The Jewel of the City Saved from Costly and Massive Redevelopment

| July 17, 2011 | 1 Comment

Friends of Balboa Park grateful for community support

What began as the restoration of Plaza de Panama, and a pedestrian friendly environment, suddenly became a major redevelopment of Balboa Park. The initial plan was to “polish” the jewel of San Diego for the 2015 Centennial of the Pacific-Panama Exposition.

This past June thousands of San Diegans and 26 organizations and agencies were up in arms about a proposed redevelopment plan that was to include a bypass bridge which would wrap around museums in Balboa Park and alter the landscape and architecture of the Cabrillo Bridge entrance. It would also include parking structures, “a big ditch through the park” and re-routing of traffic into the Alcazar Gardens’ lot. The “proposed cost” of this endeavor was said to be in the ballpark of $800,000 to a million dollars. However, after seeing the rendering to this project, it’s obvious that this would be significantly more costly, probably in the range of three to four million dollars, which would be passed on to the taxpayers of San Diego.
Thanks to the 26 organizations led by Save Our Heritage Organization, the northerly vehicle and pedestrian entrance to Balboa Park, via Cabrillo Bridge, isn’t facing an extensive structural and architectural change. It isn’t going to happen.

During a meeting with Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organization, who first introduced me to this issue, I was reminded of George Marston. We were meeting at the Marston House, located at 3525 Seventh Avenue. This house was the primary residence of Marston, who many of us consider to be the legacy behind so much of San Diego.

For reference, in 1907, Marston bought Presidio Hill with an interest to preserve the old Presidio of San Diego. He couldn’t get anyone interested in the project so he built Presidio Park in 1925. He commissioned the Serra Museum, designed by architect William Templeton Johnson in Presidio Park, and donated the Park to the city in 1929. Marston also served as chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. The Exposition established an infrastructure of museums and attractions for the park that still exists today.

So, it was fitting that we would be meeting at the Marston House, which was donated to the City of San Diego by Marston’s daughter Mary in 1987 and is now operated by SOHO.

Also fitting is that we were meeting in the dining room of the Marston House, which Coons informed me was the scene of many important discussions. President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington were some of the dignitaries who held meetings in this very dining room. I felt honored to be meeting in the same room with Coons, who was a gracious host and shared the renderings of this proposed plan that had been presented by Dr. Irwin Jacobs as the lead member of the Plaza de Panama Committee.
Besides the massive physical changes that were being considered, Coons explained to me the additional financial issues related to this proposed plan that had received support from Mayor Jerry Sanders. Coons also referred to a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) that had been presented to the City Council.

Under Fiscal Considerations it refers to staff time for planning and processing that “will be absorbed in the existing Parks and Recreation budget, as is customary by the Department when assisting with review of capital projects.” The paragraph goes on to state, if bond proceeds are not sufficient, costs will be covered by the Plaza de Panama Committee or “if such funds are not available, by the City’s General Fund.”
As Coons shared with me, with the current severe budget cuts now under consideration and with one of the stated goals of the city to be learning fiscal responsibility, is it okay with you that the City’s General Fund will be used to cover this?

Obviously, thanks to Bruce Coons and the other representatives from SOHO who lead this charge, the plan was scraped.  Now he is encouraging the public to support the 2015 Committee, the Balboa Park Conservancy and the City Parks and Recreation Department to move the park into its next century with a plan that is much more fitting for the jewel of San Diego and respecting the legacy of George W. Marston.

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