Pam Crooks, Balboa Park Conservancy Board Member

It’s been a dream of the Committee of 100 for the last several years to recreate four 1935 murals that once existed on the San Diego Automotive Museum building. Designed as the California State Building during the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, the structure had four different scenes of our state painted on it. Thanks to those murals, it was one of the most striking buildings in that area of the Expo. Sadly, those images and ornamentation details were lost to the elements long ago.

The Committee of 100’s exciting dream may soon become a reality. How do I know? Committee of 100 Board President Mike Kelly gives regular updates at the Balboa Park Conservancy’s Park Improvement Committee (formerly known as the Project Design and Review Committee) meetings.

I count myself lucky to be a member of this committee. This is where one’s imagination really soars as Conservancy President Tomás Herrera-Mishler, Park and Recreation leaders, and representatives from other park organizations and support groups report on projects currently underway, provide updates for projects in the pipeline, and hear concepts for ideas still on the drawing board.

Conservancy Board Member Rick Gulley began chairing the committee almost as soon as he joined the board a year and a half ago. Rick has extensive experience as a San Diego Zoo Global board member in helping bring big projects to fruition. The Conservancy committee’s first priority was developing a comprehensive request for proposal for the restoration and enhancement of the Botanical Building. Committee members working on that project included city engineers, Park and Recreation management staff, and outside consultants.

A congenial working relationship developed, and interest in what else was happening in the park was expressed. Other groups working on park projects were invited to attend our monthly meetings to provide updates or present a new idea. Rick, who has a great sense of humor, kept the atmosphere light and our meetings running like clockwork. The size of the monthly gathering grew dramatically, and meetings evolved into a friendly forum for new concepts, ideas, strategies, and programs.

Today, any group with a new idea for the park wants to touch base with the Conservancy’s Park Improvement Committee. According to Rick, “What they find is a receptive audience with knowledgeable people around the table: Park and Recreation management staff, design professionals, land-use professionals, horticulturists, park support groups—a great cross-section of people who are interested in Balboa Park. And the presenter gets immediate feedback.”

He smiles. “Like the time Ron Roberts’s group presented the details of a skyway plan to run a gondola ride from the harbor front up to the park, landing in the historic Palm Canyon area. Everybody loved the gondola concept—just not Palm Canyon as a landing spot!”

Some ideas are already well on the way to becoming a reality when we hear about them, like the Pershing Drive Bike Path or re-creation of the California State Building murals. But others, such as a “Heal the Gash” concept of a “landscaped lid” over Interstate 5, reconnecting downtown and Balboa Park, may not come to fruition for years. I love hearing those big ideas most of all, imagining right along with the presenters a future for our park that my children and grandchildren might enjoy. While some projects may never see the light of day for a number of reasons, that doesn’t stop folks who love Balboa Park from dreaming.

The Park Improvement Committee is not an official “approving” body. But it does give valuable feedback on emerging ideas. Our meetings also provide an important forum for news about existing capital projects and park activation programs, like Food Truck Friday and Parkeology. The Conservancy gives periodic updates on the Botanical Building project and four key park studies we’ve initiated: a survey and analysis of current signage and wayfinding methods; an inventory and condition assessment of existing trees; an economic benefit study of Balboa Park; and a cultural landscape report. All updates are designed to provide valuable baseline data for good decision-making on future projects. (I’ll be writing more about these and the Botanical Building plans in future blogs.)

Rick Gulley has just taken on new responsibilities at the San Diego Zoo and recently handed over leadership of the Park Improvement Committee to another Conservancy veteran, Board Member Paul Meyer. The two men share a similar vision and leadership style, so Rick knows this important committee is in good hands.

Paul met with me and described his view of the committee’s role: “In addition to providing oversight of the Conservancy’s projects, the Park Improvement Committee serves as a gathering place for good ideas that a lot of interesting people have for the park. Once ideas are aired, the committee has a responsibility to report to the Conservancy Board those projects the members found to be most engaging. So the committee does vote occasionally to recommend projects that strike us as particularly valuable and engaging. The Conservancy makes a contribution by honoring the good ideas that other groups bring forward, because we’re in the business of seeing good ideas succeed!”

In his view, the diverse makeup of the group is key. “It’s important that the Committee has strong representation from Park and Recreation and other park groups, horticultural and floral organizations, and even the academic community. It’s a collection of people with a passion for the park, not just a group of Conservancy insiders. We learn so much from each other as we gather to hear ideas.”

Paul believes there are some great opportunities in the future that will really enhance the park. “We must always keep in mind large projects for the long run, even as we work on more manageable projects along the way, for the enjoyment of all of us who know and love the park.”

Whether listening to a passionate individual making his case for turning the Arizona Landfill into a World Peace Garden, or creative ideas for restoring Starlight Bowl, or Mike Kelly describing the Committee of 100’s plans for the beautiful murals that could soon reappear in Pan American Plaza, I’m one Park Improvement Committee member who’s definitely hooked.