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

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.

"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.

"I think the amendments imposed on the bill in committee went too far," says Ann Notthoff, a senior planner for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What happened?
Bambi Meets Godzilla, environmentalists say.
"The Republican committee leaders believe in extraction vs. preservation," says Redmond Kernan, co-chair of the Neighborhood Associations for Presidio Planning, a consortium of nine neighborhood groups, most of them initially supportive of the Pelosi legislation but at least two of whom have turned against it. "It's just a totally different mind-set," Kernan says.

First, the bill ran the gauntlet of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Lands, chaired by Rep. James Hansen, the Utah Republican who penned his state's "bad wilderness bill," as it's known in conservation circles. One of the most environmentally odious proposals of 1995, the Hansen legislation calls for opening millions of acres of Utah wilderness to extraction and commercial uses.

Next -- after the Hansen-hammered Presidio bill passed the House -- the companion bill arrived in the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by none other than Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska. Murkowski is perhaps best known for his determination to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies seeking to export most of their crude to Japan.

Attempting to muster strength in the face of such forces, Pelosi, Feinstein, and Boxer asked powerful Republicans to help lobby on the Presidio's behalf. Answering the call Dec. 20 in Murkowski's committee were Donald Fisher, chairman and chief executive officer of The Gap Inc.; James Harvey, chairman of Transamerica Corp.; Toby Rosenblatt, former San Francisco Planning Commission president, current chairman of the Golden Gate National Park Association, and president of the Glen Ellen Co.; and Curtis Feeny, Stanford Management Co. vice president for real estate.

The lobbying worked, or didn't, depending on your point of view.
The Presidio Trust bill crawled out alive, if a mere shadow of its former self. The legislation, after its visits to the Republican-controlled House and Senate, no longer included National Park Service propriety or a 50-50 split between Park Service and Trust. The Presidio no longer reverted to the Interior Department if the Trust experiment failed.

Excised from the legislation were the institutional protections that the Trust members would include the director of the Park Service, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and 10 appointees of the secretary of the Interior (who in an early version was to review all decisions on major tenants).

The Trust no longer had to give priority to tenants who helped preserve "the park's scenic beauty and natural character," and its resources no longer were to be used "in the public interest."

The legislation was even stripped of a conflict-of-interest clause requiring that no Trust member have a financial interest in tenants or properties.

"Some members of Congress, basically, are trying to deauthorize wilderness," sighs Brian Huse, Pacific region director of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), which, like the others, supports "the original intent" of the Pelosi bill, Huse says.

"There's an attempt to shrink Shenandoah National Park [in Virginia], and change the uses allowed in Voyageurs National Park [in Minnesota]," Huse says. "And then Congress tried to virtually shut down the Mojave Desert [park] by giving it no money."

"There has been growing interest," adds Laura Loomis, NPCA national issues director, "in looking to corporate support for public preservation efforts, and we've always been leery of it. Until United Airlines bought the rights to Gershwin's music, you could listen to "Rhapsody in Blue" and just think about how beautiful it was," Loomis says. "And now, how many people listen to it and don't think of a stupid airline?"

What's next, Loomis asks: "Budweiser brings you Yellowstone?"

"Sellout." "Giving Away the Presidio." "Land Grab." "Presidio: The Final Days." "Deathbed Conversion?" "Going, Going ..."

The headlines in the Bay Guardian, under the direction of Editor and Publisher Bruce Brugmann, have proclaimed their disgust for the Trust legislation in language like the steady drip, drip, drip of water on the forehead. And because of the relative silence of the other media in town, the Guardian has helped to frame the debate for a committed minority.

"Under the Republican plan, everything would be up for grabs," the Guardian has written. "Pelosi's puppets" on the Board of Supervisors are "spitting on the spirit of the Sunshine Law" ... Pelosi's "operatives" support a plan created by a "pro-business clique," which convinced "Presidio insiders" that the park could be "transformed into a West Coast version of the United Nations," the paper has declared.

Although the Guardian didn't like the original, warm-and-fuzzy Park Service management plan, it likes the current plan less, concluding that it "would require conversion of many of the Presidio's historic houses, barracks and offices into modern, downtown-style office space."

Why the hysterical language?
"It's all true, and it's been backed up by our staff," says BruR>gR>mR>ann.
Brugmann's interest in the story, he says, harks back to his chief passion: exposing and jousting with PG&E. With tenacity that would make a pit bull weep, Brugmann hasn't let go of the PG&E story -- the tale of a monopolistic utility -- for more than 25 years. And in 1994, the Guardian uncovered a plan by the National Park Service to let PG&E take over the Presidio's electrical distribution system without proper bidding procedures.

"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.

"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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