Planners Respond to National Park Service Letter Concerning Balboa Park Renovation

A small portion of the project meets all but two standards for working with historical sites according to one of the key architects

Planners behind a proposal to change San Diego’s Balboa Park want to clear the air concerning a recent letter from the National Park Service.

In the four-page letter dated May 2, NPS Associate Director, Cultural Resources Stephanie Toothman wrote to San Diego Councilmember Kevin Faulconer outlining NPS concerns about the Plaza de Panama project.

The project, Toothman wrote, would “have a permanent, major and adverse effect on the integrity of the Balboa Park National Historic Landmark.” Read the letter here

Several news outlets, including NBCSanDiego reported the letter meant the proposed changes to Balboa Park could strip the park of its National Historic Landmark status.

Not so, said David Marshall, President of Heritage Architecture and Planning.

“The letter never says that,” said Marshall. “It never says it’s a possibility.”

One of the most vocal critics the project, Bruce Coons, Executive Director of Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) called the letter a win for opponents.

"It affirms everything that we've been saying about what's wrong with this plan, and the professionals that looked at it, and now the federal government's looking at it, and they say the same things that we say," Coons told NBCSanDiego Wednesday.

However, Marshall said many of the points made in the letter have been discussed before and are consistent with the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that has already been reviewed by an independent historian and by staffers on the city’s Historical Resources Board.

Those working on the project are trying to dispel concerns by offering walking tours of the project and offering online resources that position myths versus fact.

When working with historical sites, planners are asked to follow ten standards according to Marshall.

Of the six-acre project, only a small portion, approximately 15 percent, meets all but two of those standards: renovation of the Cabrillo Bridge and parts of the Centennial Road.

In the process of creating the bypass to direct traffic away from the heart of the park and to an underground parking structure, the plans will change the spatial relationships between historic buildings and it will damage what is called “historic fabric” or pieces of an historic building.

In order for the bridge to connect, according to Marshall, about 65 feet of undecorated stucco railing will need to be removed.

The NPS “never formally responded to the EIR during the 60-day review process that ended about two or three weeks ago,” Marshall said.

He said Toothman’s concern is “coming in kind of late in the game.”

“If it was that important,” he added. “Why didn’t they say something before now?”

He also noted that the NPS never talked with his firm about the project.

He’s also not even sure Toothman or any staffer from the agency based in Washington, D.C. has even looked at the plan’s EIR.

Throughout the planning process, the Historical Rescources Board worked with the San Francisco office of the National Park Service - no one from Washington, D.C.

“I’m not sure about the politics behind [the letter] but we do know the opponents are using everything they have,” Marshall said.

The project would rely exclusively on private donations and a self-supporting bond.

The Centennial Bridge and improvements to park space will be paid for by approximately $26 million in private donations.

An underground parking structure will be funded by a $14 million self-supporting revenue bond. 

Ed. note: In a previous version of this article, we stated the firm Heritage Architecture & Planning worked with the SF bureau of the NPS. That has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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