On the surface, it hardly seems a building to go to battle over: A long, low-slung white elephant covered with peeling tan paint, housing a huge hall like a high school auditorium left over from an era of higher birth rates.
But the Conference Building in Balboa Park is at the center of a growing war over the future of one of the world's most remarkable downtown parks. At issue is who will have access to the park in the future--who will find a home there and who will be eased out.
On one side of the Conference Building controversy is a phalanx of square dancers, round dancers, folk dancers and cloggers, backed by Ping-Pong, badminton and volleyball players, and jugglers who have used the building and others near it for years.
On the other side is an assortment of car buffs and collectors, backed by some park planners and administrators of park museums. They have grand plans to turn the Conference Building into an auto museum, replete with Adolf Hitler's Mercedes-Benz.
"A rich man's garage!" the dancer faction growls scornfully.
"Mom and apple pie!" the car people grumble back.
The dispute exemplifies a broader debate over the evolution of Balboa Park, a debate likely to intensify as population growth increases the demand and pressure for space. For some, it is also a debate over the future of the city: Will the park, and the city, be for San Diegans?
Some, like Ron Pekarek, who is revising the park's master plan, say Balboa Park is no longer a community park but a park "of regional and national significance." So the city can no longer afford to subsidize space for dancers, Boy Scouts and amateur archers, he says.
Pekarek and City Council members suggest that the park must become more self-supporting in these times of restrained public spending. Museums generate people, income and tax revenue, they say, which can be used to make the park thrive.
But others counter that parks should no more be self-supporting than schools; they are a public service that the public should be willing to support. They quote Balboa Park's 120-year-old mandate as "free and open park space." They put the emphasis on free.
A park's essence is its diversity, they say, and that diversity will be lost if what they call the "museumification" of Balboa Park continues. They say culture should not be defined narrowly--it includes square dancing, clogging and table tennis.
"There are, of course, many different uses for the park and many people see the park differently," said Robert Arnhym, chairman of the Balboa Park Committee, which must begin deciding the Conference Building's fate at a hearing Aug. 4. "The people that come here from New York see this as a national park. Someone that drives in from the county sees it as a regional park. Those that live across the street see it as a neighborhood park."
"You have to decide what the ultimate land use of the park should be," said Ann Hix, a member of the city's Park and Recreation Board, which will take up the debate after Arnhym's committee. "And that's an impossible task."
The Conference Building is part of a cluster of buildings in the so-called Palisades area of the park. Built for the 1935 Pan-American Exposition, they include the municipal gymnasium, Federal Building and Palisades Building near the Aerospace Museum and Starlight Bowl.
After World War II, the buildings went empty, aching for tenants and falling into disrepair. The city had to go out and hunt for tenants, officials remember. Gradually, square dancers and badminton players began filtering in.
The special attraction of the Conference Building is its 16,000 square feet of unobstructed floor space--room for a passel of dancers and a fleet of Ping-Pong tables. It also contains the park's only large cement and tile floor, the only kind of floor that can survive clogging, a form of folk dance in which the dancers wear wooden clogs to tap out the rhythm.
Dancers say that as many as 30,000 people regularly use the buildings, including Olympic volleyball players, the San Diego Table Tennis Assn. and pickup basketball players. On Sunday nights, the giant Conference Building clatters with cloggers.
"It's hard to find anything bad about any tenant in any of those buildings," said Bob Wells, who has played badminton in the Federal Building since 1938. "The dancers were saying, 'We keep people off the streets. It's wholesome.' With badminton it's the same."
The 1960 park master plan designated the buildings for demolition--a proposal many people still support as a means of retrieving lost open space. But before the buildings could be removed, they were declared historic monuments. Now they are there to stay.
So Pekarek, in his controversial 1983 master-plan amendment proposals, suggested that the Palisades area buildings be turned into museums. They would be consistent with the activities in the adjoining Prado, forming "a truly unique cultural complex."
Pekarek suggested that athletic activities go to Morley Field, where the city might consider building a gymnasium. As for the dancing and community events, they might move to the newly vacated Navy Hospital buildings, or out to community parks.
"In the practice of planning parks, it's not common to put that kind of community function in a park of regional significance," said Pekarek, president of The Pekarek Group, a landscape architecture and planning firm. " . . . It makes no sense to put a function into buildings such as that when that function can take place any place in the city."
Pekarek would also oust the archery field in Palm Canyon, replacing it with a parking garage for people visiting the museums. Other uses he feels are too specialized to remain in the park include the camps run by the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and Campfire Girls.
"It's like locating some special use on the edge of the bay, like a dancing club," said Pekarek, whose proposals will be the subject of hearings this fall. "Why would you do that? It has a much higher use and could serve a greater cross- section, rather than a special use."
The San Diego Automotive Museum proposal surfaced in 1982, the latest in a series of auto museum schemes that, beginning in the late 1970s, never got into gear. Dan Biggs, the current president, traces the original impulse to a group of wealthy car collectors and movers and shakers.
Councilman Bill Cleator's office contacted Biggs. Others involved included former U.S. Atty. Terry Knoepp, Gene Trepte of Trepte Construction, and Reid Carroll of KFMB radio, Biggs said. What brought them together, he said, was "a love of cars and desire to have a place in Balboa Park where the interest in cars could be perpetuated."
Since then, the museum group's board of directors has changed repeatedly, and efforts to get a current list were unavailing. A recent list of the advisory board included Cleator; publishing executive David Copley; attorney John Davies, and Mike Madigan, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce.
According to Biggs, the museum would lease the building and land behind it for a token fee, and would invest $300,000 in renovations. The museum would have a permanent collection of rare cars as well as specialty shows changing every three months.
There would also be a research library on the history and workings of automobiles and a restoration shop including mechanical displays and a repair shop. Museum officials say they are working with schools to arrange courses on such matters as pin-striping and hydraulic lifts.
"The car is--I'm sure history will say it was--one of the most significant factors in our culture and life," Biggs said. " . . . Now in Southern California there is about as extensive an offering of historically collectible cars as anyone could hope to have."
In February, the museum proposal sailed past the Balboa Park Committee, an advisory group that makes recommendations to the Park and Recreation Board. But by the time it reached the Park and Recreation Committee the following month, the dancers had mobilized.
At that meeting, Gary Kaine, clogger and spokesman, dissected the museum proposal, suggesting that its attendance and membership projections were inflated. He pointed out that its cash balance was a mere $15,000 and that no cars had been donated.
Kaine argued that there were hidden costs to the city in the proposal, including the cost of accommodating more traffic in the already crowded park. If revenues turned out to be less than the projections, the museum would never break even, he said.
"They want a free building to display their cars," Kaine said of the car aficionados in an interview recently. "This really is a slick deal for them. They would pay maintenance and in return they get a building, rent-free, forever."
Others complain that the museum plan places museums before people and puts the interests of tourists above those of San Diego residents. Some argue that a museum would be more beneficial elsewhere, attracting visitors to other parts of the city.
There has been widespread suspicion of an ulterior motive.
"I can't help being suspicious that this is sort of a business venture," said Robert Leffler, a former president of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, an environmental group that keeps an eye on the park and opposes the museum. "Those vehicles aren't being given to the city. People will see them and they will have a price tag and I can't help thinking they'll be up for sale."
So Kaine and the dancers in March made a counterproposal, promising to raise dance attendance fees to pay all Conference Building utility and maintenance costs. They said they would also create a fund to support building improvements and renovation.
Though park staff members have proposed alternative park sites for the dancers and others, the dancers say the rooms are too small. Furthermore, there is no other floor in the park appropriate for the cloggers, so they would be ousted from the park.
The opposition to the museum took its proponents by surprise.
"We never thought there would be this organized outcry from the dancers," said Jo-San Arnold, a member of the auto museum board. "They all came in their dancing uniforms and it was mom and apple pie appealing to the emotionalism of the board.
"Well, the board got scared, as far as I can see."
The board sent the question back to the Balboa Park Committee, telling the museum advocates to return with more detailed financial information. Specifically, they asked for evidence that the museum could raise sufficient money and acquire cars.
Since then, Arnold and Biggs have taken steps to rebut their critics' complaints. Biggs said last week that the museum has pledges for $100,000 in cash contributions. He said it has received 27 cars for its core collection--4 as gifts, 23 on three-year loan.
Earlier this month, the museum convened representatives of what Arnold says was 45 car clubs from all over San Diego County. Arnold and Biggs say many of the 4,000 members are expected to participate in the museum's revolving exhibitions.
"You're going to think I'm corny, but I have goose pimples going down my spine when I think of how successful that meeting was," Biggs said. "We had representatives from Chicano car clubs sitting down next to the president and representatives of Mercedes-Benz and Bentley clubs. We had a representative from a club that does nothing but restore 18-wheeler trucks. We had a room full of people from diverse backgrounds socially and economically."
Biggs and Arnold say their museum is just as "community-oriented" as a crowd of cloggers, and will serve many more people than those who currently use the building. Cars are not a "special interest," they say; perhaps dancing is.
"There's a perception out there that this is a 'rich man's garage.' I've got to tell you, I'm from National City and I work a long day," said Biggs, a civil engineer and president of Biggs Engineering Corp. " . . . I think whoever can demonstrate to the City Council that their cause is the most public-intensive should have the right to use the building."
A few hundred yards east, a similar issue has surfaced before the committee considering future uses for the Navy Hospital property. That committee recommended to the city this month that it tear down most of the buildings to restore open space.
But in hearings over the past year, dozens of groups appeared to bid for room in the buildings. The groups represented veterans, university women, doll lovers, fly fishermen, credit counselors, architects, bookworms, railway buffs and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among others.
"What became apparent is there is an unlimited desire to be in Balboa Park," said Hix, committee chairman and a Park and Recreation Board member. "The park's an ideal location, the city subsidizes the space, generally speaking. Who could ask for a better setting?"
"But they have a narrow focus," she said. "Some are interested in cars and want cars in Balboa Park. Other groups want their trains or dolls in Balboa Park. What the Park and Recreation Board has to do is step back and say what's best for Balboa Park overall.
"It's irrelevant whether we like trains. The question is what is the best use for the park?"
Hamilton Marston, whose grandfather came to San Diego in 1870 and helped plan the park, said the answer lies in Balboa Park's original aim.
The land was set aside when the city had only 3,000 residents, as an insurance policy against future growth. The open space of appropriately located parks makes urban density tolerable, Marston said. That is the essential purpose of a park.
For that reason, Marston prefers recreational uses to institutions that take up the scarce space in parks. One day, the Conference Building may be removed, he said. To institutionalize a new use there, like a museum, is an error.
"This city, located at the intersection of the Pacific Rim and the border of North America and Central America, with its magnificent climate, is going to have immense growth in the future and much of it will be centered in the city," Marston said.
The most precious commodity, he said, will be free and open park space.