A view of Balboa Park. Photo by Chris Stone

By Colleen O’Connor

What about the words “Dedicated Park Land” is confusing?

And why do our city’s legal guardians create legislative and moral acrobatics to purposefully misconstrue and misunderstand that—a “park” is still a “park” by any other name? Whether it is a waterfront park, a bay park, a river park, a neighborhood park or just a pocket park?

And why—when the city’s density is near choking levels—do the politicians and planners systematically reduce open space preserves that serve as a metropolis’ lungs? Trees not only provide shade, but oxygen—and even grass reduces temperatures and provides some oxygen! Anyone factor that into their “carbon footprint” planning?

And how about the destruction of a neighborhood’s character? Some examples:

Pacific Beach to South Mission Beach Boardwalk: Beautiful ocean (also provides oxygen). Sea Wall recently repaired, but the density and AirBnB proliferation has transformed the old “neighborhood” into a transient occupancy zone. Now, instead of transforming an abandoned elementary school site into a park, the city has permitted a developer to squeeze in some over-sized luxury condos.

Presidio Park: Not only are trees being needlessly cut down, and the ice plants dying from neglect and eroding the slopes, but the homeless have increased in the canyons and near the gym. Their outdoor cooking habits are a fire waiting to happen. Even worse, the historical landmark Presidio building itself—is near dilapidated.

Mission Bay Park: Sea World’s expansion is obvious. The parking lots, partially hidden by a tree fence, are all on dedicated city charter-protected park land. Sea World gained permission to build the eyesore “water slide” by promising that it wasn’t a “water slide.” After the orcas, reclaim the parking lots as park land.

La Jolla Children’s Pool and Cove, Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve: Obvious. Trust violated. Water and sand contaminated and air polluted.

And then the biggest example of pretzel thinking—the new/old/and continuing onslaughts against Balboa Park—the most famous of all San Diego’s parks.

How does it offend thee? Let me count the ways.

Of the original 1,400 acres the state granted San Diego for a city park and “required maintenance forever as a park” (1870), the repeated “theft” of park land includes:

  • Loss of 44.8 acres for Roosevelt Middle School and San Diego High School
  • Loss of 92.6 acres to the Navy for assorted buildings and a hospital
  • Loss of 322 acres to highways (163 and 5) and ramps

Now comes another attempt to amend the city charter and allow San Diego High’s expiring 50-year lease in the park to be extended.

Councilwoman Sherri Lightner strenuously objected because it would “create a loophole that would jeopardize the protection of parkland from development.” She lost 7-1.

Anticipate more parking lots.

And most insulting of all, the Balboa Park Centennial Committees’ waste of millions of dollars in planning—money that could have repaired the Botanical Garden’s crumbling exterior—but, instead, generated a state Attorney General’s investigation.

Some have called the deplorable state of the Park “aggressive neglect.” I call it near criminal.

The history of onslaughts against the original Balboa Park number in the dozens—some looney, some accomplished, and most brought forward by complicit city officials.

According to retired University of San Diego law professor, Nancy Carol Carter, the most colorful attempts to grab park land include: installing a radio broadcast tower, plans for the Padres baseball park, the county administration building, the Civic Theater, a space needle ride, a tobacco plantation, a 200,000 tomato plant scandal, a fire station, an observatory, a charity tract for orphans and indigent women, and even the original San Diego State University campus. Imagine all those parking lots.

The most successful onslaught came via federal condemnation–to accommodate construction of the the Bob Wilson Naval Hospital.

And finally, we come to Irwin Jacobs’ plan to ban cars in the park, but with a three-story, fee-based underground parking lot, and a massive re-design to the park itself.

The Balboa Park is not Legoland. It is a park—protected by both the state of California and the Charter of San Diego—regardless of the machinations of the city officials to avoid that reality.

As songwriter, Joni Mitchell, anticipated:

“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.”


Colleen O’Connor is a retired college history professor. 

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