration to get the project moving, a group of civic leaders gathered for a celebratory ribbon-cutting for Ruocco Park, 3.3 acres of people-friendly greenery at Harbor Boulevard and Pacific Highway.

Yes, 35 years.

Welcome to San Diego, where the planning, politicking and squabbling over civic projects is often measured in decades, not years.

Add litigation, or the threat of litigation, and the gestation can take even longer.

"You have to have a lot of endurance to be a San Diegan," said attorney Michael McDade, who was chief of staff to one mayor, an insider with two others and then a member of the Board of Port Commissioners.

"We actually do get things done," McDade said, "just not on a timetable that fits any politician's goals."

McDade was in the crowd that heard local leaders express joy and some amazement that, at long last, the park envisioned by the Ruoccos was a reality.

Many had worked for years on the thorny issues of location, financing, maintenance and how to fit the park into the often clashing master plans of public agencies that each control a portion of downtown.

"I'm an optimist," said former city architect Michael Stepner, who was involved in site location discussions in the 1980s. "I always thought it would be built. I just wasn't sure I'd live long enough to see it."

Many didn't. The officials running the ribbon-cutting ceremony took time to remember backers who died before the park was completed — starting with the benefactors.

Lloyd Ruocco, whose modernist works include some of the most acclaimed public buildings and private homes in the San Diego region, died in 1981 at age 74. Ilse Ruocco, a noted interior decorator as well as an art professor, died in 1982 at 80.

Deborah Hoffman, senior vice president for the San Diego Foundation, worked continuously for five years to meld the Ruocco fund with assistance from local governments, particularly the Unified Port of San Diego, which controls the land. She died in 2009; a plaque at the park commemorates her diligence.

"It's been a marathon," San Diego Foundation President Bob Kelly told the gathered dignitaries. Kelly spent 17 years on the project.

"You can't believe the number of phone calls and emails," he said. "In fact, when we started this project, there was no such thing as email."

In 1981, control over the $903,000 Ruocco trust fund passed to the San Diego Foundation, the nonprofit organization that coordinates philanthropic giving throughout the region.

If the long delay frustrated park enthusiasts, it did have one side benefit: an interest-bearing account made the Ruoccos' bequest grow substantially.

In the end, the San Diego Foundation allocated $3.5 million from the Ruocco fund for the project. The port kicked in $3.8 million for construction of the park and partial demolition of the former Harbor Seafood Mart.

With trees, benches and picnic tables, the park offers broad, unobstructed views of the San Diego Bay and skyline. At the corner that serves as the gateway to the park, an abstract work by local artist Roman de Salvo uses massive eucalyptus branches, towering masts and cables to represent sailboats on the bay. The shops of Seaport Village are next door; the carrier Midway museum is a short walk away.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders was a newly hired beat cop in the mid-1970s when the Ruoccos established the trust. While waiting for the park to be built, Sanders rose through the police ranks, served as chief for six years, became the chief executive of United Way and now is finishing his second term as mayor.

Sanders praised the Port of San Diego for "taking advantage of one of the most beautiful locations on San Diego Bay."

Whether San Diego's tendency toward torpor is just a trifling annoyance or a major drag on civic betterment is an open question.

"San Diego is a potential 21st century world-class city, but its government tends to operate at the speed of a mid-20th century small Midwestern town," Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said by email.

A San Diego sports columnist noted recently that he has been writing for 10 years about the controversy over possible public funding to build a new football stadium for the Chargers, who continue to play in Qualcomm Stadium, built in 1967. Of course, in San Diego a dispute that has lasted only a decade is but small beer.

The City Council this summer endorsed a plan to eliminate car traffic from the heart of Balboa Park, a desire of city planners that stretches back to the mid-1950s. The plan is now under attack in court by a preservationist group.

And many of the same officials who gathered to celebrate the opening of Ruocco Park will convene again this week for the groundbreaking of a park adjacent to the county administration building on Pacific Highway.

For San Diego, that project was a quick turnaround: Plans for a park on the site date to the early 1980s.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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