A crucial vote on whether to turn a historic Balboa Park building into an auto museum was postponed Wednesday when a divided San Diego City Council committee decided to seek out other possible locations for either the museum or the community groups that currently use the building.
The Public Facilities and Recreation Committee voted 5-0 in favor of putting off a vote on the fate of the Conference Building. It gave the Park and Recreation Department until Nov. 12 to prepare lists of possible alternative sites for both groups.
The vote came after a three-hour hearing attended by more than 200 people from the San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego Square Dance Assn., a Buick club, a Chrysler club, the Table Tennis Assn., Special Olympics, senior citizens’ groups and others.
During the hearing, two council members indicated that they opposed the museum plan, one expressed support, and one did not offer a position. The fifth indicated he might support it if the city could find other space for the dancers and other groups.
“I have to have that before I can make a decision,” said Councilman Mike Gotch, who made the motion that the city staff be given two months to prepare a list of available buildings and rooms. “Then I can make an informed decision.”
Councilwoman Judy McCarty suggested the auto museum consider paying to re-floor another building to make it suitable for dancing groups. Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer suggested her district in northern San Diego would be happy to have the auto museum there.
Both councilwomen said they were reluctant to vote on a significant change in park use at a time when the city has a new park master plan under consideration. The council is expected to begin looking at the proposed plan within the next four months.
Dan Biggs, president of the auto museum, expressed disappointment that the Park and Recreation Department did not have the information Gotch wanted. He said the delay was unfortunate because the museum had planned an auto rally in the building Sept. 21.
“We had sort of a victory celebration in mind, which we’ll go ahead and have,” said Biggs, noting that the museum had leased the building for part of the day. “Because the inevitability of this thing is still high in our minds.”
Gary Kaine, a spokesman for the square dance group, called the committee vote “certainly in the right direction.” He called it “good for both sides,” in that the city would consider the possibility of other locations for the museum.
Acknowledging that the city would also look for options for the dancers, Kaine said, “If they come up with some other alternative, we’ll certainly look at it.”
The Conference Building is a large, deteriorating stucco structure next to the Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park. Built for the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition, it has been used since the late 1940s by city offices and various recreational groups.
Now a group of wealthy car buffs and influential San Diegans backed by car clubs representing thousands of county residents have applied to the city to lease the 16,000-square-foot building and convert it to an auto museum.
The proposal was approved in February by the Balboa Park Committee. Then the committee reversed itself in August. Later that month, the Park and Recreation Board voted in favor of the museum. The council committee was to have voted Wednesday and referred the matter to the full council for a final vote.
At Wednesday’s hearing, spokesmen for both sides reiterated their positions, each insisting that his plan offered the greatest good for the greatest number of people and would create the least financial strain on the city’s budget.
Kaine suggested the museum might not break even and posed “hidden costs” to the city. He cited the cost of relocating city offices now in the building, and the price of solving the park’s parking problems, which he said would be made worse by a new museum.
Kaine argued that the dancers’ counter-proposal to take on the building’s $34,000 annual utilities and maintenance costs would take that burden off the city and said the building’s current use best serves the park’s aim as a “free and open park.”
“Why would you choose to give away a constantly utilized public building to an organization that I believe can’t break even, even with taxpayer support?” said Kaine. He gave the committee a petition he said contained 9,000 signatures.
Nicholas Fintzelberg, a member of the auto museum board, countered that the museum would contribute to “a sort of mini-Smithsonian.” He said 250,000 people a year would use the facility, “which is the ghost building of Balboa Park.”
He pointed out that the museum intends to spend $300,000 immediately to rehabilitate the building. He said the museum would obviate the nighttime parking conflicts currently created by the dance groups and others that use the building primarily at night.
Biggs, the museum’s president, said the museum was “not aiming our program at tourists.” He said most of its plans involved outreach into the San Diego community, including school children and car club members who have never been involved with the park.
“These people are not going to be evicted from the park,” Biggs said of the dancers and other groups that use the building each night. He added, “We ask you to focus on the facts, not the emotions.”
One member of the square dance association, attorney Dan Creed, suggested committee Chairman Bill Cleator should abstain from voting on the question because he is a member of the auto museum’s advisory board.
Backed by the committee’s counsel, Cleator said he would not abstain. He said his involvement stemmed from his appointment some seven years ago to serve as council liaison with a group advocating a museum at that time.
The committee’s lawyer said the conflict-of-interest law relates strictly to financial conflicts. Since Cleator had no financial interest in the project, he was entitled to participate, the lawyer said.
After the testimony, Cleator said he believed “that the city of San Diego really needs a museum of this type and that it really will offer the citizens of San Diego a neat thing to get involved with.”
But McCarty and Wolfsheimer voiced serious reservations about locating it in the Conference Building. Said Wolfsheimer, “I think when it comes back I am not going to be in favor of moving anyone out of the Conference Building.”
McCarty said, “I think that we are going to have to think about the fact that this city is to have to do something extra to maintain Balboa Park. And I don’t think we ought to do it by kicking out nonprofit groups to bring in groups that are able to pay.”
Councilmen Gotch and Ed Struiksma did not state positions. Gotch, however, strongly encouraged a citywide search for alternative locations for the community groups, mentioning the possibility of finding space in the Community Concourse and proposed convention center.