Neglected trees of Balboa Park

Color them gone

Pines near Sixth Avenue and Spruce Street are dying out due to excessive soil compaction.
  • Pines near Sixth Avenue and Spruce Street are dying out due to excessive soil compaction.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

IN THE NEXT FEW WEEKS, the San Diego City Council will be grappling with a proposed master plan for Balboa Park. In all, there are now six alternatives to that original plan, drawn up by San Diego consultant Ron Pekarek, and they reflect an utter lack of consensus on how to plot the future of San Diego’s urban oasis. One way to understand how such discord has crippled attempts to write a new plan is to go back and inspect an old plan — the one drawn up by Samuel Parsons in 1903.

The Cabrillo bridge, California Tower, and other buildings in the Prado area are Bertram Goodhue's legacy.

The Cabrillo bridge, California Tower, and other buildings in the Prado area are Bertram Goodhue's legacy.

Parsons was the president of the American Society of Landscape Architects at the time, and this is how he saw the 1400-acre tract:

  • “Upon entering it, the vision is compelled by the noble scenery which girdles the horizon with uninterrupted majesty. The purple slopes of snow-capped mountains, from forty to eighty miles away, dominate half the horizon; the shining bay, and the Coronado Islands, and greatest of all, the Pacific Ocean, with the long, low ramparts of Pt. Loma jutting far out into the strangely placid waters, hold one for a while with compelling force. Then the vision seeking rest, in nearer and more intimate scenes, finds the park at first a little place by comparison, but presently its loveliness asserts itself and holds the imagination.
  • In deep canyons move purple changing shadows of clouds, and fold on fold of minor canyons cut into the walls of greater ones. The soft curves and undulations of these greater canyons, beautiful under all conditions, have a special and enticing charm in the glancing light of the morning or evening sun....”

Palm Canyon. Palms were exotic when Kate Sessions planted them, but today they’re common throughout San Diego.

Palm Canyon. Palms were exotic when Kate Sessions planted them, but today they’re common throughout San Diego.

It must have been quite an eyeful, Parsons decided to alter it only as much as was necessary to allow visitors access to foot trails. He wanted a minimum of trees planted, so as not to block the stunning views, and the rest of the vegetation was to tend toward California natives. And he was particularly emphatic on the subject of buildings in the park.

The out-of-place, out-of-tune Timken Art Gallery, thumbing its stark marble nose at the surrounding Spanish Colonial structures.

The out-of-place, out-of-tune Timken Art Gallery, thumbing its stark marble nose at the surrounding Spanish Colonial structures.

“Another general principle, which cannot be too urgently insisted upon, from the very beginning, is that no building should be allowed within its boundaries that does not subserve the legitimate purpose for which the park was ordered,” Parsons wrote in a letter to civic leader George Marston, who had arranged for the distinguished landscape architect to take time out from his duties as superintendent of New York’s Central Park to help a frontier town create a state-of-the-art park. ‘‘Public comfort, rest, and shelter should mark the limit,” Parsons continued, ‘‘and even these may become so numerous and obtrusive as to disturb the restful beauty of nature.”

Sixth Avenue
Aerospace Museum
Cabrillo Bridge
San Diego Zoo
Old Globe Theatre
Old Globe festival stage
San Diego Museum of Art
Timken Art Gallery
Spreckets Organ Pavilion
Centro Cultural de la Raza
Florida Canyon
Solomon Playground
Laurel Street
Monterey cypress stand
Park Boulevard
Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center
Florida Drive
Old navy hospital
New navy hospital
Veterans' War Memorial
Zoo entrance
Upas Street
Natural History Museum
Plaza de Balboa

  1. Sixth Avenue
  2. Aerospace Museum
  3. Cabrillo Bridge
  4. San Diego Zoo
  5. Old Globe Theatre
  6. Old Globe festival stage
  7. San Diego Museum of Art
  8. Timken Art Gallery
  9. Spreckets Organ Pavilion
  10. Centro Cultural de la Raza
  11. Florida Canyon
  12. Solomon Playground
  13. Laurel Street
  14. Monterey cypress stand
  15. Park Boulevard
  16. Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center
  17. 163
  18. Florida Drive
  19. Old navy hospital
  20. New navy hospital
  21. Veterans' War Memorial
  22. Zoo entrance
  23. Upas Street
  24. Natural History Museum
  25. Plaza de Balboa

ONE MIGHT LOOK AT THE park today and wonder if Parsons was talking about the same piece of ground. The original 1400 acres have been whittled away to about 1200. In addition, buildings, freeways, hospitals, schools, a zoo, ball fields, tennis courts, scout camps, archery ranges, and parking lots have crowded out most of the ‘‘beauty of nature,” and today just eighteen percent, or 263 acres, are considered free and open park uses. Most of this is centered on the western strip of the park, between Sixth Avenue and Highway 163. Parson’s recommendation to leave most of the land to the California native plants is preserved only in Florida Canyon — or what’s left of it, now that the gargantuan naval hospital has been completed. Generally, Parson’s landscaping scheme was ignored, and in 1910, it was forgotten completely, when planning started for the 1915 Panama-Califomia Exposition. Many people mark that world’s fair, which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, as the seminal event in the creation of one of the country’s great urban parks. Yet in fact, it was also the main reason for all the dissent today over how to plan the park’s future. For if the expo buildings hadn’t been constructed, later restored, and finally handed over to some of the city’s cultural institutions, the park might still be primarily a park, rather than what it has become: a hybridized collection of competing interests, where sacred cultural cows have become dependent on the automobile and where the most important tenants — the trees and plants — have been ignored and forgotten.

We ignore the greenscape at our peril. Park maintenance officials say that there are now about 17,000 trees in the park; and every year that number decreases. The park’s last master plan, called the Bartholomew Plan and adopted in 1960, spoke of the plants in plain terms: ‘‘The best impression is a quick one, for to inspect the plantings more carefully reveals that the park is somewhat similar to a run-down country estate.” Much of the vegetation has changed since 1960, but not for the better. The stands of Monterey cypress that were once thick in the northwest comer, near Sixth Avenue and Upas Street, have fallen to disease; large sections of old shrubbery have been removed from areas throughout the park, primarily to destroy havens for the increasing number of transients who make the park their home; bamboo, which once grew in abundance in many areas, has all but disappeared; the pines on the west side in Solomon playground near Sixth Avenue and Spruce Street are are dying out, due to excessive soil compaction, the result of too many little footsteps; landscaping around the new naval hospital in Florida Canyon ignores that area’s native plant scheme; landscaping throughout the park has lost out to building expansion, such as the west wing of the San Diego Museum of Art, the poorly situated Timken Art Gallery just east of the art museum, the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater, and the rebuilding and expansion of the Old Globe Theatre complex. Most of these changes were sanctioned by the Bartholomew Plan, a document that is held in high esteem by many park tenants. The Bartholomew Plan tried to reroute vehicular traffic away from the Prado area, as does the current proposed plan. Yet about the only major elements of Bartholomew that were enacted were the building expansions. That plan had the effect of exacerbating the conflict between landscape and buildings.

It would be wrong to say that the horticultural collection in the park, comprising more than 1000 species from every continent except Antarctica, is no longer extraordinary. But it certainly is declining in value, according to former and current park administrators. And although there is a general scheme to the planting, much of the park’s plant collection is a mongrel mix of exceedingly common plant types. The west side of the park, between Sixth Avenue and the freeway, is given over to conifers, deciduous trees, eucalyptus, and such California natives as redwoods. The central mesa, including the Prado and Palisades area (in the vicinity of the Aerospace Museum) and extending to Park Boulevard, contains many tropical specimens, including palms, ginger, birds of paradise, vines, coral trees, and fig trees. Florida Canyon, to the east, has its own master plan that calls for dedicating the area to California natives, such as sage, mustard, elderberry, and wild honeysuckle. This area is meant to reflect the way the park looked when it was set aside by the city in 1868. The Morley Field and Golden Hill areas are activity centers planted with Mediterranean-style vegetation, including eucalyptus and olive. This general landscaping scheme has been handed down through park maintenance supervisors over the years, but without a written landscape plan, many private landscape architects have influenced the landscaping with their individual projects, each associated with the various building expansions. This has contributed to a decline in the diversity and value of the collection.

Karl Schnizler, a parks maintenance district manager who makes most of the major planting decisions in the park, explains, “What the problem is going to be, in thirty or forty years, is not a disappearance of trees, but what’s being planted now. It’s just general nursery stock. Nothing exotic. The botanical garden in the park is now mainly in the zoo.”

HE MUCH-BALLYHOOED efforts to preserve the heritage of the park’s buildings has eclipsed any concerted effort to preserve the landscape heritage. This tension between cultural and horticultural interests started even before the first shovel of dirt was turned for the 1915 expo. City fathers retained the nation’s foremost landscape architecture firm, the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, to design the expo’s layout. The Olmsted name was legendary because the father, Frederick Law Olmsted, had been co-designer of New York’s Central Park. His son, John Olmsted, was in agreement with Samuel Parsons and felt the park’s vistas and convolutions should be preserved. Thus, he recommended putting the expo in the southeastern section of the park, near San Diego High School today. The central mesa, Olmsted argued, should not be desecrated by buildings. But the expo’s chief architect, Bertram Goodhue, another premier name at the time, thought the central mesa was perfect, and he won the argument. The Cabrillo bridge, California Tower, and many of the other buildings in the Prado area are his legacy. The Olmsteds withdrew, rather than agree to contribute to what they felt was the destruction of a unique city park. In a 1911 letter to the park’s administrators, John Olmsted foretold our current impasse:

  • “We hope you realize that no advantage for the exposition that has been claimed for the central site can possibly compensate for ruining the landscape value of the most important part of Balboa Park. All permanent improvements at that site would be utterly inharmonious with any rational landscape development of that part of the park for future recreational purposes.
  • “All such formalities should be confined to outer margins of the park. Our study of scores of large parks justifies us in asserting with the utmost confidence that Balboa Park, if left free and open in the central part, will be worth far more in the long run than any advantage that can be secured to the exposition by changing it to the central location. Straight roads and walks, fountains and other ground improvements ... would be utterly incongruous with the naturalistic treatment appropriate for that locality.”

Olmsted lost that argument in a big way. Unlike New York’s Central Park, the prime central Balboa Park territory is paved with parking lots and crowded with buildings, sidewalks, fountains, and plazas. The building tenants — including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Old Globe Theatre, the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center, and many, many others — are deeply entrenched and dependent on the automobile. They are, by default if not by intention, at odds with the park’s landscaping, its trees and plants. And they are powerful. On their boards of directors sit the city’s cultural elite or, at least, the monied. The current proposal to close the Cabrillo bridge to vehicular traffic and tear out the parking lots on the Prado is anathema to them. This issue is at the heart of the planning battle for them, which means that the process itself serves only the interests of the building tenants, not the park. That’s backward.

One must force oneself to remember that we’re talking about a park. Nowhere in the proposed master plan or its myriad alternatives is the horticultural collection specifically recognized as an important consideration. It is distressing to observe the wasting of perhaps the best opportunity we’ve ever had to discuss and plan the park’s greenery. There is not now nor has there been since Samuel Parsons a comprehensive, forward-looking, formal, written plan for the placement, maintenance, and restoration of the plants and trees. Parking and circulation are important, to be sure, and the city needs to face up to the automobile problem in the park finally. However, this issue, abetted by the special cultural interests, has obscured the equally important landscaping problems.

ONE REASON THAT THE Pekarek Plan and its alternatives lack anything approaching a cohesive vision is precisely because there isn’t a landscape plan with which to provide a starting point, a context for planning the rest of the park. Indeed, the closest that Pekarek came to a guiding principle was to state that the park should pay for itself and be less of a drain on city coffers. This means more commercialization of the park, a philosophy that will set the tone allowing for future expansion of such parkland gobblers as Spanish Village, the Old Globe, and the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. Before such a philosophy is adopted, there should be a cold bucket of water thrown onto the whole shebang. There should be a moratorium called on all building in the park while a landscape plan is written.

The proposed master plan has been debated by the various task forces, blue-ribbon commissions, park and recreation board subcommittees, and the dozens of park user groups for so long and in such a vacuum that what has been finally delivered to the city council is an equivocal political document, not a bold vision of the future. The four overall planning goals under consideration by the city council are stated this way:

— To restore the park to a more pedestrian-oriented state through the recreation of pedestrian plazas and the elimination of automobile traffic in the cultural historical center of the park.

— To improve public access to the park through an improved integrated circulation system, increased parking, improved signage, and convenient dropoff points.

— To preserve, enhance, and increase free and open parkland within the park.

— To restore or improve existing buildings and landscaped areas within the park.

The more this city grows, the more important will be a green respite from the urban dinge. A master plan of Balboa Park should have at least this one given: The vegetation deserves as much consideration as the traffic circulation and all those revenue-producing museum gift shops.

So ingrained is the notion that somehow the greenery will take care of itself that this November’s $93 million parks-improvement bond issue doesn’t allocate any money for restoration of the plant collection. Most of the funds to be spent in Balboa Park would go to restoration of the buildings. The House of Hospitality would receive an $11.5 million reconstruction, $5 million, would go toward rebuilding the House of Charm, $2.2 million would be spent on the Museum of Man building, $1.1 million would go to the Old Globe, $1.5 million to the San Diego Museum of Art, $2.1 million to the Natural History Museum, and on and on. Nowhere are horticultural values given any shrift.

I have been involved with a small group of people attempting to establish a process for getting a landscape plan written. The first step in such a process is to find out what is currently planted in the park and what condition it’s in. The group, which includes landscape architect Paul Mahalic and Alison Voss, docent coordinator at Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, has held several discussions with George Loveland, director of the San Diego Park and Recreation Department. Loveland has offered his enthusiastic support, but he has made it clear that no city money is available for such a project. (First-year cost projections are about $25,000.) Support for this project has also been received from many local, statewide, and national horticultural and preservationist organizations, including the Save Our Heritage Organization, the Botanical Society of America, the California Preservation Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Southern California Academy of Sciences.

Our plan is to marshal a corps of volunteers to inspect, catalogue, and computerize the park’s horticultural collection. Eventually, if certain criteria are met, an effort may be made to gain recognition for the plantings by the American Association of Museums and the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboretum as an actual outdoor museum collection. We also plan to collect an oral history of the planting of the park, interviewing the local people who were influential in the greenery’s development. So far, we have encountered no one who is opposed to cataloguing and mapping the plantings, and all agree the local climate has made for a unique collection that needs to be chronicled, preserved, and planned. But when it comes to acting on that idea, the City of San Diego will offer no funding.

CONTRAST THAT WITH New York’s current $150 million rebuilding effort in Central Park and San Francisco’s vision for Golden Gate Park. In 1978, while writing a master plan for Golden Gate Park, San Franciscans realized that most of the 33,000 trees in the park (which is some 200 acres smaller than Balboa Park) were nearing maturity and would soon need replacement. The city asked the California Department of Forestry for help in surveying and cataloguing each individual tree and employed legions of volunteers and aerial infrared photography. The vegetation was all entered onto computer files, and when a park master plan was completed, its second objective stated that the park administrators “must provide for the protection and renewal of the park landscape." This objective was buttressed by five stated policy guidelines designed to protect and enhance the park's plants and trees. Today an “urban forester” oversees a strong landscape plan in Golden Gate Park.

In the early 1980s, New York undertook a $150 million rebuilding effort in Central Park. Its master plan states that protection and preservation of the landscape are the primary guidelines, and it includes recommendations that should embarrass San Diegans knowledgeable about Balboa Park's development dynamics:

  • “If a park is to remain a park and not become something else.” Central Park's planners have written, “it is imperative that its custodians not accept invasion by other interests, however well intentioned. Though it has fared better than other American parks in this respect (partly because of a strongly protective attitude toward it throughout its history). Central Park has nonetheless had its legacy of intrusions — intrusions that have sometimes adulterated the essential experience the park was designed to provide. Public-spirited benefactors are necessary to [Central Park’s] future, but it is important that their gifts be consistent with the planned programs and projects.”

In San Diego, making the plant collection a top priority would necessitate a reversal of the institutional inertia that began to tip in favor of the special interests as far back as the 1915 Panama-Califomia Exposition and which was reinforced after the second world’s fair in the park, held in 1935. That California-Pacific International Exposition created most of the buildings in the Palisades area, where the gym and the Aerospace Museum are now located. A casual walk through the Prado area on the central mesa reveals ample proof of the inertia that has imbalanced the park in favor of the special users.

Start at the Old Globe, the most sacred of the park’s sacred cows, where the outdoor “festival" stage, constructed as a temporary measure after the original Old Globe burned down in March of 1978, has become quite permanent. The city council's sympathy for the Globe directors was so strong that an environmental impact review of the outdoor theater construction was waived. When the Globe decided to make the stage permanent, an environmental impact report was decreed, and it cited problems of increased traffic (without increased parking) in the park, the loss of open space and several eucalyptus and acacia trees, and a furthering of “the transformation of the park from its passive, relaxed character.” The city council shrugged, and left the outdoor stage where it is. The Globe is currently developing new plans for construction of a two-story “toiletry” and taverna building on what little is left of an ever-shrinking patch of grass between the main theater building and the sculpture garden next door, increasing the feeling of being squeezed in by buildings there.

Just a short ways to the east sits the out-of-place, out-of-tune Timken Art Gallery, thumbing its stark marble nose at the surrounding Spanish Colonial structures. After a public outcry in 1960 against the creation of that architectural insult, the Timken trustees refused to alter their design. Instead, they withdrew their offer to build the gallery and fill it with a $2 million collection of Old Masters artworks. And the city council, pressured hard by the chamber of commerce, the Symphony Association, the Junior League, and other political string pullers, buckled. Its members voted unanimously in favor of giving the Timken carte blanche and begged the trustees to reinstate their offer to besmirch the architectural character of the Prado. The building went up in 1961 and has been a false note ever since.

And now another mistake is in the planning stages nearby, in perhaps the most well known section of the park, the Plaza de Balboa, where the currently nonfunctioning fountain is located between the Natural History Museum and the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. If the directors of the Fleet get their way — and park history gives every reason to suspect they will — the space theater will more than double in size next year. The plan calls as well for a widening of Park Boulevard and the construction of a concrete stairway leading up to the fountain. The space theater building would be expanded, both out toward the fountain and down toward the sidewalk along Park Boulevard, completely destroying the greensward separation between the park and street.

The building would be expanded by about 95,000 square feet; included would be an enclosed outdoor science park, a cafe, something called a “supercinema,” as well as a Disneyland-style “simulation theater,” a planetarium, and assorted offices. Such an enormous expansion of the building would not only reduce severely the panoramic sightlines near the fountain, but it would also create an aesthetic imbalance along this extension of the Prado. Currently, the buildings along both sides of the Prado are equidistant from the center of the promenade, an important element in the Spanish Colonial architecture scheme. The expanded space theater would be an encroachment onto that symmetry. On the street side of the building, the grass berm separating the plaza from Park Boulevard would disappear, along with several old eucalyptus trees. Moreover, trees on the plaza itself would have to be removed. Once again, open space and greenery will be squeezed out by special, income-producing uses.

The space theater managers argue that San Diegans need more education in science and technology, but take a look at the size of their gift shop and the types of movies — laser-light rock shows, for example — shown in their Omnimax theater. Why should public parkland be given over to more of this kind of deceptively commercial merchandising? The space theater officials also note that such expansion is in basic agreement with the Bartholomew Plan (funny, the tenants only point to the plan when it serves their expansionist interests), but it should be argued that the Bartholomew Plan never envisioned an imbalancing of the building symmetry along the Prado. While its status on the National Historic Register would protect the Prado itself from such encroachment, the Plaza de Balboa and the fountain didn't qualify for the registry. The one thing that might have halted the space theater’s grandiose scheme is a landscape plan and the power to enforce it. But in their absence, get ready to say good-bye to more free, open park space and its vegetation, and say hello to more commercial usage.

SO LITTLE ATTENTION HAS been paid over the years to the condition of the plants and trees that no one can say exactly what needs to be saved, what needs to be moved, or what needs to be replanted. Many of the trees that are currently planted are memorials. But the park’s collection is getting old. Comments landscape architect Paul Mahalic, “What we’re seeing mature in the park now is what Kate Sessions planted seventy-five years ago.” Sessions had a nursery near Sixth Avenue and Upas Street between 1892 and 1903, and instead of paying rent to the city, she planted dozens of trees every year. She didn’t work from a written plan, but it is believed by most observers that she brought in Monterey cypress, Torrey pines, eucalyptus, jacaranda, several varieties of palms, as well as birds of paradise, bougainvillea, and plumbago. These were very exotic when she planted them, but today they’re quite common throughout San Diego. Whether or not something is valuable just because she planted it is an open question that a landscape plan could resolve.

The concern today is that the urban forest that she (and many, many others) helped establish will disappear if something isn’t done now. “Many of the eucalyptus and pines are already past their primes,” says Dave Roberts, who retired last year from his job as Balboa Park’s chief administrator. Roberts wrote several memos decrying the decline in the park’s plant collection when he was with the city but could never elicit any money to do something about it. “In fifty years, we may not have much left in the way of trees,” he remarks. “Many things that are hor-ticulturally valuable are being lost because they aren’t identified. I would prefer to see a long-range plan that identifies the trees we have and their potential problems and a formalized plan for their replacement. One school thinks we should replace everything that’s lost. But there is overplanting in some areas, and these would be healthier if they were thinned. But selecting the trees should be executed on a long-range basis, rather than a spur-of-the-moment decision based on what we have in the nursery.”

The major landscaping decisions are now made by grounds maintenance manager Don Steel, along with Karl Schnizler, a central district maintenance manager. Schnizler is the main storehouse of knowledge about park plantings, and he has his own worries about the future. “Not a lot of thought goes into the botanical aspects of the park,” he admits. “It’s just a lot of general landscaping, and the grounds crews spend a lot of time repairing irrigation systems. Don’s interested in the horticulture, and I’m interested in it, but we don’t have that much time to put into it.”

Schnizler and Steel put in or tear out plants now with security uppermost in their minds. Too many idlers now lurk in densely planted areas, and for this reason undergrowth has been torn out by the acre near Marston Point, in the southwest comer of the park. Schnizler would like to replant Torrey pines on the hillside near Quince Street, and the pines near Sixth and Spruce are in need of attention. He agrees that a landscape plan is needed. “Those pines in Solomon playground won’t last another ten years,” he says. “What do we replace them with? That’s what a plan could deal with. But in order to make it work, you’ve got to have a czar, someone who could say absolutely no to all the groups that want a piece of the park. This guy would have to sit on the right hand of God — and have the power of execution.”

Is it possible for the cultural interests and the horticultural interests to coexist harmoniously in Balboa Park? This is the central question that the proposed master plan fails to resolve. Plenty of trees and plants have lived and died and disappeared, and many more will be removed for further building expansion in the future. When are buildings ever removed from the park? If there ever was a sense of balance between the greenscape and the buildings, it doesn’t exist now. At some point, there will arise a popular movement to wrest away the park from the hands of the special interests. One way to avoid that kind of cultural bloodbath is to create a strong landscape preservation plan — before the current proposal is adopted and before it becomes too late.

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