Bag It, Larry

No one seems to want a grocery store in the Presidio except Larry Buck

It's tough being a wise guy in a city of fools. Take Larry Buck. Buck's in real estate -- commercial real estate. He's just looking to do deals, ink contracts, broker some office space. When he brings a business and a landlord together in long-term contractual concord, Buck goes home a happy man. Of course, he also gets a cut of the deal.

For almost three years now, Buck's been pushing an idea that sounds like pure win-win when he describes it.

When the National Park Service took over the Presidio, it inherited an almost-new commissary that the Army built shortly before abandoning the base. The way Buck sees it, the store should be leased to Andronico's, the longtime Bay Area grocery chain. Park visitors, employees, and nearby residents would get a new place to buy groceries, and Andronico's would pay taxpayers $28 million in rent over 15 years.

And, of course, if Buck can bring the Park Service and Andronico's together, he would get a commission for brokering the transaction.

Now, if only a few others could see genius of the idea. "Nobody's been able to present me anything that's wrong with this proposal," he says. "I just don't understand what the problem is."

There are several problems, actually. As part of the master plan to remake the Presidio into a showcase historic park, the commissary building is slated to be torn down. Then there's the notion of a full-blown grocery store in a national park. It just doesn't sit well with some park supporters, particularly when the prevailing wisdom these days is to get congestion and commercial operations out of national parks.

And perhaps most significantly, Andronico's itself seems only lukewarm about the idea. When SF Weekly first contacted the grocery chain, a company spokeswoman denied Buck had authority to negotiate on Andronico's behalf. In a later call, she admitted Buck does have a contract with Andronico's. But neither she nor owner Bill Andronico wanted to talk about any designs the company may have on the Presidio location.

Still, it's hard to rain on the parade of a salesman with a commission in his sights.

Buck first started floating the concept in early 1995, not long after the Army began turning the former military post over to the National Park Service. At the same time, various levels of government were devoting massive efforts to figuring out how to clean up and preserve the prime piece of real estate at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ultimately, Congress passed legislation setting up the Presidio Trust, a government-owned corporation that is supposed to run the park. The trust is charged with preserving the Presidio's historic buildings and converting the rest of the base to recreational use.

Plans call for most of the newer buildings left behind by the military -- those of no particular historic or architectural note, like the commissary -- to be torn down to make way for picnic areas and open space.

But because maintaining the park and all its old buildings is so expensive, the trust was also given 15 years to make the whole operation financially self-sufficient. That's where Buck saw an opening.

The Army commissary, a 92,000-square-foot grocery store open to military personnel and retirees, was left in move-in condition. In fact, even though the Army is gone, the commissary is still operating, though it's open only to those with military identification.

Buck sees Andronico's in that space, whether the grocery chain does or not. For almost three years, he's been peppering the Park Service, the trust, and various officials with letters trying to land a lease for the building. He's had little luck so far.

"What you have here is the most commercially leasable property on the Presidio and a tenant willing to move in immediately and begin paying rent immediately, and they've spurned [it] for three years at this point," Buck says.

In response to his queries, Buck has mainly received polite rebuffs from various officials. The most recent, from the trust's acting general manager, Craig Middleton, points out that the trust is still getting organized and isn't ready yet to start talking deals. Middleton promises to keep Buck's proposal on file.

Buck argues that the $28 million rent the grocery store would pay could be used to make many of the improvements and repairs needed in the rest of the park. Not to mention what a convenience it would be for visitors, park workers, and near-by residents.

Michael Alexander, chairman of the Sierra Club's Presidio Task Force, sees Buck's efforts less charitably. "He's a very persistent and aggressive person," says Alexander. "But isn't what he is doing basically for himself?"

While the rent a grocery store might pay is alluring, Alexander says it doesn't come close to justifying its tenancy in a national park, especially with all the effort that has gone into planning for the Presidio's future.

"The Presidio is special among special places," he says. "There are always temptations to get short-term cash, and I can appreciate that you want to do that. But at the same time, if you just start taking anything to get short-term cash you set the wrong tone for the place."

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