Watercolor rendering of planned Botanical Building renovation
Watercolor rendering of the planned Botanical Building renovation. Courtesy Al Forester

Superior public landscapes across the nation rise to a standard of excellence that is, without exception, the result of public/private partnerships. The same is true for San Diego’s urban jewel.

Balboa Park is beautiful and full of great community assets, from an extraordinary urban forest to world-class theaters and museums, 65 miles of hiking trails, and many recreational amenities. It is certainly a very good park. The next step is to make it the great park we all deserve and expect, fulfilling its full potential.

Public/private partnerships in place at all of the nation’s great parks give us the guideposts toward excellence. Government alone is not the solution, nor is philanthropy alone able to advance the park to greatness. It must be a collaboration that allows the community to support the park through both dedicated public resources and private philanthropy.

The Balboa Park Conservancy is the city’s private partner in advocating for the greater good in Balboa Park. We provide expertise, advocacy and resources in partnership with the city and other park and community organizations to achieve the best version of Balboa Park possible for current and future generations. By working together, our private/public partnership will bring Balboa Park to the level of excellence our community and visitor population deserves.

The tremendously good news that came in June concerning the allocation of $8.26 million in the California state budget for our Botanical Building renovation project is a perfect example of how this private/public partnership is supposed to work. Renovating the Botanical Building and restoring it to its 1915 appearance while improving the visitor experience has been a top priority for the Balboa Park Conservancy since its creation.

Our staff has been working with our local and state representatives for years to receive their support on our grant applications, and advocating for us when budget measures are considered. Conservancy trustees have personally reached out to state lawmakers like Todd Gloria and Toni Atkins, whose commitment to the park is a matter of public record.

Built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and intended to remain as a permanent park structure, the Botanical Building with its iconic lath construction is free to millions of annual visitors, and home to more than 2,100 plant varieties. This special building is in great need of restoration due to termite damage, rust and deferred maintenance.

The conservancy selected the Botanical Building as its first major restoration project and began planning and fundraising, securing all of the funds for planning and design by 2015. Project planning was overseen by a steering committee comprised of subject matter experts, City of San Diego staff, and key park stakeholders including the Friends of Balboa Park and Committee of 100. The landscape and horticultural plans have been completed, as well as a comprehensive donor recognition program which necessitated working with elected officials to develop a brand-new formal naming policy for the City of San Diego, which had never had one before.

Tomás Herrera-Mishler

Our project not only repairs and restores the facility and surrounding gardens, but provides new amenities, such as restrooms, water-efficient irrigation, energy-saving lighting, and enhanced opportunities for education, visitor engagement and earned revenue. Together, the Botanical Building and gardens will be revived as the heart of horticulture in San Diego and a global botanical destination.

The generous state budget allocation provides an infusion of confidence energy, and momentum into our capital campaign already underway. It proves that the conservancy’s emphasis on careful long-term planning, consensus building, and working with all the park stakeholders is the right way to move the park from good to great.

It takes time to build a strong private/public partnership to safeguard the city’s greatest assets, but the good news is that such partnerships are built to last and will pay dividends for generations to come.

Tomás Herrera-Mishler is CEO and President of the Balboa Park Conservancy. He is a Mexican-born landscape architect with experience managing conservancies and parks in Buffalo, Boston and Philadelphia. To keep in touch with the conservancy, sign up for their monthly newsletter.