by Carolyn Chase, Founder and CEO, San Diego EarthWorks
San Diego EarthWorks, the non-profit organizers of the annual Earth Day Fair each April in Balboa Park (2013 would be the 24th annual), is in receipt of a letter from the City of San Diego, Park and Recreation Department, dated Jan. 15, 2013 saying, in part, “the Park and Recreation Department is not accepting requests for large, over-capacity special events in the Central Mesa area of the park due to the pending Plaza de Panama construction and the overall impacts such a large construction project will have on the visitors to the park during this time.”
And from another City of San Diego memo from the Chief Operating Officer dated December 21, 2012, “Based upon those discussions (with the members of the Plaza de Panama design/construction team) and input from the Balboa Park institutions (museums and restaurants) …. it was determined by City staff that during the one-year (sic) construction period … they would not be accepting any events in the Central Mesa.”
Unfortunately, even with a 23-year history with which we can make some claim to also being a Balboa Park “institution,” this policy was not communicated to San Diego EarthWorks until January 4 of this year.
This policy was also not vetted during the public hearings or in the environmental documents. Nor are the “overall impacts” disclosed or quantified in any manner.
We are no impediment whatsoever to construction. Construction is not even scheduled on Sundays when the EarthFair takes place. We proposed a plan to change the layout to address the only construction-related impact on the day of our event: the closure of the 367-space organ pavilion parking lot.
What the Environmental Impact Report did say with respect to “special events” can be found in Section 8-5 with this conclusion, “Overall, the project would have a less than significant impact on special events. These events would likely continue with or without the implementation of the project.”
The banishment of Special Events was also not listed in the “Areas of Controversy” (Section S.3) nor discussed with respect to construction impacts. Quoting from the EIR with respect to construction impacts, “The mitigation measure, N-1, identified for the project precludes construction during special events.” The EIR does not anywhere state the opposite: that the construction will, in fact, preclude special events. Yet this is what is happening now.
The City also requested our attendance at a meeting to discuss the practicalities of moving to the west side, over the bridge and along 6th avenue. Our analysis shows the problems there are formidable. No Children’s Parade is deemed possible. The ability to load-in and out quickly with volunteers, does not exist on the west side the way it does in the heart of the park. Moving there would only increase liability.
What about neighbors? The San Diego Metro CDC and the West Mesa Subcommittee of the Balboa Park Committee have both passed motions objecting to moving events to the west side without consultation.
The letter from Park & Rec closed with this: “should we be notified by the Plaza de Panama Committee between now and February 8, 2013, that they will not be under construction in April 2013, staff is ready to work with EarthWorks to permit the event in the Central Mesa.”
This is a veiled reference to fact that the SOHO CEQA lawsuit against the project has a court hearing on February 1 and the judge could stop construction. Another lawsuit is getting less attention: San Diegans for Open Government vs. City of San Diego is scheduled for hearing in March. This lawsuit hampers the City’s ability to finance the parking lot. But this is not about construction. If it stays about construction, we’re out for 2013 and 2014. For the Centennial in 2015, even though I sought a reservation according to the contract for management of Balboa Park during 2015, we’re now told we’re being put in something called “Edge2015.”
So it seems that there is going to be a heart of the park and an “Edge” of the park. And without consultation, we’re being put in the Edge – and with some fine company, we’re sure.
Also being moved: December Nights, well part of it. The part not deemed somehow suitable for the heart of the park. It appears that everyone other than those with the privilege of having subsidized space in the public buildings, is being pushed out.
A review of the tax filings for multiple years of the non-profit lessees in public park buildings reveal that their assets range from multi-million dollar endowments, to those that are, basically, bankrupt, but able to continue to operate under generous leases for the public good. The impacts of Earth Day are not the difference between profit or loss for any them. We support capacity-building efforts. But those that are severely “underwater” financially have bigger issues than events. Events, in fact, bring new customers to their doors.
The irony of being forced out of our traditional location due to the closure of a parking lot, in order to build an even bigger parking lot, does not escape me. Nor will we give up the struggle to preserve public parkland for public use. We deserve a place in the heart of the park; because in fact, Earth Day has touched the hearts of more than million attendees. That’s the kind of edge we’re counting on to return us to where we belong: the heart of Balboa Park.
This situation has me thinking alot about: “What is Earth Day” I’ve never felt the need to claim that Earth Day is the most important thing. It’s a day. But like other annual observations, Mother’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and all other anniversaries, it seeks the lofty goal to touch people for the rest of their lives. It’s a cultural gathering, of all races and all creeds, and unlike any other.
It is organized out of love and integrity. And we think that should be enough to be able to stay in the heart of Balboa Park. There 25th anniversary of the largest Earth Day in the country could only take place where it has been for 23 years.
The momentum of Earth Day is such that thousands will show up anyway, whether we organize the EarthFair or not. They can kick us out by refusing to process our permits and inflicting the financial losses on the organizers and exhibitors, but they cannot stop people from observing Earth Day in heart of Balboa Park. No permits are required to lawfully stroll, picnic or protest City Park permitting policies in observation and honor of Earth Day on April 21 in the heart of Balboa Park.
Author’s Note: This commentary was written before a tentative ruling came out in the SOHO lawsuit against the Plaza de Panama project. If the ruling is allowed to stand, an appeal is expected from either side. EarthWorks expects to hear by Feb. 9 whether they will be allowed to proceed in their traditional location in the heart of Balboa Park for 2013, however, even if they are, the issues with park permits remain problematic for future years.