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Celebrating a Most Important Anniversary

As Published in the San Diego Daily Transcript; April 23, 2009

W. Erik Bruvold

Thursday, April 23, 2009

In a less than six years San Diego will celebrate one of its most important anniversaries, the centennial of the California/Panama Exposition. The date needs to be not just celebrated but also be used to catalyze critical and permanent improvements to the region’s crown jewel. 

The audaciousness of what was accomplished 94 years ago is stunning. The 1910 census shows that the City of San Diego had a total population of 39,578 and the population for the entire county was 61,665. The city’s boundaries barely reached to what was then known as City Park. At the time, San Diego had lost an important battle against L.A. over where the Southern Pacific Company would build its West Coast terminus and the region was just starting to build its historic relationship with the U.S. Navy. Census documents show that San Diego ranked far behind West Coast powerhouses like San Francisco, which had a population of 416,000, Los Angeles (319,000) or even Oakland (150,000)..

Yet in 1910 city leaders would move forward on the idea of hosting an international exposition to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. In preparation of the festivities, San Diegans constructed many of the iconic park structures that still stand today – Cabrillo Bridge, the California Bell Tower, the Botanical Building, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Opening on January 1, 1915, some more than 2 million people would visit the exposition. During 1916 an additional 1.7 million would come to the park.

The Exposition’s benefits to San Diego are immeasurable. The visits by dignitaries such as Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt and other high-ranking officials from the Department of the Navy strengthened the region’s relationships with key federal decision makers. The Exposition also introduced San Diego to the rest of the nation just at the time that tourism was taking off as an industry. The San Diego Zoo’s origins can be traced back to the Exposition’s menagerie.

But most of all, unlike so many other cities, such as Chicago or San Francisco that tore down almost all the structures built to host their world’s fairs, San Diego preserved the core of the Exposition space, bequeathing to future generations the buildings that line most of the core of Balboa Park’s Prado.

At the eve of the Exposition’s anniversary the region stands a critical crossroads.

Recent studies have confirmed that San Diegans from throughout the region love Balboa Park. With more than 14 million annual visitors it is the third most heavily used city park in America. Those same reports, however, show that the Park is suffering from hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and hundreds of millions more in planned improvements that are not funded. The City’s budget is under severe strain and it is inconceivable that the City could come close to providing anywhere near the funding requires to meet these needs. Moreover, park policies all too often reflect a kind of “hyper-pluralism” as a thousand voices scream and government gets buffeted from one direction to another to another with no ability to chart a course and hold to it.

Thus there is a real danger that 2015 will come and the region will miss what could be a historical opportunity to call the region to action.

The Mayor’s investment of $300,000 to date to for the centennial celebration is a good start but shouldn’t we, in a region of more than three million residents, aspire to more?

For example, the City could use the anniversary as a reason to unveil a new governance model for the Park as well as a new public-private-philanthropic model for sustaining it into the next 100 years? Major infrastructure improvements could move forward with dedicated funding? The master plan, particularly called for improvements on the Eastern mesa could move toward fruition.

Other cities have thought big and steps to the plate when it comes to iconic public improvements.

In 2004 Chicago opened Millennium Park at a total cost of $470 million, of which $200 million was paid by the private sector. It has been acknowledged as one of the most significant efforts at building a new public open space in the last 100 years.

In 2007 the City of Seattle opened Olympic Sculpture Park opened, at an estimated cost of $85 million. This nine acre park reclaims a critical piece of Seattle’s waterfront while also serving as exposition space for some of the world’s most prominent sculptors.

During the last decade the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall ($270 million) and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels ($187 million) have opened in downtown L.A. and the City has plans in place to invest $3 billion in transforming Grand Avenue into a 16 acre “Central Park” for Los Angeles.

Since 1980, New York Central Park Conservancy has invested more than $500 million in that iconic New York landmark.

In 1915 the Master of Ceremonies at the Panama-California Exposition said of San Diego’s efforts, “Our hopes never wavered, our efforts did not lessen. We have stood together like one people should. We encountered all the trials and tribulations ever before those who attempt to blaze a new trail or attempt what seems impossible. That which five years ago was a hazy dream is today a reality, and San Diego keeps her promise to the world.”

Those words continue to resonate and should serve as a clarion call to action to all of us.