Balboa Park Breakdowns Add Up: Money to Fix Infrastructure Doesn't

A messy sewage backup wound up closing several major visitor attractions in Balboa Park on Sunday.

And while the problem was fixed in time to resume normal Monday operations, frustrated park activists say it's just the latest chapter in a long history of maintenance neglect throughout the 1,200-acre park.

They say the problem – traced to plumbing in Casa de Balboa, likely clogged by tree roots – further illustrates that it’s high time the city took better care of its world-renowned "Crown Jewel.”

"We had to shut down the entire building yesterday -- three major institutions, on a Sunday,” said Mike Kelly, president of the nonprofit Committee of 100 whose offices are headquartered in Casa de Balboa.

“And this has happened more than once,” Kelly added in an interview Monday. “Nothing has been done to correct the problem -- only waiting for the next time for it to happen."

The shutdown inconvenienced not only tenant staffers in the building, but visitors who otherwise could have been enlightened at the San Diego History Center, seen iconic images at the Museum of Photographic Arts, indulged in miniature make-believe at the Model Railroad Museum and relaxed and refreshed themselves at Casa 1915.

No numbers for projected revenue losses at those institutions were readily available.

Kelly and other executive board members of The Committee of 100 lamented over how little influence they seem to have in focusing the city on long-term infrastructure needs – estimated at upwards of $300 million, and addressed annually only by spending that doesn’t reach seven figures.

"There have been some outrageous examples of neglect in the park,” Welton Jones, a career newspaperman who extensively covered local arts and culture issues, told NBC 7.

“Pieces of buildings falling on tourists -- we can't have that,” Jones said. “The city's attitude seems to be that the tenants have to get together and figure out how to keep the Band-Aids on.”

Said Tom Jackson: "I understand the reluctance to spend money in hard times, financially, so I'm not surprised in a way -- but this is a regional treasure, this park. Not just a city treasure … and I think really it belongs to the people of California. It's one of the very few sites like it. Probably one of the most significant city parks, in many respects, in the country. And it deserves better treatment, I think, than it's been getting in the city of San Diego."

To locals who frequent what civic leaders like to call San Diego's "crown jewel," Sunday’s soggy, smelly disruption at Casa de Balboa is a familiar experience.

"I ride through here several times a week; for me, this place is both heaven and hell," said North Park resident James Spellman, stopping for a breather on El Prado while bicycling through the heart of the park late Monday morning. "How can it be a 'crown jewel' when you don't provide for its upkeep?"

While out-of-towners -- especially Californians – make certain allowances for municipal budget crunches, they also see the need for an ounce of prevention when it comes to civic assets.

“We don't allow them to get to the point where we have to patch them up -- we take care of them every day,” said Hayward resident Stephanie Toney, strolling past the Lily Pond along with her daughter Stephanie, who lives in Mountain View.

Stephanie put a finer point on her mother’s thought: “It will cost more by the time you get to that point where something breaks down, and then you have to pay for it after the fact.”

Hillcrest attorney David Lundin, a historic preservationist active in organizing grass-roots centennial celebrations of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition , weighed by email with this view of the situation: “Condemnation of the park by aggressive neglect."

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s proposed budget for Park & Recreation Dept. operations for fiscal 2015-16 will be reviewed Wednesday by the City Council’s Budget Committee.

Councilman Todd Gloria, the city’s chairman, issued a statement broadly addressing citywide infrastructure deficits including Park & Recreation maintenance backlogs, ending on this note: “I share the independent budget analyst’s concern that the mayor has no plan to address this enormous problem facing San Diego.”

Faulconer representatives deferred an immediate response, citing the need for consultations with department staff.

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