The Burnham Center for Community Advancement (BCCA) has released a new report that focuses on the current condition — and potential plans for future restoration — of Balboa Park, San Diego’s iconic “crown jewel” urban park.
Established more than 150 years ago, Balboa Park today is in need of major repair – which, by some current estimates, could cost as much as $500 million.
The BCCA report, titled ‘Preparing for Balboa Park’s Next 100 Years,’ examines funding and governance systems in urban parks across the country, details Balboa Park’s economic impact and provides specific recommendations to ensure the vitality of the park’s future.
“Balboa Park is an iconic community asset that is as important to us as the opera house is to Sydney, or Big Ben is to London,” said Tad Parzen, president and CEO of the Burnham Center for Community Advancement. “It is time to envision securing the park’s future for generations to come and we are running out of time to find viable solutions to the park’s growing needs.”
A 2017 study by San Diego State University and the Balboa Park Conservancy estimated Balboa Park has a $356 million economic impact on the region, including 311,650 hotel room nights and $9.9 million in local hotel and sales tax revenue. Additionally, the study estimated that more than 2 million visitors to the park came from outside San Diego, and more than 2.6 million San Diegans visited it each year.
Embracing Park’s Value
“The economic impact of Balboa Park is nearly three times the impact of hosting a Super Bowl,” said Mark Cafferty, president and CEO, San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. “As with all of our region’s assets, San Diego should understand and embrace the value it brings our community.”
The BCCA report calls on the city and county governments, organizations that operate within Balboa Park, the communities surrounding the park, and the larger San Diego community to consider a variety of options in combination with one another to reimagine, restore and maintain the park for future generations.
“As the Councilmember for Balboa Park and its neighboring communities, I applaud the Burnham Center for Community Advancement’s work to address the long-term fiscal and governance needs of Balboa Park,” said San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn.
“Every San Diegan feels a special connection to this crown jewel of our region, whether we visit the museums, our kids go on a school field trip, or simply relax and enjoy this beautiful city,” Whitburn added.
“San Diego is not alone when it comes to funding and governance challenges for a large, iconic park like ours,” Whitburn added. “That’s why I’m glad BCCA is working on learning from other models around the country, bringing together stakeholders from across the region, and exploring real, long overdue solutions.”
Funding and governance issues related to Balboa Park, as well as potential solutions, have been publicly debated for decades. In 2016, it was estimated that $444.2 million would be needed for park systems and elements that would either reach the end of their expected life cycles or would require significant maintenance by 2036.
Despite notable investments in Balboa Park capital projects by philanthropists, the city, and state and federal governments in recent years, that cost may actually be higher due to inflation, increased construction costs and various capital improvements to meet Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) code compliance and the State of California’s seismic retrofitting requirements.
The BCCA report details a number of potential solutions for city leaders to consider, including:
- A revenue measure for deferred maintenance
- Dedicated Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) funding for Balboa Park infrastructure and upkeep
- A commitment by a lead organization and other nonprofit organizations within the park to raise significant funds annually for ongoing park maintenance
- A Property and Business Improvement District (PBID) for the Balboa Park area to focus on issues associated with park adjacency
- Additional commercial activity in and near the park, generating additional revenue for park maintenance and upgrades without compromising the quality of the visitor experience
- Creation of a stakeholder oversight committee
- A separate, cabinet-level city department overseeing Balboa Park
“Even with recent improvements, like the formation of Forever Balboa Park and a surge of state funding thanks in large part to State Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, the long-term issues surrounding funding and governance remain,” said Parzen. “We urge city leaders and Balboa Park stakeholders to carefully consider the information and recommendations in this report and come together to implement the ones we can agree on.”
The report was commissioned by BCCA and funded in collaboration with the Parker Foundation.
The Burnham Center for Community Advancement, a nonpartisan, think-and-do tank, was created in 2021 by Malin Burnham, who wanted to build an organization that would bring people together around visionary ideas to advance the quality of life for the region. BCCA is headquartered in downtown San Diego in UCSD’s Park & Market Center.
Burnham Center for Community Advancement
CEO: Tad Parzen
FOUNDER: Malim Burnham
HEADQUARTERS: UCSD Park & Market Center
BUSINESS: Community-oriented think-and-do tank
NOTABLE: The BCCA is dedicated to the mission of helping make the San Diego binational region “a better place to live, work and play.”