Photo by Torrey Bailey
San Diego High School sits on Balboa Park land.
Twenty years ago, City Councilmember David Alvarez attended his first class at San Diego High School, the education complex that has occupied the southwestern corner of Balboa Park since the 1880s. Close proximity allows the school to shape the curriculum around frequent park field trips and museum visits. Alvarez once walked over to the Organ Pavilion after school to see President Bill Clinton speak, and remembers that his friends snuck up to the front to shake hands with the commander in chief.
“Those are the memories that are significant, but certainly what happened within the walls of the school were significant as well,” Alvarez said. “The students that come to San Diego High School are going to learn to value Balboa Park’s importance because they’re here now, next to it. Or, technically speaking, on it.”
The high school’s 34-acre campus is on legally designated park land that the city leased to the San Diego Unified School District in 1974. Section 55 of the San Diego City Charter stipulates that only recreational uses are allowable, but the lease enables the school to continue operations until 2024, under an agreement that it would be vacated and returned to the city. Now eight years out from the expiration date, the school shows no sign of relocating.
“Nobody remembered,” said Michael Stepner, the former San Diego City Architect. “Or if they remembered, they were keeping it a secret. I didn’t remember the agreement either, and I was there in the city in ’74. But it was just one of those things where nobody made any plans one way or another. Nobody ever thought the world would change that way.”
The city had two options to extend the school’s lease. One required a two-thirds city vote to approve school use on the property under the current charter language. The other choice was a majority vote to amend the city charter to allow a public school in that space. The city council picked the latter, introducing November’s Measure I.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a large majority of city councilmembers and SDHS alumni across party lines are in favor of changing the charter so that the school can remain at its current location.
“Just because nothing was done, doesn’t mean we are going to punish all of these students and families,” Alvarez said. “That’s not their fault. It certainly isn’t the current administration’s fault at the school or at the city. Our responsibility is to respond to the needs as they currently exist, and that’s what this will do. There is a need for this school, and there is a need for it to be done lawfully, and legally, through a charter amendment.”
Not everyone is on board. The Balboa Park Heritage Association is fighting to return the land to park-goers.
“People say we hate kids, and we want to kick them out of the school,” said Balboa Park Heritage Association President David Lundin. “We don’t. At [the time of the lease agreement], East Village didn’t exist. You could’ve found 30 to 40 acres, and bought it between 1974 and 1984. But, they did nothing. The parents didn’t do anything. The alumni didn’t do anything. Everybody sat on their thumbs for 42 years. Those are the guilty parties here.”
Lundin argues the school conveniently slid by the charter’s regulations and hasn’t paid its dues. Under the lease agreement, San Diego Unified School District pays the city $200 a year. He also considers the city’s actions underhanded, saying the council decided to amend the charter because getting a majority vote was more feasible than a two-thirds vote.
“We know what they’re doing, and the average voter is not going to understand it,” said Craig Sherman, Lundin’s legal counsel. “It’s not fair. The average voter does not understand the background context—the consideration of essentially 50 years of free rent because the city is going to get the land back—which is now being essentially wiped away. They’re voting on it without knowing that. I think it would change their vote. I think that is a material omission.”
Sherman and Lundin fought the ballot language in court to include some of this context. On Sept. 8, Superior Court Judge Frederic Link struck down their request.
On the same day as that ruling, Lundin met with the American Institute of Architects’ San Diego Chapter, where a potential compromise emerged. Whether Measure I passes or fails, Stepner suggested expanding the city’s green surface area by “decking” the nearby roadway with greenery and park areas.
“You leave the school intact, but you make it a school in a park instead of a school that occupies park land,” Stepner said.
The proposed decking would cover Interstate-5 and Park Boulevard, stretching into East Village, downtown and Cortez Hill, making a pedestrian promenade that reconnects the communities.
“In our worst-case scenario that the school stays there, we’re totally in favor of decking I-5 and taking steps to integrate the campus with the park,” Lundin said.
Another alternate approach being discussed is a subterranean parking garage under the high school’s current location; the surface level would be natural park land.
“Keep it trees, keep it dirt,” Lundin said. “But you don’t have to put the parking in the core of the park, as some people propose.”
Prototypes will be uploaded to the Balboa Park Heritage Association’s website before the election. Financing possibilities for these ideas have not been made public.
The school’s fate is first on the agenda, though. If Measure I passes, details of a new lease agreement would have to be hammered out, including how much the school district would pay the city and how long the lease would be extended.
Even with a possible compromise on the table, Lundin won’t stop fighting if the measure passes.
“Hopefully it will be defeated, which would obviate the need to later challenge it,” he said. “We definitely intend to follow through on the challenges, including the voter-passage rate, and whether the voter was adequately apprised in the ballot statement.”
If Measure I fails, Alvarez said the issue would need to be revisited in a couple years because there isn’t nearby land available to service the same population.
“They built several new buildings within the past few years alone because they needed more classroom space, so I don’t see a vacancy rate that would allow the kids to be spread out,” Alvarez said. “That’s not a reality. The demand exists for classroom space here.”
Meanwhile, Stepner hopes both sides can compromise.
“We tend, in San Diego, to get into this knee-jerk lockstep,” he said. “It’s either/or. There’s no middle ground. It’s either my way or the highway, and if somebody says it’s 2:30 we argue whether it’s 2:30 or half past two. It’s just not very productive and that’s what I felt. There is a middle ground.”