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

"Obviously, this was the tip-off that the Presidio was going to be sold off to developers and real estate people via a private trust," Brugmann says. "And that's what we thought it would do, and that's what the bill in Washington is designed to do. It's a continuation of the PG&E scandal, except the dimensions are so great, we're talking about a precedent that will destroy the entire national park system, which is being done right here in the San Francisco Bay Area in front of the eyes of everyone."

But why does he say the land will be "sold off" when there's no such language in the bill?

"Have you read the bill?" Brugmann asks. "They're going to lease it with long-term leases."

"But that's not a sale."
"That's the effect of it," Brugmann says. "If you read it closely that's the way it comes out, that's what privatization means."

Brugmann relates the history of PG&E: the violation of a 1913 legislative act; the way San Francisco electric power, because of that legislative act, should be controlled by a city-run utility. But the city instead relies on PG&E, which charges exorbitantly. It's "one of the biggest scandals in the history of the American city," Brugmann says.

"And now PG&E wants to basically control the power supply and much of the policy at the Presidio, through the Trust." Brugmann refers to the fact that Donald Fisher, of The Gap, and some other members of the powerful downtown business group the Committee on Jobs have supported the Trust legislation. (PG&E chair Richard Clarke is a Jobs board member.)

BruR>gmanR>n foR>rwards me a copy of the statement that Fisher, for example, made to a Senate subcommittee last June. In it, Fisher mentions the value of using long-term leases -- leases "as long as 99 years" -- to give tenants plenty of time to repay their improvement loans. "There is considerable value in keeping the Presidio within the national park system," Fisher told the committee. "In a competitive marketplace, 'The Presidio -- a national park,' offers tenants and investors a prestigious, and therefore a valuable, address. ... I believe there is tremendous investment potential at the Presidio," Fisher concluded.

Which is apparently one of the reasons why the Guardian in subsequent news stories cites "local critics" who decry the fact that the Trust legislation promotes "99-year leases" -- one article also quotes "supporters" who say the leases "are as good as a sale."

But where, I ask Brugmann, does the legislation mention 99-year leases?
"I'm talking about leased, but it also amounts to a sale because it's strictly going to be long-term leases," he says. "Our reporter is back in Washington right now talking to [Sen.] Murkowski and the committee people, and this is coming from statements made to him."

"Then you don't believe," I ask, "that federal environmental or historic preservation laws will protect anything?"

"Of course not," he says. "I think we're going to have a business park with major businesses in there, and they're going to cut out the smaller nonprofits, and the city is going to end up subsidizing that, and providing police and fire [protection], and the businesses are going to go in there and get tax advantages, and it'll be a drain on the city at the same time it produces little federal revenue, at the same time it produces a terrible precedent for the national park system. The minute you try to make a park a moneymaker," Brugmann says, "you run into the Disneylands and the Pier 39s and that sort of thing."

The day the Trust takes over is a day that "will livR>e in inR>famy," R>Brugmann continues. "And everyone who supported the bill is going to live to regret their support, from the Sierra Club to San Francisco Tomorrow to the Burton machine. There are no environmental protections, no Sunshine [Law] protections, no accountability protections; they don't even have a conflict-of-interest clause anymore."

Brugmann says he is absolutely certain that his predictions will come true. Since 1969, "in all my years of directing the PG&E coverage," he says, "not a single story has bounced. We know what we're doing," he warns.

And yet, the Guardian's attentions appear at times to fog, as well as spotlight, the issue. The Sierra Club's Alexander accuses the paper of "select[ing] the facts to fit their worldview, the same as the right wing does."

During one week, for example, the Guardian promoted a "save the Presidio" rally. The next week, the paper described the event in a news story: "A group of activists critical of the plan rallied in front of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's headquarters," the story said. What the story didn't say?

That the rally, according to Joel Ventresca, included perhaps 15 people. Others put the crowd at eight -- not typically a gathering big enough to warrant newspaper coverage.

In the meantime, the Guardian's 99-year lease and sale theories have blossomed in the minds of No-Trust'ers.

"The way it looks to me, that bill would allow property to be sold off permanently," says Lee Dolson, president of the Friends of the Presidio, a group that seeks the reopening of Letterman Hospital, which the Defense Department closed due to seismic instability, among other things.

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