An event held on New Year's Eve in Balboa Park was meant to set an optimistic tone for the park's beleaguered 2015 centennial celebration: A procession of city leaders and community members made their way from the eastern fountain, down the El Prado walkway to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion for a free concert that featured organist Carol Williams playing a world-premiere composition below a recently refurbished organ-pipe backdrop. New lighting on the arches of the Cabrillo Bridge was also unveiled, and fireworks colored the sky. On New Year's Day, the public was finally allowed to climb the Museum of Man's renovated California Tower, which has been closed for 80 years, and enjoy its breathtaking views.
The yearlong centennial celebration will mark the significance of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, for which much of Balboa Park was created. When the centennial idea was in its nascent stages, then-mayor Bob Filner described his vision for 2015 as a "once-in-a-lifetime celebration the entire world will remember" and pledged millions of dollars.
Yet, after the announcement last March that Balboa Park Celebration Inc. (BPCI), the nonprofit group charged with organizing the centennial, was disbanding and handing the reins to the city after burning through millions of dollars without producing tangible results, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilmember Todd Gloria introduced plans for a scaled-down event.
Immediately, most folks assumed that meant the whole thing was a bust. That's not entirely true. Some of the most notable happenings are the exhibitions, events and improvement projects that organizations within Balboa Park have planned largely on their own. And the city continues to work on filling in the gaps, in part by calling on the community to help organize centennial events.
The last-minute undertaking, however, isn't without critics who say the city's making it too difficult to contribute to the celebration.
The city's financial investment in the centennial has mostly been directed toward infrastructure projects—to date, the Mayor's office says, the city's spent $6.3 million on improvements like new LED lighting, Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades, elevator improvements, impending Plaza de Panama enhancements and art restoration. But Michael Ruiz of the city's Park and Recreation Department, whose been tapped as the point person for the celebration, is organizing special spring and fall events that rely largely on the participation of local volunteers.
"The community has really come together for the centennial," Ruiz says. "Balboa Park is really the city's park. People truly love it . And they just want to do something to contribute; they want to be a part of this."
On May 9, the city and its partners will host a "Garden Party for the Century," focusing on the horticultural history of the park and featuring tours and talks with experts, a floral show, a floral wagon parade with the Fern Street Circus and other elements. The fall event is still being conceptualized as Ruiz looks for groups that want to participate.
Ruiz has also been tasked with helping nonprofits and community groups that have their own centennial event proposals navigate the city's permit process.
So far, only a handful of community-organized events have been set, including the San Diego Road Race Centennial Car Show on Jan. 10, a Philippine-American Centennial Celebration in June, a San Diego Makers Faire event tentatively set for October and a festival sponsored by the Greater Golden Hill Community Planning Group that's awaiting reviews before a date is set.
"So, these are new events just for the centennial, and there will be more," Ruiz says. "People have come forward and continue coming forward, and they just want to create something unique to literally be a part of history."
Yet, that's where the criticism comes in. Several people CityBeat spoke with say that stepping up to contribute to the city's centennial celebration has been anything but easy.
"We're less than a handful of people who have been able to go through the process so far, so that's kind of an indication to me that it's difficult," says Anamaria Labao Cabato, executive director of the Philippine Performing Arts Company, one of the organizations behind the Philippine-American Centennial Celebration. "But we managed and overcame a number of hurdles in the process."
David Lundin, one of the volunteers behind the newly formed Balboa Park Heritage Association and a vocal critic of the city's handling of the centennial, says his group has faced huge barriers while trying to reserve a date in Balboa Park for a two-day, park-wide historical event featuring period costumes, music and dance.
Lundin says Ruiz was introduced to him as the "savior of the centennial celebration." But after meeting with Ruiz a few times, Lundin says he's since been working with other city staffers whom he describes as unhelpful.
Lundin says he was originally quoted a permitting fee of nearly $90,000 (which has since been lowered), told his group couldn't use the Plaza de Panama and informed that he needed to secure an insurance policy naming the city as additionally insured, even though he had yet to set the event date or fill out any permitting forms.
"All we want are some dates set so we can go forward and actually do something terrific for the park," Lundin says. "They're basically making it impossible for us."
Whether or not Lundin's group is ultimately successful at securing permits, he says there'll "very likely" be a flash-mob-type event on April 11.
The Mayor's office maintains that Lundin's group has been asked to follow the same process as anyone wanting to hold a special event.
Ruiz says he's hopeful that Lundin will be able to work through the issues and stage an official centennial event. He describes the celebration as fluid and evolving and says he looks forward to adding events to the lineup as more ideas come through his office (follow the city's centennial updates at celebratebalboapark.org).
However, he stresses that events are just one element of the centennial. The park improvements and other wide-reaching promotional campaigns are important, too.
"It's really the infrastructure improvements that are going to last and really truly be our legacy as we move forward," he says. "Although, we're really excited about the events coming up, not only what's happening in the park, but in the community as a whole."