A plan to convert a historic Balboa Park building into a car museum suffered a setback Monday when a city advisory committee withdrew its backing and sided with a confederation of cloggers and square dancers who have used the building for decades.
The Balboa Park Committee voted, 7-5, in favor of the dancers after the San Diego Square Dance Assn. attacked the San Diego Automotive Museum as elitist and financially shaky. The dance group also offered to spend $50,000 a year to care for the aging Conference Building.
"There are already more than 11 museums in the park," argued Gary Kaine, speaking for the dancers at an occasionally volatile hearing Monday afternoon attended by 250 people. "We need buildings for people usage."
"We, of course, are pressing on, undauntedly," Dan Biggs, president of the museum, said after the vote. "I think it's hard for these people (the committee) to say no to some very good folks who have been using the park for years."
The controversy over the sprawling building next to the Aerospace Museum will now advance to the city's Park and Recreation Board. That board, which advises the City Council, must vote on the two proposals and refer its recommendation to the council.
The battle has pitted the supporters of the automotive museum--a collection of wealthy car buffs as well as ordinary car-club members countywide--against the square dancers, cloggers, Ping-Pong players and disabled basketball players who currently use the building.
It has also shed light on a broader debate over the future of Balboa Park.
While some planners say the park has achieved such national significance that uses like folk dancing are no longer appropriate for its buildings, traditional users have reacted angrily to what they say is the park's "museumification" and bias in favor of tourists.
The fight over the Conference Building is considered especially significant because it is not the only structure tentatively slated in the park master plan amendments for museum conversion. The others include the Federal Building, now used for badminton and volleyball, and the popular Municipal Gymnasium.
On Monday afternoon, the Balboa Park Committee reversed the 8-6 vote it had taken in February when it first heard the museum plan. The Park and Recreation Board had sent the matter back to the committee, asking for more detailed financial information.
At the hearing, Biggs said the auto museum now has $119,000 in pledges of cash (all of which come from the proposed museum's current or past board of directors, supporting documents show). He said it has another $115,000 in pledges for in-kind services, and some $160,000 worth of cars and collections.
"I'm saying to you that we are for real," said Biggs, who is also president of an engineering firm based in Old Town. "We have the assets, we will be credible, we will be something the park will be proud of."
He and Jo-San Arnold, a member of the museum's board, outlined the museum's plan for a core collection of rare cars, a system of revolving quarter-annual exhibits, a research library and a restoration shop where the public might learn the art of auto restoring.
They attempted to counter the criticism that the museum would cater primarily to tourists and people with a highly specialized interest. They suggested that dancing was a more specialized interest than the interest in restoring cars.
"Balboa Park is a regionally accepted place for museums," Biggs said, explaining why the museum had chosen the park. "It's a place of stature. . . . It makes sense. It's efficient from a planning and land-use point of view."
Kaine presented a detailed counter-offer under which the dancers would pay $34,000 a year toward the building's utility and maintenance costs. They would add another $20,500 a year toward an endowment fund that would help pay for capital improvements.
He said the square dance association, which includes 28 clubs, already has $16,437 in cash. He said its projections for revenue from fees from dances were based on a proven history of decades of attendance.
"The plan does keep the Conference Building for civic use," Kaine said. "I think that's a key part of our plan."
Kaine also questioned the museum's revenue projections, suggesting the projections were overestimates based on the aerospace museum. Using charts of computations, Kaine predicted the museum would be in debt if its real revenues fell just 25% below projections.
In addition, he said the museum would cost the city money in ways the dancers never would. It would create a need for additional daytime parking space in the park, he said; and its own computations include taking money from tourist tax revenues.
"Balboa Park is a park for the people," said Kaine. "Museums are an integral part of the park, as are the zoo, the gardens, the international village and people--people picnicking, strolling, juggling, square dancing or clogging."
After the presentations, committee members questioned whether the dancers had been offered other buildings. Several dancers said no specific buildings had been offered and that no other large park buildings had concrete floors that could survive the cloggers' shoes.
Committee member Delza Martin said she had serious doubts about the museum's finances, noting that past proposals for a car museum in the park had failed. Others asked whether the museum would bring nighttime activity to the park, as the dancers do. Biggs said the museum's meeting rooms would be available at night but the collection would be closed.
The vote was 7-5 in favor of recommending to the Park and Recreation Board that the building continue to be used by its current users. Two committee members abstained and one was absent. The chairman votes only in the event of a tie.
"This is just the first of four steps," Biggs said after the vote, referring to future presentations to the Park and Recreation Committee, City Council committee and finally the Council. "I think we're disappointed, but we're committed to the museum effort."
The museum's board includes Biggs, Arnold, developer Terry Sheldon, publisher Lawrence Bame and seven others. The advisory board includes among others Councilman Bill Cleator, publishing executive David Copley, construction firm owner Gene Trepte, and Mrs. William Evans, whose late husband started the Bahia and Catamaran hotels and was an avid collector of cars.