Park Board Backs Auto Museum Plan : Folk Dancers Vow to Continue Their Fight to Keep Historic Hall for Community Use

Times Staff Writer

A confederation of folk dancers fighting to retain their hold on a historic Balboa Park building lost a crucial round Thursday when the San Diego Park and Recreation Board threw its backing to a controversial plan to turn the building into an auto museum.

The board voted, 5-3, to recommend to the City Council that it lease the Conference Building to the San Diego Automotive Museum, a step that would force out the folk dancers, Ping-Pong players and others who have used the building for years.

The board attached two provisos to the resolution: That the museum supply a schedule showing when it will begin about $300,000 worth of renovations, and that the city's staff "go all out" to find quarters for the displaced dancers and the others.

"I feel very good about it," Terry Sheldon, a member of the museum board of directors, said after the hearing and vote. "I just think that the concept of the museum is a concept for all of San Diego, including the youth. . . . They all love the idea."

But Dan Creed, a spokesman for the dancers, said his group would return for the next round.

"They had a very high-tech presentation today, and I think that kind of swept the board members off their feet," Creed said of the museum's presentation. " . . . The people of San Diego deserve to have the park for people's uses."

The dancers--largely members of the San Diego Square Dance Assn. and the Ray-Lin Cloggers--have contended, among other things, that the museum would cater primarily to tourists and would shoulder out longtime park users.

Those supporting the museum--initially mostly wealthy car collectors but now also members of car clubs countywide--have countered that it would serve a larger number and wider variety of people than the dancing groups do.

Thursday's vote ran counter to that of the Balboa Park Committee, which voted Aug. 4 in favor of retaining the building for the dancers. That committee advises the Park and Recreation Board, which advises the City Council. The council Public Facilities and Recreation Committee is expected to consider the matter in mid-September.

Under the museum's proposal, the museum group would take over the sprawling building next to the Aerospace Museum and invest an estimated $300,000 in renovations. It would build a second building next to it to house a car restoration shop, among other things.

Museum supporters say the museum would consist of a core collection of rare cars, a system of revolving quarterly car exhibits, a research library and the restoration shop. They say the building's meeting rooms would be open at night for car groups and others.

Under the dancers' counterproposal, the building would remain as a public hall for community use, although the square dance association would assume the annual $34,000 in utilities and maintenance costs now paid by the city. They would contribute about $20,000 a year toward restoring the building, which would remain open to other groups.

The battle over the building has shed light on a broader debate over the future of Balboa Park: Although some planners say the park has achieved such national significance that uses such as folk dancing are no longer appropriate for its historic buildings, traditional users have responded angrily to what they call the "museumification" of the park.

During the two-hour debate on the matter at the monthly Park and Recreation Board meeting in the Convention and Performing Arts Center downtown, each side strove to prove that it was more populist than the other.

The Automotive Museum presentation commenced with a slide show of antique cars to the theme song from "2001: A Space Odyssey" and songs by The Swingle Singers. "Cars fascinate us," stated the voice-over. "Cars civilize our way of life. . . ."

Museum President Dan Biggs told the board that the museum would represent "the highest and best use" of the building, a use that would "open this structure to the masses of San Diegans who are interested in the art and culture of automotive history."

With its restoration shop open to the public, Sheldon suggested, the museum would "aid in taking youth out of the drug market and into the job market." He pointed out that "automobiles are important to everyone, not just a finite group."

Sheldon argued that the museum would attract about 250,000 people in the first year alone--far more than currently use the building. He and others argued that the park is the proper place for the museum, where it would benefit from and contribute to the other museums nearby.

"Automobiles represent a cultural bridge between all people," Sheldon said. "The one dream we have is to be mobile and be free."

Creed, who had been denied a request that the board postpone the matter because the dancers' chief spokesman was out of town on business, countered that only by leaving the building to its current users would the city "keep the building open to public use."

Creed said the current users included square dancers, cloggers, disabled children, the Special Olympics, dart players and floor hockey players. "This is really a philosophical issue," he said, " . . . and will probably affect the city for years to come."

Creed questioned whether the museum would be able to fulfill its promise to make $300,000 in renovations and whether it would be able to operate in the black. He suggested that the museum attendance projections were inflated and that it would not be able to break even on the building if attendance fell just 25% short.

"The real question is not one of financial strength," he said. "It's a question of purpose and people. What is the purpose of the park? It is for the people."

Asked what would happen to the current users if the museum took over the building, Jack Krasovich of the city's Park and Recreation Department said some but not all of the users could be accommodated in other buildings in the park.

"To say to you that we will be able to relocate and accommodate all the current users--no, we can't," he said. Among those for whom there is no appropriate alternative are the Ray-Lin Cloggers, whose heavy tap shoes require a cement or tile floor like the one in the building.

The board's vote in favor of the museum came after a partial endorsement from Robert Arnhym, the board member who in March recommended that the board put off considering the museum plan until museum supporters could present more detailed information on finances.

"It is difficult for me not to be impressed with the fact that the auto museum has produced," Arnhym said Thursday. " . . . It's clear they have much more of a proposal than they had six months ago."

However, several board members said they remained concerned about the museum's constituency.

"Most of us don't go to Sea World once a week; we go to Sea World once a year, to bring guests," said board member D. Steven Alexander. "Is it going to be a place where San Diegans go or not?"

When Sheldon responded, "This is an outreach project to schools, to kids, to vocational schools . . . ," Alexander countered, "I personally don't buy it. The bottom line is you've got to make revenue. Revenue is going to come from tourists."

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