5:48pm

Tue October 9, 2012
Arts & Culture

The evolution of the Presidio

The Presidio, where the Golden Gate Bridge meets San Francisco, combines beautiful nature with rich historical heritage. The 1,500 acres are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and are managed by the Presidio Trust which was established by Congress in 1996 when the US Army left the space.

Visitors can explore many hiking trails, campsite and play at the golf course. They can also visit restaurants and cafes, and even a spa. Approximately 8,000 people live, work, or attend school at the Presidio.

But the way the Presidio is choosing to manage the park is creating controversy. Development of the historic property has sparked debate over what the sprawling space should look like and how it can remain financially sustainable.

New ‘inn’ town

The opening gala for the new Inn at the Presidio was everything one can expect: champagne, music, good food, and well-dressed attendees. The Inn is the first overnight accommodation held in the Presidio, and is situated in Pershing Hall, a historic building that used to house bachelor officers. Terry Haney, general manager of the Inn, says that “officers who had families lived in the large homes on the hill and the ones who were single with no family stayed here. Every officer had his own living room, bedroom and a private bath.” Such setting made Pershing Hall a perfect candidate to become an Inn. The building is located at the Main Post, along the Presidio's Parade Grounds, at the heart of the park.

“This building was completely rehabilitated. It was in very, very bad disrepair. Quite honestly, we have spent $11.4 million on the renovation of this building,” says Haney. “We have really upgraded building without disturbing its history.”

This is the type of development in the Presidio that has been widely celebrated: historic preservation that will generate revenue. But other ideas have generated controversy.

The other hotel

Gary Widman, president of the Presidio Historical Association, shows  me the place where a new hotel complex was proposed and accepted by the Presidio Trust.

“These two buildings will be the first two buildings of fourteen,” he says. “And you can see how much space two of the buildings take up. There are twelve to go on up the line.”

The new hotel complex site is just down the street from the Inn at the Presidio. Unlike the Inn, this project would include new construction at the historic center of the national park. Bad form, says Widman: “The park is supposed to come first, not the dollar sign. And it seems quite clear that it's not what's been happening.”

So the Presidio Historical Association and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit to stop this and other similar developments. The Presidio Trust claims the new hotel project is no longer on the table. But they haven’t officially pulled out their support and keep on defending this project in court.

Widman points out that the Presidio Trust Act requires the park be protected from development that would “destroy the scenic beauty and historic” character of the area and that “new construction is limited to replacement of existing structures of similar size in existing areas of development.”

Apparently, Widman says, the Trust interprets this differently from him. “They are saying, ‘Well, in one point in the history there were buildings all through there.’ And we are saying, ‘At the time it was made a national landmark, they were not there, so you are limited to replacing the buildings that are there, not adding twelve new major, large buildings.’”

The Presidio Trust executive director Craig Middleton refused to comment on the court case, but noted: “We will have arguments and issues with people always. Thank God for that! Because if we didn't, I would be worried that nobody loves the Presidio. People really do and everybody have their own opinion about how it should be redeveloped and repurposed.”

El Presidio

All of the parties in the dispute seem to agree on one thing: the future of The Presidio should draw from its past. It’s recorded history dates back to 1776. The same year the colonies declared independence from Great Britain on the East Coast, Spain established a fort – “El Presidio” – on the West Coast to secure its regional influence.

“That's the beginning of really what later became San Francisco. But of course at the time it was not United States of America. It was Nueva Espana, the Spanish territory,” says Widman.

“El Presidio” was controlled by Spain, Mexico, or the US Army for more than two centuries, until 1994. When the army left, the Presidio became a part of the National Park Service, leaving more than 700 buildings behind. At first, Congress gave the Presidio Trust up to $25 million per year to maintain the park. But the park had to become financially self-sustainable by 2013.

Soon after, the former Letterman military hospital became the home of Lucasfilm studios, adding a touch of sci-fi celebrity to the venerable base. The Trust’s Craig Middleton says a whole lot more came in to help ground the Presidio: “We have almost 3,000 people living here. They are paying rent. That contributes a lot. That contributes over a half. And then we have people like George Lucas who has generously investment in this place. And Disney family and other people who have come in. And all of it helps, it all adds up.”

About five years ago, the Presidio Trust achieved self-sufficiency for the park. In fact, over the past decade, they’ve attracted more than $1 billion of private revenue and tenant investment.

The controversy, now, is about the vision for the future: what should be protected and what can be developed.

The renovated red brick building that houses the Walt Disney Family Museum fits right into the Old Post. It was always there. But Gary Widman says that several of the Presidio Trust’s other plans, like the idea to build a hotel complex, a movie theater, or a contemporary art museum, would include the construction of modern buildings or the demolition of some existing ones.

What best protects a national park is a debatable point. And it’s one currently being contested by the Presidio Trust and the Presidio Historical Association. The outcome of that argument will shape the look and feel of San Francisco’s National Park for generations to come.

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