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

"It's all over the legislation," Dolson says. "The Presidio real estate interests are looking at developing the land, and that whole place can be exploited for personal gain by people on a special dealing venture. Some special interests on the East Coast who haven't seen the Presidio are talking about selling off parts of the park," DolsonR> says.

R> EduardoR> Cohen, meanwhile -- he is campaign director for the Mill Valley-based In Defense of Animals -- sees the threat of animal research in the legislation.

"It doesn't specifically mention animal research," Cohen says. "But what the legislation does is make generation of revenue the bottom line. And the most valuable building space in the Presidio is the Letterman Army Institute of Research." The LAIR building (which is separate from Letterman Hospital) is a specialized wet lab with animal storage areas, custom-made to be a laboratory, Cohen says.

LAIR at one time was the center of rather horrific military research on animals, but the institute has not performed animal research for years, and today is largely shut down. Cohen's group doesn't believe in the scientific use of animals under any circumstances, including AIDS or tuberculosis research, and he and other animal rights activists have lobbied -- unsuccessfully -- for legislation that forbids the practice at the Presidio.

"Most people would agree it is an inappropriate activity in a national park," Cohen says.

Ventresca seconds that emotion -- and all other critiques of the Presidio Trust.

"The legislation lays out a one-way conveyor belt of subsidies to private businesses that can get 99-year leases to the Presidio," Ventresca says, talking over a glass of water at a restaurant on Third Street. He doesn't have time for lunch. He's brought all his notes on the Presidio.

Ventresca says he wants a "traditional national park management model ... driven by the mission to preserve the cultural, historic, and natural resources of the park unimpaired for future generations," reeling off the words with the rote quality of a man who's said the same thing for years. "When the National Park Service was established, it was given a mission to" -- he ticks off the list. "And this trust will have no such mission."

But national parks, I say, are not like Boards of Supervisors, or city commissions. The public isR>n't invited tR>o shape theirR> every decision.

"Then it should be a traditional National Park Service model with public oversight added in," Ventresca says. "Evolve it in the right direction -- evolve it to suit San Francisco's needs, and then broaden it across the country."

The city, state, and federal governments should join hands to pay for the Presidio as a national park, Ventresca says. The Park Service's demands for $25 million are overinflated: The place could probably run on $10 million to $15 million, he claims.

But isn't the government broke?
"I don't believe that," Ventresca says. "The government can always find money when it needs to."

(Richard DeLeon, the political scientist, has a description the next day for conversations such as these: "It's something common among progressives in this city," DeLeon says: "They're very good at stopping things but not particularly great at coming up with alternatives or specifics.")

And Brugmann's wish for the Presidio?
"It ought to be kept as a park," he says. "Put homeless people in the buildings. ... You could house thousands of homeless people in there. It's a hell of a lot simpler and more useful to do that than to turn it into a business park."

For Brugmann, the Presidio amounts to a continuation of older civic debates. "The people who wanted to Manhattanize San Francisco now want to Manhattanize the Presidio," he says.

Even the most fervent supporters of the Trust legislation regard it as a mixed blessing. But at least the bill contains a blessing, which is more than can be said for the No-Trust'ers' unrealistic alternatives.

The hothouse politics of one newspaper and a handful of activists are not likely to convince the Republican House and Senate to embrace a vision of the Presidio as a park/homeless shelter that is financed by the federal government. If Clinton vetoes the bill and the Presidio facilities continue to crumble, an emboldened Republican majority may see fit to adopt the PresiR>dio legislation R>that was advanceR>d by Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.) a couple of years back. Duncan proposed that whole chunks of the Presidio be sold off and only a few edges be retained for the park.

The Presidio, the child of historic whimsy, has not yet found stable parents. If the Trust becomes law, the land's situation is somewhat treacherous, since the legislation defining the park is vague. The odds of success for the Trust can't be gauged, either, since the arrangement has never before been tested.

The park is a guinea pig. Guinea pigs have lots of natural enemies and not many natural protections. A lot of guinea pigs don't live very long.

But some of them survive quite nicely. Some of them even survive brilliantly, if they're well-tended. And so the hysterics of the opposition are likely to come true, to a degree; and not come true, to a degree.

And in the end, it is safe to say that the Democrats tried their best in the worst of times. And that, even if the worst nightmare occurs, there is consolation.

Change is inevitable.

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