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We are cycling near Letterman Hospital, a medical ghost town, and past a tennis court, where a man throws a stick and makes his dog sit before fetching it.
The GOP over the past year has been pursuing plans to sell or privatize national parks, or to hand them off to the Bureau of Land Management (harbinger of oil and gas exploration, mining, grazing, and logging). I ask Alexander if it's reasonable to expect that the Presidio will become the first national park to make revenue, not recreation.
He glides his bicycle to a stop.
"The Republicans have been going after the Park Service all year," Alexander agrees. They think the National Park Service is filled with bad managers. And sometimes, he adds, Republicans are partly right.
"The Park Service is a great bunch of people, but they themselves will tell you that they're not particularly good at managing real estate. That's not their expertise," he says. "It's not what they've been trained for."
Most Republicans, meanwhile, are not thrilled that the Presidio received $25 million in Park Service funds last year for 1,480 acres -- more cash than any other national park. Yellowstone got $20 million for 2.2 million acres.
The GOP doesn't care that it's the upkeep for 510 historic buildings that makes the place so expensive, or that this property attracts 3 million get-out-of-the-car tourists every year and 16 million drive-throughs. Or that the Presidio is the only national park with more rentable space than a World Trade Center tower (6.3 million square feet vs. 4 million). The party just wants to balance the budget, Alexander says.
So what would happen, he's asked, if the Trust legislation died?
"We'd see the Presidio budget cut by at least half," Alexander says, trying not to snap, "to $12 million." An indication of how expensive the upkeep truly is resides in the fact that the Army spent $70 million annually on this place. (Reality check: The military is also the agency fond of $50 wing nuts.) "Cut the budget," he insists, "and they'd be putting up plywood over the doors and windows and having issues with people trying to move in and squat, and there'd be vandalism and people setting fires." Vacant buildings fall apart fast, and centuries-old vacant buildings fall apart even faster, he says. He points to the mold growing in a stucco wall before us. "I can see maintenance trouble already. I can't imagine what it'd be like in another year or two."
No matter which side is talking, in other words, the facts arrive in a soil of fear, intractability, and a certain hysteria. Call it the Mulch of the Decade. Or reality. But when it comes to preservation, the local blend is particularly rich.
"Progressivism in this city is linked to a deep attachment to place," explains Richard DeLeon, political science department chair at San Francisco State University and author of Left Coast City, an examination of the city's politics. "People really like San Francisco; they like the way it looks, and they want it to remain that way."
Schisms arise as different groups fight the battle in different ways. Traditional lines are drawn between a large base of slow-growth advocates -- epitomized by the 1986 victory of Proposition M, the growth-control initiative -- vs. a small, more absolutist (and less successful) group of no-growth neighborhood preservationists. Belonging to the first group, in terms of Prop. M, were the Sierra Club and San Francisco Tomorrow (SFT). In the second faction: Joel Ventresca and what DeLeon termed "a maverick group of neighborhood activists."
In the Presidio wars, the sides once again include the Sierra Club and SFT vs. Ventresca and grass-roots others. Fighting to protect the wedge of land from which the Golden Gate Bridge unfurls are some idealists, in other words, who trust change about as much as they trust plutonium.
The people supporting the Trust, contrarily, say they want to broker change. Change might be a hungry 12-foot monster, as they see it, but you risk far less harm if you feed the monster a snack than if you stomp on its toes.
"The idea of a Trust was not invented by right-wing Republicans," as Alexander said the week before our bike ride. "The idea of the Trust was created by people in San Francisco who deeply love the Presidio and who have been willing to devote tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of volunteer time to it."
Trust supporters recognized that winning $25 million a year for a national park in a Democrats' city "was not going to be sustainable," Alexander says. "We knew we were going to have to come up with a very different way of managing this very different kind of space."
Preserving the Presidio, Alexander believes, requires a bipartisan consensus in Congress and a willingness on the part of activists to accept revenue-generating compromises.
Change, Alexander tells me, is inevitable, and Republican control of Congress necessarily narrows the range of the debate.
We are wheeling past an 1860s officer's home, once elegant, now a bit shabby, a wood tooth gone bad. Near the front window, a bobbing troop of eight California quail seek shelter in a bosky overhang that badly needs a trim.