San Diego’s only full-length statue of an actual woman guards the west entrance of Balboa Park. Standing a little larger than life, the bronze figure is holding a blossom and pondering a vision that is etched on a nearby plaque:
“During her life, Kate Sessions created gardens and landscapes for all to enjoy.”
For all to enjoy … Balboa Park has been a lasting gift from Sessions and other visionaries to all of us — residents and tourists, children and adults, poor and rich. You can spend hours in the park walking through groves and sitting under trees without buying a ticket or paying a fee.
The splendor of this open green space is a great equalizer. People roam freely in a shared serenity. There are no echelons, no haves and have-nots. The city’s crown jewel shines brightly for everyone who visits.
San Diegans are passionate about Sessions’ vision of a park “for all to enjoy.” That’s why so many of us fought the paid parking garage in the unsuccessful Plaza de Panama project. And that’s why so many spoke out against the tone-deaf Balboa Park Star observation wheel proposal.
We understand the frustration of the team that spent time and money on this venture. They made the common mistake — remember the Inspiration Point boutique hotel? — of thinking acquiescence from city power brokers could help them skirt a public reckoning.
(Note to City Hall: The under-the-radar game of shepherding controversial projects through networks that don’t operate in full public view is wearing very thin.)
What we don’t understand are complaints that the park needs help drawing visitors and that opponents of ideas like the observation wheel lack imagination and hope.
We are North Park residents and regular Balboa Park users. Like thousands of other San Diegans, we were thrilled when the park reopened last June after a COVID shutdown kept us out for the first time in memory.
In our frequent trips to the park each week, we haven’t seen any shortage of visitors. In fact, the park seems more popular than ever. It comes alive every day with multi-generational families, exercisers, dog walkers, new mothers pushing jogging strollers, and groups of students.
When we envision a 15-story-high amusement ride smack in the middle of the iconic Plaza de Panama, here’s what we imagine:
We imagine weary parents telling their excited children, “Sorry, kids, but we can’t afford to buy tickets to ride the wheel” costing $16 a passenger (with a whole dollar of that going to the park itself).
We imagine how people who could afford the ride and its deluxe “food and beverage experience” would fare after imbibing cocktails and meals while circulating round and round high in the air.
We imagine how this steel monstrosity would deface the beauty of the park’s Spanish-Renaissance architecture, lush gardens, tiled colonnades and fountains.
And then we imagine and even hope that our city government could someday afford to sustain its crown jewel once it stops squandering hundreds of millions on fiascos like the pension scandal, the Chargers ticket guarantee scandal, and the 101 Ash Street scandal.
If City Hall wasn’t so godawful at managing public finances, it might not be desperate enough to try wringing money out of the park through pay-to-play schemes that cater to high rollers and enrich special friends.
After seeing this happen again and again, we are grateful to the all-volunteer Parks and Recreation Council (PARC) for stepping up with a strong proposal for maintaining Balboa Park’s luster.
Formed in response to the bewildering “Complete Communities Play Everywhere” parks initiative, which remains stalled in City Council, PARC is challenging city park management on numerous fronts, including the need for greater public input and the dangers of commercializing parkland.
As long as San Diegans like PARC’s members dare to speak truth to power, Balboa Park will be a treasure for all to enjoy and not a plaything for a privileged few to co-opt.
Cia Barron and Kate Callen are co-founders of the SoNo Neighborhood Alliance.