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Preserving Balboa Park

Aired 5/25/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

You may love Balboa Park, but do you have any idea what it takes to keep it? What kind of decisions have to be made about Balboa Park, and who should get to make them?

You may love Balboa Park, but do you have any idea what it takes to keep it? That's one of the issues that will be discussed at an awards event this week at the Balboa Park Club. As the Park nears it's 100th anniversary, a proposed renovation to build a traffic bypass is generating controversy and raising a larger issue. What kind of decisions have to be made about Balboa Park, and who should get to make them?

Guests: Nancy Carol Carter, administrator, USD School of Law, and student of San Diego history

Mike Kelly, president, Committee of 100 of Balboa Park

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: You may love Balboa Park, but do you have any idea what it takes to keep it? That's one of the issues that will be discussed at an awards event in week at the Balboa Park club. As the park nears its one hundredth anniversary, a proposed renovation to build a traffic by pass is generating controversy and raising a larger issue. What kind of decisions have to be made about Balboa Park, and who should get to make them? Joining me are my guests, Nancy carol Carter is administrator will at the USD school of law, and a student of San Diego history. Good morning, Nancy.

CARTER: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Mike Kelly is president of the committee of one hundred Balboa Park, welcome to Midday Edition.

KELLY: Thank you Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: If our listeners would like to join our conversation about the future of Balboa Park, give us a call. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Mike, the committee of one hundred is holding an event this week honoring people who have worked to preserve Balboa Park. What is the committee of one hundred?

KELLY: We are I group of people who got together in 1967 to help to preserve Balboa Park's historic architecture and gardens and public spaces.

CAVANAUGH: So basically anybody can join?

KELLY: Anybody can join.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. So what does your group want for Balboa Park as it nears its centennial?

KELLY: Well, in general I think we want Balboa Park to be special for the next century. We think that we need a legacy to come out of this 2010 centennial celebration of the Panama California exposition. And it isn't clear yet what that legacy should be.

CAVANAUGH: What's on the top of your wish list for the park?

KELLY: Pedestrian public space. This is something that's really what the Jacobs plan is all about. This was an issue in 1960 with a master plan at that time. Again in 1989 with the current master plan. And strangely enough, that public space has never been reclaimed from the automobile.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you mentioned a plan promoted by Erwin Jacobs and others supported by the mayor of San Diego to route traffic on a new by bas around the museum of man, and away from the Plaza de Panama. Now, I guess what's good about it is it removes photographic from that plaza. But what don't you like about it? Because I've heard that you don't like that plan.

KELLY: Well, we love the goals. The goals for reclaiming this extensive public space, which is far more than we had ever hoped for, and mayor than the mayor called for when he wanted to get parking out of the Plaza de Panama. So we have no complaint at all about trying to achieve those goals. That's exactly what we want. We think the right way to do this is not to bring in more traffic from the west side of the park but to close the Cabrillo bridge to traffic and bring cars in from the east, increase and improve our public transit system so that more people will be willing to come to the park by bus and by trolley, and to improve significantly the current tram system that runs inside the park.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, that proposed by pass of traffic around the museum of man and into a larger parking structure has been quite controversial hasn't it?

KELLY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: All right then. Nancy Carter, let me bring you into the conversation. As I said, among your other achievements, you're a student of San Diego history. In your research for the talk you're giving on Friday at this event, you've unearthed a number of ideas for Balboa Park over the decades, some good, and some a little hair brained. Tell us about one or two from the park's early days.

CARTER: Well, hair brained is exactly the right word. There have been suggestions that tobacco plantations be placed in the park. There was a great tomato growing scandal when a member of the park commission turbed over park land so that a canning company here in San Diego could plant two hundred thousand tomato plants in the park. And there have been efforts early on to site major institutions and structures in the park, such as the San Diego state university in its early days when it was still just a state college. And also when the county administration building was being planned in the 1930s, eight ideal sites were identified in Balboa Park for the county administration building. There was also a big move to place the public library in the park, and I'm talking about in 19 zero two when our first Carnegie library was coming to town, and that issue was raised again in the 1950s when another effort to reconstruct the Downtown public library was made and the park was thought to be the ideal place to put it. We've also seen many other efforts to sell off park land. I was shocked in my research to find out that the mayor of the city in 1911 wanted to sell anywhere from four hundred to seven hundred acres of park land right from the middle of the park.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, right in the middle. That -- luckily, none of those ideas that you were talking about actually came to fruition. You have a very interesting title for the address that your going to be giving on Friday. And you call it a park if you can keep it. What ask that mean?

CARTER: Well, I'm afraid that I have plagiarized that great American, Benjamin Franklin, to find this title. Benjamin Franklin was attending, of course, the institutional convention, and no one quite knew what the structure of American government would be after this convention. And a lady on the street saw him and said Mr. Franklin, what manner of government are you going to give us? And his reply was a republic, if you can keep it. And when I was doing this research on the park, I really thought about that story because we were given this wonderful, one thousand four hundred acres of park in 1868, but from that day forward, the question has been can we keep this park?

CAVANAUGH: And how has San Diego answered that over the years? We heard some of the hair brained notions that they came up with. But let me address to you then, about this, Mike, what kind of maintenance is the park getting and what kind of maintenance does the park need?

KELLY: Well, an investigation showed that there was something like four hundred thousand dollars worth of deferred --; is that right?

CARTER: Yeah, tered.

KELLY: No, I don't think that's right. Four hundred million dollars worth of deferred maintenance in the park. And nobody's looked at that very accurately, but it's probably gone up since that was determined. And still the staff have been cut back, the budget has been cut back, and the park is still a beautiful, wonderful place to be. It's an -- it amazes me every time I go what a good job our Balboa Park staff does with less and less.

CAVANAUGH: Do you -- let me talk to you Beth about this. Do you think that San Diegans realize how much maintenance a park like this needs? Have we been educated about that over the years do you think, Nancy.

CARTER: Absolutely not. I don't think the population does realize how much maintenance it takes. And I don't think we have been well educated about that.

CAVANAUGH: Why not?

CARTER: I guess one of the problems there would be exactly whose responsibility would that be. And so I don't know if anyone has seen that as a responsibility to educate the public. I think quite frankly when we speak historically we've also really been failed by some of our political leaders. If we have mayors who are ready to sell off the park rather than talk about the importance of preserving this legacy for posterity, I think you get right to the heart of the problem.

CAVANAUGH: And what about conservancy? Where are we on that?

KELLY: Well, you're -- you led into that just the right way. That's going to be one of the most important roles of the Balboa Park conservancy. They're just starting, you know, they're trying to get I memorandum of understanding with the city. They're trying to get their feet wet. But I think they have the potential to be what truly saves Balboa Park in the next century.

CAVANAUGH: I think one of the things that you had noted as you did your research for your address, Nancy, is the fact that in the park's earlier days a group of very powerful city leaders might be able to come along and basically dictate through their influence, and so forth, what -- how the park would be configured and so forth and on on. Have those days gone?

CARTER: Are, I think those guys are gone because there are so many people who are interested in the park, and interested in the fate of the park. We did make this decision to have a park that is full of cultural institutions. That was not necessarily the first map for the park. The first plan for the park was to keep it very pastoral, to do very little building in the park, to put very few plantings in the park, to keep it very simple and celebrate what was viewed as a unique landscape by Samuel parsons, who came to us from the central park in New York City, and was a very famous landscape designer of his time. But when he came to see Balboa Park for the 50 time in 19 zero two, he thought we should leave it alone as much as possible. And it was part of that nineteenth century ideal about what an urban park should be. Urban parks were created to give people a break from the city. Don't put buildings in the park and make it look like a city, make it an alternative to city life. Make an urban park as quiet, as pastoral, as open as possible to provide a real –alternative. But our notions of what public spaces should be, and how they should be used was really changing by the end of the nineteenth century, and then under went hydrogen changes in the 20th century. We started thinking about parks as places for active recreation and all kinds of different groups wanted cocome onto the park from the shuffle board players to the tennis players to the bicyclist and so on. So parks became destination centers, and that required more and more and more infrastructure. And then once you got on that path, San Diego certainly has had a great difficulty in deciding where the limit should be. When is it time to say no more institutions in the park, no more development in the park?

CAVANAUGH: It's my being, Mike, that the City Council and the mayor today, they have a master plan for the park and they vote on the ideas about changes to the park. Do you think that the public has enough input in that decision making process?

KELLY: Well, they've certainly provided plenty of input in the discussions over this Jacobs plan, and I've been to several of the meetings, and many, many people get up to speak. I think that's what we've got. Whether or not that's going to influence the course of all of this has opened a question.

CAVANAUGH: So the question does remain who gets to sigh what happens to Balboa Park? Who decides the future of this park? Any suggestions?

KELLY: The City Council. Ultimately.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Ultimately.

KELLY: There are a lot of people who should be signing off on it, the historical resources board of the city, the state historic preservation officer, the national park service, but really when it comes right down to it, the City Council can change everything and do what they want.

CAVANAUGH: One thing you coagree on with the Jacobs plan as you've been calling it, is the idea that you want fewer automobiles in the park. What would that do to the park experience in your opinion?

KELLY: It would be a wonderful change. Back in the early 1970s a remarkable thing happened in Balboa Park when we removed automobiles from the east end of the prado. And this was such a shocking change, I still remember it well, and when you visit Balboa Park today you can't help but notice how many people are out in the street, what we would call the street there, enjoying the musicians, artists, buskers, it's just a wonderful place to be. And that's what's prompted the interest in reclaiming the plaza de Panama, and the other end of the prado.

CAVANAUGH: And is this part of the original idea for this park?

CARTER: Absolutely. Of course. The park was being first developed in the very, very early days of the automobile, so it was a number of years before the automobile really became a factor in the park. And this happened, of course, in American parks across the land. And every park has had to take on this. And I think the wisdom that has come out of that experience is that when for some reason or another, traffic patterns have to change, and the best example I've read about is in San Francisco below the embarcadero freeway collapsed in the 1989 earthquake. They had to change the traffic. People adjusted, and then they realized we don't have to put this unattractive divisive freeway back into our waterfront. We can do without it, and now San Diego has a beautiful waterfront.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to bring this full circle, and I want to tell our audience that this will be an event at the Balboa Park club on Friday honoring people who have worked to try to know cotribute to the park and try to preserve it over the years. I've been speaking with Nancy carol Carter, she's an administrator with the USD school of law, and Mike Kelly, president of the committee of one hundred of Balboa Park. I want to thank you both.

KELLY: Thank you for inviting us.

CARTER: Thank you.

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