It first rose from San Diego’s central park in 1882 as a landmark addition to the city’s expanding skyline and a crucial step toward meeting the needs of a growing population.

About 134 years later, San Diego High School remains in that same prominent spot. It’s now part of Balboa Park, and there’s growing controversy over whether the campus has overstayed its welcome — with essentially free use — on public land dedicated for cultural and recreational purposes.

With eight years left on a 50-year lease, the San Diego Unified School District is legally obligated to demolish the campus and return the land to the city for park use in 2024. The district is relying on a divisive proposal to preserve the school: asking voters to support a lease-extension initiative on the November ballot.

That option moved a major step forward last week when the City Council approved the idea.

Debate over the 34 acres has pitted park advocates against supporters of the county’s oldest public school, which is also the oldest in California that remains on its original site. “City parks are critical to people’s perceptions of their city, and are becoming more so as cities revive and as more people move back to the city or stay in the city,” said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C. “In this particular case, you’ve got all kinds of colliding love: People who love the park and former students who love the high school, which happens to be in the park.”

On Tuesday, the City Council directed the city attorney to draft a ballot initiative that would allow the campus to stay put. The details have not been released, except that the arrangement would require an amendment to the city charter.

What, if anything, San Diego Unified should give the city in return for continued use of the land has yet to be discussed.

Since a 1974 legal agreement, the district has occupied 34 acres on Park Boulevard for free, save fora$10,000 payment it agreed to make to the city. Meanwhile, the district generated nearly a quarter- million dollars this school year alone in fees from organizations that have rented space at the high school for events.

Mike Kelly, president of the committee of 100 that campaigns to preserve Balboa Park, said the city should insist on an ongoing payment from the school district to help fund hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and for a long list of planned but not-yetbuilt improvements.

“Ten thousand dollars for (another) 50 years — that would be giving it away, and we certainly shouldn’t do that,” he said Councilman David Alvarez, who introduced the charter amendment proposal, said the city typically leases public land for a nominal amount of $1 per year to nonprofit organizations. He would leave it to the city’s real estate assets department to come up with the proper fees.

Alvarez said he thinks the agreement would be written in the form of a lease that would supersede the present 50-year lease that expires in 2024. Councilman Todd Gloria, whose district includes the park and school, said he prefers a permanent solution, not a sale or lease but a “partnership” between the city and district that would have no expiration.

Instead of seeking cash payment, Gloria spoke of freeing up some of the school site as it is rebuilt in the years ahead in denser, taller buildings to reduce the footprint and free up parkland. Neither thought the agreement should produce ongoing revenue to the city or the park.

“My support for maintaining San Diego High School at that location is based on the fact that it is a public use,” Gloria said. “We’re not discussing selling it to a private entity for private uses. We’re talking about a public institution serving the most noble of public responsibilities … educating our children.”

School board vice president Richard Barrera agrees, saying district funds are better spent on the education of San Diego High students than on the publicly owned land that has housed the school for more than a century.

But Barrera, who represents the school, said that doesn’t mean San Diego Unified doesn’t give back to the city of San Diego. Among the partnerships the district has forged that have benefited residents — a $20 million investment of bond measure funds for a charter school that saved the downtown library project to nearly 300 acres in joint-use park space on school campuses.

When asked if the district would offer the city some of its surplus land in a real estate swap or in exchange for continued use of Balboa Park, Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s chief facilities planning and construction officer, said it was a possibility.

“The goal is to put the measure on the ballot and then let the voters decide before we negotiate with the city,” he said. San Diego High sits on 32 usable acres, with 16.3 devoted to “sports, recreation and park-like activities” that are aligned with the park use, district officials said.

What’s more, Dulgeroff said the campus is an established community asset as one of the most used school sites in the district by the youth and adult athletic leagues, testing companies, church groups and other organizations, including Stand Down Veterans Village.

During the 2014-15 school year, San Diego High and its stadium had a combined 81 permits for 1,073 events (both one-time and reoccurring), serving an estimated 39,993 community users.

Organizations paid the district $240,000 in fees to use San Diego High this school year (including $27,000 from Comic-Con, $37,000 from an adult soccer league and $18,000 for a church service), according to district records. About $65,000 went to a stadium maintenance fund, and the rest was intended to cover the cost of community use— such as custodial services — with any money left over going toward general school needs. That’s far more than the $17 per month, or from a real estate perspective, 49 cents per acre per month, that the city gets from the district under the 1974 agreement.

Under the current city charter, a ballot initiative to approve non-park uses in Balboa Park requires a twothirds voter approval, while the charter amendment needs only a simple majority. The 1974 lease agreement was never put to a public vote.

Council President Sherri Lightner, who cast the only opposing vote on the proposed ballot measure, expressed concern at Tuesday’s meeting that a charter change would set an unwanted precedent for other non-park uses in Balboa Park and other city parks. Alvarez said the amendment should be written to apply solely to San Diego High.

What if the measure fails?

Under the terms of Propostion Z passed by voters in 2012, the district could build a new San Diego High, even though the bond measure was never intended to address the matter. Still, Dulgeroff said that would be an extreme “Plan B.” The original Russ School was built in 1882 without a legal agreement to occupy what was largely desolate parkland. The campus was rebuilt as San Diego High in 1908 with $133,000 in voter-approved bonds, but again with no lease even though a 1903 state Supreme Court ruled that schools were not a permitted use in a city park.

San Diego High was rebuilt again to meet earthquake safety standards, with the modern-day campus opening in 1976. Since then, a host of renovations have been made, including significant improvements in recent years. Among them were $5.7 million to replace portable bungalows with a wing of 16 classrooms; $1.7 million for a multimedia TV production studio; $1.2 million to overhaul the culinary arts facility; $1.9 million for improvements to bio-medical science buildings; and $2 million to replace the track and field. As for the distant future, the council members agreed that there should be a provision for returning the site to park use if the high school is ever closed or moved elsewhere.


The California Tower in Balboa Park can be seen in the background
as students at San Diego High School head home for the weekend.