Balboa Park: A Destination, Not A Pass Through

October 26, 2011 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In this new special series, Metro Jacksonville will highlight what several peer cities across the country have created and are implementing to become destinations and not pass throughs. Is Jacksonville ready for the challenge and willing to invest in itself to compete for economic development in the 21st century? The first place we will visit is San Diego's Balboa Park and highlight it's urban Jacksonville counterpart.

About Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre urban cultural park in San Diego, California. The park is named after the Spanish maritime explorer Vasco Nez de Balboa. It was the location of the 1915 Panama걖California Exposition and 1935 California Pacific International Exposition which each created architectural landmarks for the park.

The park's site was placed in reserve in 1835, and so is one of the oldest sites in the United States dedicated to public recreational use. In addition to open space areas, natural vegetation green belts, gardens and walking paths, it contains a variety of cultural attractions including many museums, several theaters, and the world famous San Diego Zoo. There are also many recreational facilities and several gift shops and restaurants.

Balboa Park, and the historic Exposition buildings, were declared a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Landmark District in 1977, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Balboa Park is managed and maintained by the stewardship of the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of San Diego.

Urban Location

Image courtesy of Phil Konstantin at

Set aside for recreation in the 19th century, the urban core of San Diego now completely surrounds this public space, making it possible to enjoy urban living with a cluster of recreational amenities and activities right across the street.

The park is essentially rectangular in form, bounded by Sixth Avenue to the west, Upas Street to the north, 28th Street to the east, and Russ Boulevard to the south. The rectangle has been modified by the addition of the Marston Hills natural area in the northwest corner of the park, while the southwest corner of the rectangle is occupied by a portion of the Cortez Hill neighborhood of Downtown San Diego and San Diego High School, both of which are separated from the park by Interstate 5. Also encroaching on the northern perimeter of the park is Roosevelt Middle School.

Two north-south canyons - Cabrillo Canyon and Florida Canyon - traverse the park, and separate it into three distinct mesas. The Sixth Avenue Mesa is a narrow strip bordering Sixth Avenue on the western edge of the park, which provides areas of passive recreation, grassy spaces, and tree groves. The Central Mesa is home to much of the park's cultural facilities, and includes scout camps, the San Diego Zoo, the Prado, and Inspiration Point. East Mesa is home to Morley Field and many of the active recreation facilities in the park.

In 1948, California State Route 163 was constructed to run through Cabrillo Canyon and pass under the Cabrillo Bridge. This stretch of road has been called one of America's most beautiful parkways. A portion of Interstate 5 was constructed through the park in the 1950s. In total, freeways take up 111 acres of land that had been initially designated for the park.

Surrounding the park are many of San Diego's older neighborhoods, including Downtown, Bankers Hill, North Park, and Golden Hill.

Pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods adjacent to downtown open up into Balboa Park.

Looking west towards Balboa Park's boundary with the Society Hill neighborhood.

Nate's Point off-leash dog park.

Lawn Bowling.

Passive green space for pick up sports such as soccer and volleyball.

The Cabrillo Bridge, crossing the Cabrillo Canyon, was built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915.  A popular site for suicides, city workers installed wrought iron fencing on both parapets of the bridge in 1950.

Inside Palm Canyon.

Inside Palm Canyon.

Alcazar Garden, with the California Bell Tower in the background.  The bell tower was completed in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion features one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs.

The Globe Theatre complex.

A rugby team practice near the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum.

A temporary arts market.

A festival at the Hall of Nations.

Despite being such a large park, many choose to walk or bike from nearby neighborhoods.

Park Layout

The entire Balboa Park is a primary attraction in San Diego and the region. The park's landscape has many mature, and sometimes rare, trees and groves creating an urban forest for San Diego. Many of the original trees were planted by the renowned American landscape designer, botanist, plantswoman, and gardener Kate Sessions. She was a forerunner of using drought tolerant and California native plants in garden design, establishing a nursery to propagate and grow for the park and the public.

Throughout the park there are a number of gardens including: Alcazar Garden, Botanical Building, Desert Cactus Garden, Casa del Rey Moro Garden, Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, Japanese Friendship Garden, Bird Park, George W. Marston House and Gardens, Palm Canyon, and Zoro Garden.

Many of the park's cultural attractions are along El Prado, a long, wide promenade and boulevard running through the center of the park. Most of the buildings lining this street are in the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture style, a richly ornamented eclectic mixture of European Spanish architecture and the Spanish Colonial architecture of New Spain-Mexico. Along this boulevard are many of the park's museums and cultural attractions, including the San Diego Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the San Diego Art Institute, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego History Center, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the Timken Museum of Art. Other features along El Prado include the Reflection Pond, the latticed Botanical Building, and the Bea Evenson Fountain. Adjacent to the promenade is the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Theatrical and musical venues include the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, featuring one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs;[9] the Old Globe Theatre complex, which includes a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre as well as an outdoor stage and a Theatre in the round; and the Starlight Bowl - an outdoor amphitheatre. The Casa Del Prado Theater is the home of San Diego Junior Theatre, the country's oldest children's theatre program. The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages collected on El Prado offer free entertainment shows.

The Botanical Building, a very large lath house, was built in 1915 from a design by Carleton Winslow. The lath house features large specimen palms and other plants inside and is located next to a long reflecting pool on the El Prado side.

Located in the eastern third of the park is the Morley Field Sports Complex. Included in this complex are: the Balboa Park Golf Complex, which contains a public 18-hole golf course and 9-hole executive course; the San Diego Velodrome; baseball and softball fields; the USTA-honored Balboa Tennis Club and tennis courts; archery ranges; the Bud Kearn public swimming pool; and a disc golf course.

Among the institutions and facilities within the park's borders but not administered by the city's Parks Department are the San Diego Zoo, the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD), and San Diego High School. Other attractions in various areas of the park include chess and bridge outdoor tables, horseshoe pits, playgrounds, walking and jogging trails, sports fields and courts, and picnic areas. Clubs and facilities for petanque and lawn bowling are based in the park.

El Prado

Inside the Sculpture Court Cafe.

The Botanical Building.

Inside the Botanical Building.  Balboa Park contains 350 species of plants on 1,200 acres of rolling hills and canyons, with approximately 1,500 trees.

The San Diego Museum of Art.




Art market.

Natural History Museum.

Casa Del Prado Theater.

Museum of Photographic Arts.

The Future

Plans are in development for a year-long celebration of the centennial of the 1915-16 exposition, called the Balboa Park 2015 Celebration.

The Balboa Park Conservancy, a non-profit group to preserve and promote the park, was proposed in 2009 and was officially launched on September 14, 2010.

The Park's master plan calls for removing a 67-space parking lot from the Plaza de Panama in front of the San Diego Art Museum, and restoring it as a pedestrian-only plaza. In August 2010 a plan was unveiled by Mayor Jerry Sanders and philanthropist Irwin M. Jacobs to replace that parking with a two-level parking garage at the site of the current Spreckles Organ Pavillion parking lot. The plan also called for making the Cabrillo Bridge one-way, eastbound only, so that people could enter the park via the Cabrillo Bridge but could exit only via Park Boulevard. Instead of the current traffic route through the center of the Prado, inbound traffic would be deflected via a new bridge offramp through the current Alcazar Gardens parking lot toward the new parking garage. The Alcazar Gardens parking lot would be for disabled parking only and for loading and unloading of passengers. The new parking garage would house 750-900 cars and would be landscaped on top. The plan became controversial because of its alteration to the appearance of the bridge and the possibility of charging for parking in the parking garage. In July 2011, the City Council voted to carry out an environmental study on the Jacobs plan and several alternatives.

Jacksonville's Version of Balboa Park: Hogans Creek

Inside The Park

Despite the neglect over the last half century, this public space is still home to many recreational amenities.  

 A. McPherson Park (Gazebo)

 B. Schell Park (Basketball courts)

 C. Klutho Park (Tennis courts)

 D. Klutho Park - "Original Home of Jax Zoo" (Baseball Diamond, Soccer, Bandstand, Fountain)

 E. Confederate Park (Monument to the Women of the Confederacy, Rose Garden)

 F. Springfield Dog Park & Playground

Bordering The Park

What makes this space unlike any other in Jacksonville is the number of historical, medical, educational and cultural establishments immediately adjacent to it.

 1. Shands Jacksonville

 2. VA Clinic

 3. Duval County Health

 4. Former Jacksonville Jewish Center

 5. Historic State Board of Health Building

 6. Bethel Baptist Church

 7. Karpeles Manuscript Museum

 8. Florida State College at Jacksonville Downtown Campus

 9. JEA Waterworks

10. Park View Pavilion/Historic Claude Nolan Cadillac Building

11. Scottish Rite Masonic Temple

12. Old Duval County Armory

13. Old City Cemetary

14. Historic Union Terminal Warehouse Complex

15. Old St. Luke's Hospital (Jacksonville Historic Society Museum & Archives Center)

16. Veteran's Memorial Arena

17. Maxwell House Coffee Plant

18. Shipyards site

Hogans Creek Master Plan.

If Jacksonville desires to be a destination and not a pass through, the structure is in place but it could use a little bit of house cleaning.

Article by Ennis Davis.