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Balboa Park hopes 100th birthday will bring repairs

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It's been almost 100 years since former president Theodore Roosevelt stood on the platform at the brand new Spreckels Organ Pavilion and made what he called "an earnest plea" to San Diego.

The Panama-Pacific Exposition, he said, "is so beautiful that ... I hope that not only will you keep these buildings running for another year but you will keep these buildings of rare, phenomenal taste and beauty permanently."

As Balboa Park celebrates the expo's centennial, many of the buildings that Roosevelt praised are still around. But their paint is peeling, their walls are cracked and the Spanish Colonial facades are deteriorating so quickly that some sizable pieces are falling off.

In a San Diego City Council meeting earlier this month, David Kinney, executive director of the park's House of Hospitality, estimated the bill for total repairs in the park could be as high as $400 million.

"The mildew problem is getting worse every day," he said. "In some areas, you can just sit down and see it rotting. It's being treated as the city's poor step-sister."

While the council listened politely as Kinney and several other park officials made a pitch for repairs, there was no offer to shift more infrastructure funds into the park, since the top priority for infrastructure spending these days is on fixing the city's streets, sidewalks and sewers.

Park officials say they understand there are competing demands for the money, but they think the park's relatively low priority is ironic, considering how much emphasis city officials have been putting on the exposition's centennial.

Not that the park has been bereft of funding, however.

Just last month, Mayor Kevin Faulconer unveiled a $117,000 revitalization of the Plaza de Panama, involving the installation of new chairs, tables, benches, umbrellas and artificial grass, with funds from Southwest Airlines and the San Diego Foundation.

“The Plaza de Panama is one of the greatest gathering spaces in San Diego, and these new amenities will create more opportunities for San Diegans and visitors alike to enjoy Balboa Park,” Faulconer said at the time.

Other recent investments have ranged from a new tram service connecting far-flung parking lots with the park's central museums to a project to create Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the park. The city regularly funds specific programs within the park and also pays for standard upkeep, including a $150,000 allocation in next year's budget for a horticulturalist to make sure that the park's watering plans meet the city's conservation goals.

But in the meantime, said Michael Kelly, president of one of the park's support groups, The Committee of 100, the city has dragged its heels on a number of longstanding infrastructure requests, many of which were featured in a 2013 slideshow for the council that depicted a number of areas that were in major need of repair in the park, including:

+ outer walls that had been so damaged with water that the rebar underpinnings were at risk of rusting;

+ wooden railings that are bleached and splitting, since they haven't been painted since the 1990s; and,

+ heavy chunks of resin that have fallen from the faux Spanish exteriors, whose flourishes are made of fiberglass and resin.

Kelly said much of the plumbing in the park is now a century old. When the water mains break, he said the city does send crews to replace the aging pipes, but the park has had to learn to live with less visible strains on the plumbing, such as toilet systems that occasionally get so clogged that entire buildings have to be shut down until they are fixed.

"Our city wants people to visit Balboa Park during the centennial but has been unwilling to spend money on even the visible deferred maintenance," he said. "And much more of the infrastructure is invisible. We only hear about the condition of power, water and sewer lines when they go bad."

Kelly said he will be discussing the problems with City Councilman Todd Gloria during a meeting of the Committee of 100 at the Balboa Park Club on Thursday. He said that the clubhouse itself is "a disgrace," especially since some of the wooden timbers that once decorated its façade have long ago rotted away.

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