Debate on Balboa Park Future Re-ignited

by on July 7, 2011 · 6 comments

in Culture, Economy, San Diego

Balboa Park institution lobbies for its financial backers

By Lucas O’Connor / Two Cathedrals /  July 6, 2011

A new front opened last night in the saga of Balboa Park, with the Old Globe’s Executive Producer emailing the theater’s email list with a pitch for the Plaza de Panama Committee’s recommendations for park redesign and lobbying for theater patrons to contact their city councilmember. It reignites debate over Balboa Park’s future and sparks new ethical and pragmatic questions about the relationship between money and political lobbying efforts.

For starters, let’s be clear about what the Plaza de Panama Committee is. It’s chaired by Irwin Jacobs, a major Old Globe backer who pulled back his $33 million proposal to privately redesign the park after a city council vote rebuked the plan. The PdP Committee Board of Directors also includes Donald Cohn, the chairman of the board at The Old Globe and a major financial backer who spearheaded the Old Globe’s new Karen and Donald Cohn Education Center. In other words, the Executive Producer of the Old Globe is pitching for a plan put forth by some of his most vital financial backers, including the Chairman of the Old Globe Board of Directors.

Meanwhile, the Old Globe is currently the largest single recipient of grant money for arts programs from the City of San Diego. That means that while it’s collecting those tax dollars, it’s lobbying for private control over the redesign of public space because the city can’t afford to do otherwise. At the least, it’s an awkward intersection of funding priorities.

Let’s also note that the Old Globe’s pitch makes little sense on its face. It suggests that many park patrons are only able to reach the park by driving across Cabrillo Bridge and would otherwise be “completely cut off” from Balboa Park. It also lobbies for a plan that would route traffic away from the theater through the Alcazar parking lot, but argues that the same Alcazar lot is too far to provide drop-off access for patrons. It just doesn’t hang together.

Is The Old Globe wrong for weighing in on this? Not necessarily. Whether it steps over the ethical line is a judgment call, and receiving tax dollars isn’t an automatic disqualifier from political participation. But this does highlight the fundamental conflict in relying on private philanthropy to keep the city running. Without an effective, independent government to mediate on these issues, public/private funding models for basic civic goods are doomed from the start. Where does it end?

What happens when philanthropists offer to pay for more teachers at new charter schools, but insist that the teachers not be allowed to unionize and the student body be whites-only? What happens when private benefactors offer to pay for that major new road that’s needed to spur new economic development, but say that no women are allowed to drive on their road?

Are these hyperbolic possibilities? Maybe in the immediate term, but is it really a stretch to imagine the arguments that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and better education for whites or better job opportunities for men would be better than nothing at all? Right now in Illinois, where same-sex civil unions were recently legalized, Catholic orphanages are refusing to place children with same-sex couples. If these religious organizations refuse to provide a public service if they’re forced to adhere to civil rights laws they disagree with, are local governments prepared to fund replacement institutions? Will taxpayers want to foot an optional bill over civil rights issues? Where does the slippery slope stop?

How about more commercially-driven challenges? What if, instead of a long-standing San Diego philanthropist, it was Wal-Mart offering to fund the full renovation of Balboa Park in exchange for zoning leniency or advertising inside the park? What if Anheuser-Busch offered to pay for all police, lifeguards and other safety personnel for San Diego beaches in exchange for the city amending the booze ban to allow beach-goers to consume exclusively Anheuser-Busch products? San Diegans have already mandated that city services be compared against private sector alternatives, what is the cognitive leap to this level of corporate sponsorship?

This isn’t a failure of philanthropists or philanthropic companies. It’s reasonable to expect input and hope for favor in exchange for their gifts. It’s a failure of the city government for not yet even trying to come up with a workable model to bring in private support without abandoning public input. It’s the absence of any political figure in San Diego discussing the consequences of budget cuts ad infinitum without commitment to developing new revenue sources.

This has been called the dissolving or “unbundling” city, but without political leadership that steps outside the Two Santa Claus problem, is rapidly transforming into civic nihilism. Until anyone is willing to argue the benefits of buying public goods at wholesale prices, the difference between most beneficial and most profitable, the necessity of private investment serving the public interest, we’ll be stuck on this same dead-end track.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Judi O'Boyle July 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Congratulations Lucas on an interesting artile on the positive and negatives of Philanthrophy where very wealthy individuals control the public discourse, policies, and can direct who can benefit from their contributions. The Plaza de Panama Committee would sharply reduce park benefits for people who cannot afford to pay for parking in this public space. The benefits go to the patrons of the Old Globe and we’ve always known that Irwin Jacobs highly values bringing his friends to the Old Globe while sacraficing historical icons (the Cabrillo Bridge) and public access. Last week I returned from NYC which operates under a similar type of conservancy as planned for Balboa Park. The Tavern on the Green is closed, a place that was iconic to NYC residents and visitors. Central Park is not as well maintained as it was in my previous visit five years ago.

If we accept millions of contributions from wealthy benefactors, it must be without strings of control. That is the responsibility of City government that must respond to the citizens.

Irwin Jacobs has given millions to UCSD and in doing so he was very laid back, not a part of any building advisory committee (except perhaps the LaJolla Playhouse which is housed on the campus but operated independently). Since he has retired from Qualcomm, he has been much more forceful in dealing with the campus, similarly to his stance with the Plaza de Panama Committee.

I hope that Mr Jacobs will find his way to benefit all of San Diego, and not a limited population of mostly theatre goers and friends.


avatar Dan Soderberg July 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Thank you for raising these questions Lucas.

I attended the City Council Rules Committee Meeting where the “non- recommendation” vote took place. Citizens literally only had days advance notice of this being on the docket. In fact public notice for this item was virtually nonexistent. But even in that short amount of time and limited notice there was a very strong turn out by the public. This clearly had not been anticipated by the Mayor and Mr. Jacobs who looked up in horror as the room began to fill up with people carrying their proverbial pitch forks and torches.

When we arrived The Mayor, Mr. Jacobs and number of museum directors–all finely dressed and looking confident–were seated in anticipation of having their Memorandum of Understanding routinely signed by the committee. Instead what they got was a steady stream of citizens from all parts of San Diego speaking at the podium against the project. This was not an unusual event in terms of how public meetings and hearings on the project went. Since November of last year I have attended literally dozens of community planning group meetings, town hall meetings, neighborhood meetings and the like. The ratio is always about 10-1 against the project, no matter what of town we went.

Having carefully engineered the way the memorandum of understanding was placed before the city council committee, only to have the strategy backfire, Mr. Jacobs in what appeared to be a strong incident of “I’m taking my marbles and going home” indicated he was done with the project. I was in fact at the Golden Hill Planning Group meeting when the Mayor’s lead spokesperson for the project, Gerry Braun announced Mr. Jacobs has “pulled the plug” on the project.

In the days that followed the Mayor lashed out everyone who opposed the project claiming that opposition to the project had amounted to a personal attack against a generous civic champion. I never heard personal attacks. It would be insane to personally go after someone who helped save the San Diego Symphony, and as Judi O’Boyle pointed, out help build UCSD.

So a question I have, and it is a slight variation of one of your questions, if someone is privately funding a public project, does speaking out or calling into question the merits of the project automatically brand you as an ungrateful slandering unpatriot? Where does that leave members of the community wanting to participate in the process? I think it is a bit bizarre if not scarey that park institutions joined into an active battle which will pit them on the opposite side of an issue than many of their customers and supporters.

I absolutely agree that city must establish a frame work for philanthropy that prohibits preconditions and strings attached. And that should also include at least full disclosure concerning the relationship, financial and otherwise, between an institution and the philanthropist when the institution actively campaigns for that individual. The City must not abdicate its management role, its decision making role, or its responsibility to ensure an open process that allow the public full participation.


avatar Judi O'Boyle July 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Yes Dan, your comments are on the money. Thanks.


avatar dave rice July 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Anyone catch Sanders’ open letter pleading with the public to push through the Jacobs plan?

Or the artist rendering of what the ‘bypass bridge’ to lead to the new paid-parking garage would look like?


avatar Patrick McArron July 7, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Oh yes – and I reacted by firing off a letter to several key players including the City Council, Jerry Sanders, and others. No time to let up.


avatar Patrick McArron July 7, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Thanks Lucas, for this. Helps put things in perspective.


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