Recession provides silver lining for civic vision
By: Mary Lydon and Tony Pauker
One of the unintended consequences of the recession is that great minds have time to ponder deeper thoughts. Innovative minds seem to be off in many directions these days planning strategies to help us get out of our plight. How to do more with less; reprioritizing our society’s values; exploring a renewable energy revolution; how to grow our own food; billionaires pledging their fortunes away; cooperating during environmental disasters; developing ideas for new government structures; pedestrian-oriented traveling; and the future of art and culture.
We are awash in approved and proposed civic projects, from the new Central Library, new City Hall, the North Embarcadero public esplanade, a new Chargers Stadium and an expanded Convention Center. These civic projects are great for job creation and they are also great for building a city that will need to compete in a new world when we come out of this recession. Certainly not all will come to fruition, but the one asset that we must not lose sight of in this mix is the greatest single gift our city fore-fathers and mothers blessed us and all future San Diegans with — Balboa Park.
The 1,200 acres comprising Balboa Park serve the residents of the San Diego region and visitors from all over the world. Activities range from enjoying a stroll in the park, to taking part in the “ticketed” venues such as the Old Globe, the world famous San Diego Zoo, a round of golf at Balboa Park Golf Course, exploring the many world-class museums or dining at the Prado Restaurant. Balboa Park is not just for the benefit of a few; it is for everyone from young children to older San Diegans who can use Balboa Park, and in most cases at no cost.
This gem is fast approaching the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition, which commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915 and many individuals and organizations are now exploring how we can ensure that the next century is even better than the first.
At the dawn of the 20th century a handful of visionary planners, architects and civic leaders across the nation planned our greatest urban parks and world fair events. Most notably these included San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, New York’s Central Park and the Chicago World’s Fair. Balboa Park was born along with them. Architect Irving Gill, who had worked on the 1893 World Columbian Exposition held on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, championed the holding of an exposition in San Diego. In 1903 the first Master Plan was developed for Balboa Park by the Olmstead Brothers.
The 1916 Panama Exposition was one of the driving forces behind Balboa Park. Like its contemporary in Chicago, the initial structures in Balboa Park were not intended to last a century, however, civic demand and serious rebuilding preserved some of the original buildings and over the decades many more uses have been added.
Today Balboa Park is still magnificent, but its infrastructure and maintenance deficit adds up to about $250 million. Unlike a library, stadium or city hall not all this must be done at once, but it must be done otherwise over time the costs will become greater. A new public benefit non-profit corporation and the creation of a public private partnership is being explored to not only develop strategies to ensure its preservation but also to explore how to ensure the vitality of this asset for the next 100 years.
The Panama California exhibition was intended to tout San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for ships traveling north after passing westward through the new Panama Canal. This 100-year anniversary exhibition could tout San Diego as the new port of call for cutting-edge life sciences and clean tech research and development.
We applaud the Balboa Cultural Partnership, a collaborative of 24 Balboa Park museums for arts, science and culture focused on collaboration, innovation and excellence. They have developed a strategy for the Park’s Centennial Celebration. The two-year program of activities include: a “Smithsonian of the West” display; showcasing San Diego’s cutting-edge science/technology corporations; a park-wide festival environment; a Nights at the Museum program; themed special events; digital projections on buildings; an IMAX Dome film on the new Panama Canal and its impact on the future; and much more. This is a great line up of programs, which we should continue beyond the two-year celebration.
Programming the public realm is not a new concept and many Business Improvement Districts in San Diego do it well. There are success annual festivals in Little Italy, Hillcrest and Ocean Beach that not only brings in thousands of local participants to enjoy the event but it is also a great economic development tool for the community. Perhaps we could explore forming a Balboa Park Business Improvement District and develop an assessment tool to fund it so that we can provide year round activity.
The 2009 Economic and Community Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations in San Diego issued by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture clearly points to the positive economic and social ripple that our arts and culture provide. Beyond the entertainment factor, a strong arts and culture sector is a demanded by the creative class as author and economist Richard Florida has written about for years. The creative class will drive great cities of the future. Assuring a thriving Balboa Park not only adds to our well-being and our economy but also further develops our region as a creative city which is the direction that forward- looking cities across the world are setting their sights on.
The Balboa Cultural Partnership for the Park’s Centennial is exactly the right direction to celebrate 100 years of Balboa Park. This plan should be set into motion a permanent transformation of the Balboa Park experience, which will launch its success for another 100 years. The only obstacle between this great vision for Balboa Park and its implementation is funding but we are confident that if we all put our minds and resources behind this plan we can make it happen. The funding of the new Central Library that does not rely on any General Fund expenditures is evidence that we can come together as a region for the greater good but this time we only have two years to make it happen. Let’s get going!