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Cases Stated for Hospital Site’s Future : Variety of Uses Are Envisioned for Navy Facility in Balboa Park

Times Staff Writer

The half-dozen boards, committees, departments and planning groups advising the City Council on the future of the old Navy Hospital in Balboa Park are sharply split over the best use of a large chunk of desirable urban parkland.

Preservationists want to keep many of the buildings, open-space advocates want to tear them down, city planners think they might make good conference and office space, and the Park and Recreation Department wants the site for a maintenance yard.

On Thursday, six proposals were presented to the city Planning Commission at the first of two public hearings on the fate of the hospital site. The commission intends to make its own recommendation to the City Council after the second hearing Oct. 2.

Also at Thursday’s hearing, individuals stepped forward to plead for individual buildings, citing reasons ranging from self-interest to sentiment. Among them were the Navy Hospital’s librarian and proponents of a health science museum and a railway museum in the park.

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Even the architect of the library building testified in its defense--out of “personal pride,” he said.

“I feel a little like the father who is here to plead for one of his small children,” said Homer Delawie, who designed what is known as Building 8.

The Navy site, which consists of 41.8 acres and an option on 8.3 acres used for public parking, is to be returned to the city in 1988. The Navy is giving it back in return for 35.9 acres in Florida Canyon, where it is building a new hospital.

The old hospital is composed of 42 buildings, 16 of which are part of the original compound built in the 1920s and 1930s. There are two relatively new buildings and a chapel, which veterans have argued strongly should be preserved.

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To plan for the land swap, the Park and Recreation Department last year appointed a committee to consider the best use for the land. The committee--which included architects, engineers, planners, environmentalists and others--reported back during the summer.

The report, presented with those of the other groups to the Planning Commission on Thursday, recommends demolition of all but five historic buildings and the chapel. It proposes cutting the size of the parking lots, and returning the eastern end of the area to open space.

The Park and Recreation Department differed with its own committee: it proposed keeping just one historic building, the two new ones and the chapel. It also suggested placing an 8- to 10-acre maintenance yard on the eastern end of the site. But that proposal was modified by the Park and Recreation Board before being submitted to the Planning Commission. The board favored saving three historic buildings and the chapel, and demolishing the new buildings.

Next, the city manager weighed in: keep one historic building, the chapel and the two new ones, City Manager Sylvester Murray recommended.

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Meanwhile, the Historical Sites Board came out with a dramatically different plan: keep all 15 historic buildings and the chapel.

Another proposal came from the park’s master planner, who recommended keeping three historic buildings and two new ones, and erecting two large halls at the rear.

Finally, the city Planning Department spoke: keep 15 historic buildings, both new ones and the chapel, it urged. That plan, the department said, would serve historic and open-space considerations while providing office and conference space in the park.

As for the proposed maintenance yard, the Planning Department favored it, the ad hoc committee opposed it, the city manager favored it, the Historic Sites Board opposed it and the Park and Recreation Department favored it.

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“The basic philosophical positions you’re dealing with are the professed need for free and open parkland . . . versus the retention of what the department sees as a physical resource that has adaptive reuse potential,” Ron Buckley of the Planning Department told the Planning Commission on Thursday.

Then representatives of each group began criticizing the others’ proposals.

Ann Hix, chairwoman of the ad hoc committee on the Navy Hospital, pointed out that the Planning Department’s proposal added up to 18 buildings, sufficient parking for those, and a new maintenance yard.

“I’m afraid that that leaves virtually no open space on the 50 acres we are getting back from the Navy,” she said. “This is the last significant piece of real estate we’ll ever have to deal with to add to Balboa Park.”

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George Loveland, director of the Park and Recreation Department, challenged the Planning Department’s suggestion that the buildings could house offices and conference rooms. He said the land will be dedicated parkland, and offices are not an allowable park use.

Loveland said the Planning Department also was mistaken in assuming that prospective tenants might foot the bill for rehabilitation.

“That is not in the realm of possibility,” he said. Tenants probably could not afford to maintain the buildings either, he added.

The Planning Department’s scheme would cost the city as much as $17 million for rehabilitation and $1.7 million in annual maintenance, Loveland said. By comparison, he said his department’s plan would cost only $4 million and $400,000 in annual maintenance.

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“We feel that this is an extremely important issue in Balboa Park,” Loveland said, referring to the need for what the park’s charter calls “free and open” park space.

“One of the values (of Balboa Park) is the relief from urban density,” Loveland said.

But Kathryn Willetts of the Historical Sites Board testified that there are strong reasons in favor of keeping the buildings. They screen the new hospital and the freeway from view, provide space for recreational uses, and grace a high point of ground, she said.

But the strongest argument is cultural, Willetts said: the site is eligible and will apply for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. It also is being considered as a national landmark, consisting of a chain of Navy sites in the Pacific Theater.

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If they received historical designation, the buildings would become eligible for federal and state money when it is available, Willetts said. She said that money could be used to restore the buildings.

One focus of the public testimony Thursday was Building 8, the medical library and auditorium building designed by Delawie in 1964. In addition to testimony from Delawie and the librarian, there were proposals to make it a railway museum and a health science museum.

Also testifying was a Park and Recreation employee who called the Planning Department’s plan “the antithesis of open space.”

He read a letter published in the San Diego Union in 1925 in which park pioneer George W. Marston warned against further construction--"or else,” Marston wrote, “we shall have a city there, instead of a park.”

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