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Off-Base (Part II) 

The most vituperative battle ever fought over the Presidio pits a handful of activists (and a certain weekly newspaper) against a local coalition of environmentalists, business, and the majority of elected officials. Is the congressional compromise to es

Wednesday, Jan 10 1996
Here's what history says about blessings and curses at the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay:

For 5,000 years until Europeans arrived, the live oaks and sand dunes were the shellfish hunting grounds of the Ohlone Indians. Then the Europeans came.

By 1776, the Indians were replaced by the Spanish Army, which was replaced in 1822 by the Mexican Army, which was replaced in 1846 by the U.S. Army, which witnessed stampedes of the Gold Rush, replaced by stampedes of immigrants, who witnessed the arrival of the 30th U.S. Infantry, which served 10 campaigns in four invasions on three continents in both World Wars, which was replaced by the 6th Army, which in October 1994 was replaced by limbo.

The former U.S. Army cafeteria was replaced by a Burger King, which sits down the block from a former Indian, Spanish, and Mexican burial ground -- which was replaced by barracks and a sidewalk (the remains were relocated to the National Cemetery).

The picket fences and native plants along Funston Avenue were replaced by lawns. The stalls in the brick stables built for cavalry horses were replaced by machine shops. The Army paved the parade grounds, and put up a parking lot.

And as the decades passed, developers began to drop the odd hint that the emerald-hilled Presidio sure would look sweet wearing a hotel chain. Years before anyone dreamed there'd be such a thing as base closures, Democratic powerhouse Rep. Phil Burton paid attention. He added language to his 1972 legislation creating the federal Golden Gate National Recreation Area that required the Department of Defense, if it ever left the Presidio, to transfer the jewel to the secretary of the Interior.

At the time, the idea of the Army leaving the Presidio was unimaginable. Why would all those colonels and generals give up the plushest country club, er, military post in the world? But lo and behold, in 1988, the Presidio, so often first in everything, was included in the first round of military shutdowns. The national park system was blessed with what the Wall Street Journal called perhaps "the choicest undeveloped urban real estate" in the country.

The curse: To make it suitable for anything but military grunts, millions of dollars would be needed for historic renovation, demolition, and plumbing, electrical, seismic, building code, and Disability Act upgrades. Even the trees were at death's door.

The job of turning the semiurban Presidio into a complete national park was a far more costly enterprise than, say, turning a wilderness area like the Mojave Desert into a park. The Presidio had been a military installation for a century. It was not pristine. It was not wilderness. It was hardly even natural: Marauding, 100-year-old, Australia-imported eucalyptus trees dominated the 228-acre forest; the Army planted most of them, not Mother Nature. The Monterey pines and Monterey cypress trees weren't native to the area, either. And those palms saluting Crissy Field didn't exactly pop up by themselves.

Additional colonialists of the plant world included French broom, pampas grass, ice plant, African capeweed, and gorse. Nearly gone or endangered were the dune scrub, serpentine chaparral, bunch grass, delicate pink Presidio clarkia, and pearly Raven's manzanita.

In their place was 60 miles of road, a pet cemetery, a bowling alley, a supermarket, warehouses, homes, a high-rise hospital, and a medical research complex (in need of $6 million to $30 million in renovations). Also: a theater, and an asbestos, lead, and hazardous waste problem (last spring the Clinton administration released $64 million from the Defense Department for use in environmental cleanups at the base).

The final price tag for the complete base-to-park transformation process: $592 million to $1 billion, the Park Service reported in 1994, after it had finished four years of work on its master plan and was looking forward to creating the Ultimate Park.

With the help of a Presidio Trust to run things, the Park Service believed, tenants could be found who would bring in the bacon -- for example, the University of California at San Francisco was seriously eyeing Letterman Hospital. Plus, the Army had promised to remain a partial tenant until 1999, paying a whopping $12 million a year in rent.

Triple kabloom.
On the last day of the 1994 congressional session, Rep. Pelosi's first attempt to win Presidio Trust legislation fell dead in the Senate. Then, the University of California at San Francisco decided not to lease the 1.2 million-square-foot Letterman Medical Center complex. Six months later, the Army changed its mind, and it, too, left.

"Everything is rough now; it's a whole new era," Sen. Boxer told the Chronicle.

Western Republicans sneered at San Francisco's plans for a cutting-edge national park. "Is this what you expect when you visit a national park?" Republican Rep. Wayne Allard of Colorado asked the House, waving photos of the Presidio's pet cemetery and Burger King.

By 1995, the Senate Budget Committee was weighing the idea of unloading the property and pocketing $550 million.

This, the Trust supporters felt, was no laughing matter. Should they keep fighting for a green, historic wonderland controlled by the Park Service, which could no more fly in this Congress than a frozen Butterball? Or should they try to create a newfangled Trust that would curry favor?

The latest Presidio Trust legislation, said Pelosi on the House floor last fall, describing the way she resolved those questions, "represents a bipartisan effort to merge economic reality with park stewardship in order to maximize revenue potential and minimize the cost to American taxpayers."

Currying favor, here we come.

This is what the currying produced:
If it reaches President Clinton's desk and is signed by him this year, the Presidio Trust Bill, in its current incarnation, would leave the Presidio a national park belonging to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio would also remain a National Historic Landmark, which the land was designated as in 1962.

About The Author

Amy Linn


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