A champion for Balboa Park

Posted: October 2nd, 2015 | Art on the Land, Columnists, Featured | 2 Comments

By Delle Willett | Art on the Land

When landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his business partner Calvert Vaux designed Niagara Falls State Park in 1885, they anticipated a half million visitors a year. Last year the park had 8.5 million visitors — a good example of a landscape that’s been adversely affected by the automobile and massive growth in popularity.

When landscape architect Samuel Parsons, one of Olmsted’s protégés, designed Balboa Park in 1901 (at the time called City Park), it was considered a municipal park to serve San Diego’s population of less than 50,000, not a destination park that would have the 14 million visitors a year it does today, making it the fifth most-visited park in the nation.

Historic Botanical Building

Historic Botanical Building (Photo by Delle Willett)

“And so what we have is a park that is being loved to death,” said Tómas Herrera-Mishler, new executive director and chief executive officer of the Balboa Park Conservancy.

“Balboa Park is accommodating extreme levels of visitors on a daily basis, but the park was never designed to accommodate so many,” he said. “We need to adaptively change the landscape to handle the level of visitation while preserving the essence of what makes the landscape special, historic, unique.”

A seasoned landscape architect and urban planner, Herrera-Mishler has had first-hand experience working in landscapes that have had to adjust to extreme new levels of visitation.

For example, from 2008 to 2014, Herrera-Mishler led the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s innovative and uniquely successful public-private partnership with the city of Buffalo to operate and restore Buffalo’s historic Olmsted Parks System, the nation’s first park system. He helped to secure over $30 million for capital-improvement projects toward the implementation of the park system’s visionary master plan.

Herrera-Mishler assumed leadership of the Balboa Park Conservancy June 16. The conservancy is a new and old organization at the same time. It’s new because it was founded in 2012, and it’s old because it merged with 94-year-old Balboa Park Central (formerly the House of Hospitality), the organization that included the House of Hospitality, the Visitors’ Center and Balboa Park Marketing.

Fountain behind Balboa Park Administration Building

Fountain behind Balboa Park Administration (Photo by Delle Willett)

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Conservancy is responsible for raising funds, developing public-private partnerships and collaborating with Balboa Park stakeholders to implement capital projects, address deferred-maintenance needs, and seek solutions to accessibility needs in the park. It also operates as partners with the city of San Diego, which owns Balboa Park, and with other park stakeholders to carry out its mission.

“A public-private partnership is a lot like a life-saving transplant; you take a struggling body and put new life in it,” Herrera-Mishler said. “You always have to balance and it’s not easy, but they can yield amazing results.

“As we address important ways to reconnect the park to the community, improve access, circulation and parking, we will be working together on huge things that are very expensive and are going to require federal, state and local government support as well as major philanthropic support. It’s going to entail all of us working together to leverage those funds for what needs to happen here to improve access and sustainability, not just the friends of the park but all of the stakeholders.”

What’s amazing to Hererra-Mishler is there’s a sort of myth that Balboa Park is done, and the reality is that it’s far from completed.

“At the moment we have just half a park out there, but it’s a great half,” he said.

According to Hererra-Mishler, much of the east mesa and Florida Canyon have yet to be developed into what the Master Plan calls for.

“Now when you look at the east mesa, what do you see? A landfill and what I fondly call ‘the city’s truck gulag,’” he said.

It’s a temporary use, but temporary uses have a way of sticking around, he added.

Grounds behind the Balboa Park Admin building

Grounds behind the Balboa Park Admin building (Photo by Delle Willett)

Hererra-Mishler is strongly in favor of fully implementing the 1989 Master Plan developed by San Diego’s landscape architect and urban planner, Vicki Estrada of Estrada Land Planning.

“It’s still evergreen; the goals of that plan remain right on target,” Herrera-Mishler said. “It’s one of the best park master plans I have come across, and I’ve seen a lot of them.”

He believes that if the park were to fully implement the Master Plan and keep it maintained at a high level, the economic benefits to the city would really be dramatic.

“There’s been a lot of recent research that shows that well-maintained parks enhance the visual character of a city, improve our quality of life and boost our economic vitality,” he continued. “Balboa Park’s potential has yet to be fully tapped.”

To San Diego’s benefit, Balboa Park is a “destination” park in addition to serving as a “municipal” park. Destination parks attract cultural tourists — people who travel farther to get there, spend more time and more money, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and shop. And their expectations for maintenance in a destination park are higher than a municipal park. While the city provides a good level of maintenance in the park by municipal standards, Herrera-Mishler thinks we can do better.

Founder's Plaza on the West Mesa of Balboa Park

Founder’s Plaza on the west mesa of the Park (Photo by Delle Willett)

“In order to attract the cultural tourist to San Diego we need to make sure that our premiere cultural tourist destination meets or exceeds their expectations. And we have some work to do,” he said.

The Conservancy is planning on doing a lot of ‘friend-raising,’ in other words, cultivating folks who can support the organization. One way of doing that is to have a tangible thing to be funded, like restoration of the Botanical Building.

“It’s a wonderful, tangible project; it’s a building that just requires a new lease on life to be around for another 100 years,” Herrera-Mishler said.

With a master’s degree in landscape architecture and regional planning, and a specialization in urban design from the University of Michigan, Herrera-Mishler understands that landscape architects have a big and important role to play, adjusting the way we use and enjoy our landscapes, and the aesthetics of our landscape to accommodate global climate change and weather.

“We are faced with the reality of the drought conditions and need to design landscapes to accommodate lower water supplies,” Herrera-Mishler said. “But we can do it in a way that’s sustainable, historical, beautiful — isn’t that exactly what landscape architects are all about?”

Based on his past, Herrera-Mishler will be making his mark in the park. He was named Preservation Hero 2013 by the Library of American Historic Landscapes and was awarded the 2014 Gold Leaf Award by the New York State Arborists Association.

Thomas Herrera-Mishler in Botanical Building

Thomas Herrera-Mishler inside the Botanical Building (Photo by Delle Willett)

The Cultural Society of Buffalo gave him an Outstanding Community Leader Award in 2014. The Upstate New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects named him Outstanding Leader in Landscape Architecture in 2015.

“My whole career I’ve tried to work at the nexus of arts and culture and public landscape,” he said. “That’s been my whole career, and usually one of those elements is missing and I have had to inject it. In Balboa Park, it’s all here. In spades.”

For more information about the Balboa Park Conservancy, visit Follow Tomas Herrera-Mishler on Twitter @thmisler.

—Delle Willett has been a marketing and public relations professional for over 30 years, with an emphasis on conservation of the environment. She can be reached at


  1. Gonzalo Rojas says:

    Great article. Finally some positive coverage.

  2. […] A Champion for Balboa Park – San Diego Downtown News, 10/2/15 “When landscape architect Samuel Parsons, one of Olmsted’s protégés, designed Balboa Park in 1901, it was considered a municipal park to serve San Diego’s population of less than 50,000, not a destination park that would have the 14 million visitors a year it does today, making it the fifth most-visited park in the nation.” […]

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