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

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.

"The Presidio's significant natural, historic, scenic, cultural, and recreational resources must be managed in a manner which is consistent with sound principles of land use planning and management," the legislation states. The park must be protected from development and uses that would destroy its special qualities, the bill says. And the park would be subject to environmental protections such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Historic Preservation Act.

What the bill does not spell out, however, is what the park would look like, and who would move in. When old buildings are demolished -- even the Park Service acknowledges that hundreds need to be torn down -- what would replace them?

According to the legislation, the Trust would be barred from selling any property. But it could help tenants renovate, demolish, or construct buildings by providing federally guaranteed U.S. Treasury loans. New construction, the bill directs, would be allowed if it replaced "structures of similar size in existing areas of development." (Left unanswered is what similar means. And what is an "existing area of development": the golf course, a parking lot, a building?)

The Park Service's job, meanwhile, would be to tend the skinny strips along the bay and ocean, including Baker Beach, and to operate a visitors center on Montgomery Street.

Within 15 years, the enterprise would have to be completely self-sufficient, or the entire property would revert to the General Services Administration (GSA) and be sold. San Francisco would have a right of first refusal (but it's unlikely the city could afford to buy it).

On one thing all agree: The legislation isn't perfect.
"But it can be fine-tuned," says Amy Meyer, co-chair of People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area, who has been devoted to park matters for more than 25 years and working on the Presidio issue for more than five. "I would imagine that we'd have to tinker with the Trust somewhere down the line, just the way you have to tinker with anything new," she says.

One of the biggest fans of the Trust legislation, Meyer herself isn't fond of the clause giving the land to the GSA, as opposed to the national park system. "That's not smart," she says. "But it's also years down the road." Much more crucial today would be making sure the president appointed the right Trust board, she says.

"And if we're given an imperfect piece of legislation, what can we do to make something work? We keep very attentive, as citizens," Meyer continues. Citizens in this city, she says, are not about to let the Presidio go to ruin.

But would any nonprofit organizations be able to move in -- aside from the Tides Foundation, the Gorbachev Foundation, and a few others already located there? If the Trust were looking for the highest-paying tenants, wouldn't it have to rent to corporations, which have the deepest pockets? Could the Presidio become the business park the critics talk about?

"Joel [Ventresca] has been told a hundred times that a business park would be illegal, but he insists that it's going to be a business park," says Meyer. "I'm sorry, but this is just ridiculous."

Michael Yaki, district director for Rep. Pelosi, puts it this way: "There would probably be a mix of public and private," he says. There wouldn't be a shopping mall or high-rises, because the legislation bars that type of development.

"This is a victory for the Presidio -- it remains in the hands of the federal government as a national park," Pelosi announced Dec. 21, when her legislation was approved by the Senate committee. "It moves us away from the very real threat of sale and allows us to continue our efforts to create a magnificent national park."

And yet the Bay Area's congressional triumvirate has not exactly been uncorking champagne over the bill, which Pelosi, for one, has championed for a year. Neither Pelosi, nor Feinstein, nor Boxer returned repeated phone calls regarding the legislation. Even Pelosi's press secretary refused to make a statement.

"They're obviously doing a disappearing act because they're not happy with what's happened," says one environmentalist involved, who asked not to be named.

Several other officials from environmental groups, meanwhile, say they support the intent of the legislation, but hope they can negotiate last-minute changes.

"It's really important that we don't set a precedent, and that the National Park Service or Department of Interior maintain supervision of our national park system," says Becky Evans, the Sierra Club's San Francisco conservation chair. And in the end, "If things still look really bad, we can ask the president to veto," Evans says.

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