Car Museum OKd After Jones Flops Vote, Favors Lease

Times Staff Writer

A seven-year battle to put an auto museum in Balboa Park ended in victory Tuesday when the San Diego City Council--by a one-vote margin--agreed to sign a lease with the museum backers to give them the Conference Building in January, 1988.

The year's delay, to help current users of the building to relocate, was the price negotiated by Councilman William Jones for changing his vote from "nay" to "yea."

Jones said the additional time will allow a more thorough search for alternate meeting sites for dance groups, handicapped athletes, Ping-Pong players and a dozen other organizations that have called the barn of a building their recreational home for decades.

Don Biggs, president of the San Diego Automotive Museum, balked at the delay, which has already threatened to cost the museum a number of proffered displays from other museums and some loan commitments.

However, after Jones made it clear that he could not vote for the 25-year lease unless the year's delay was included, Biggs and attorney James Milch conceded that the project could move ahead with the delay.

After the vote, Biggs said the museum association will immediately move to sign a lease with the city "within the next few days," so that major donors can write their checks during the 1986 tax year and avoid the stricter tax laws on donations that go into effect in January.

Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who voted against the lease, argued that the action should be postponed until after November's special bond election to finance Balboa Park improvements, including new quarters for the recreational groups displaced by the auto museum.

"This is a matter of timing," O'Connor argued. "A lot of people are not going support us on the bond vote," she warned. "This (approval of the lease) will pit one group against the other."

Newly appointed Councilwoman Celia Ballesteros was sworn in last week after the council had split 4-4 on the lease--a tie vote that gave a temporary victory to the groups now using the museum but required, under council rules, that the issue be brought up for consideration again this week.

Declaring herself against the lease because she feels that Balboa Park should remain "free and public," Ballesteros won applause from the anti-museum audience.

But the apparent victory of the recreational groups over the auto museum backers was short-lived. Jones began questioning Biggs about amending the lease to gain concessions and additional time, indicating that he might change his vote if the lease terms were modified. In the final vote, Jones, Councilmen Bill Cleator, Mike Gotch and Ed Struiksma, and Councilwoman Gloria McColl backed the museum. O'Connor, Ballesteros, Councilwomen Judy McCarty and Abbe Wolfsheimer backed the dancers and others who wanted to retain the building for their recreational pursuits.

City Manager John Lockwood recommended approval of the auto museum and proposed a relocation plan that would move the various groups now using the Conference Building to sites in other parts of the park. Lockwood admitted that the moves would curtail some of the groups' activities and "inconvenience" organizations forced to share their park quarters with the displaced Conference Building groups.

However, he said, if a proposed bond issue passes next November, additional facilities could be built and operating by 1990 or '91.

Disappointed dancers and athletes filed out of the council chambers after the vote, vowing that they would fight eviction, whenever it came.

Most of the groups will find new quarters except for a group of folk dancers who wear wooden clogs. The cloggers require a large cement and tile floor for their performances and the only one in Balboa Park is in the Conference Building.

Museum officials have agreed to spend more than $250,000 to refurbish the 1930s-era building, erected for the Pan-American Exposition of 1935. A new stucco exterior, roof repairs and other exterior improvements can be made without displacing the present activities in the old building, Biggs said.

He anticipates that the new museum can open in January, 1988, the soonest permitted under the lease.

Also required of the museum forces under the lease is construction of a $2-million to $3-million addition of 36,000 square feet.

Besides displays of 100 or more antique and unusual autos, the museum will include a gift shop, an automotive reference library, and a restoration and repair shop.

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