Saturday, February 18, 2012


Legal Action. It is "time out" for now concerning the legal action by the Sierra Club and the Presidio Historical Association - at least as far as the public is involved. For the next few months, the lawyers representing us and the Trust lawyers will be examining data and preparing their strategies. The docket of the federal court is full. It will be weeks or months before the first hearing will occur. Normally, even that first hearing is pro forma. But the process to call the Trust to account concerning environmental and historic reservation laws and regulations has begun.

Understanding History at the Presidio.  The process for detailed planning of a visitors center, which may be in the former "Burger King", later the Goldman Foundation office near the bus stop, is proceeding involving the Trust, the Park Service, and the Golden Gate Conservancy. This effort is coordinated with the planned Heritage Center, a space identified in the Officers Club for exhibits. The exact location and amount of space certainly is open to review, and we await the recommendations of Applebaum and Associates, a  high powered design firm from New York. Finally, the Trust has indicated that some space on the ground floors of one or two Montgomery Street Barracks will be available for "interpretation." Noreen Hughes, who is coordinating all this for the three agencies is planning some form of public participation after the design firm has made its recommendations. The fact that this ambitious planning is underway is encouraging. The challenges are many:  visitor experiences are broken into several places; meaningful exhibits for a diverse range of park visitors must be created; and three different agencies must find a consensus that makes sense.

What's Going to be the Contribution of the "Sports Basement?" The former large commissary building on Crissy Field, should add to the public's appreciation of the Presidio. The building has been designated in plans for public use, but that requires a tenant with deep pockets with a mission to benefit the public. Has anyone any information about the future use of the Commissary? Its wide open interior, high ceiling, seismically sound construction and climate control make it an ideal structure to convert to one or more educational experience spaces- museums, laboratories, rotating displays. For Pete's sake, how about moving a Wax Museum there with Presidio historic figures? Use your imagination. What would you like to see in that building? A really powerful natural history center that dramatically presented the decline of the Bay Area's once fabulous natural environment side by side with the growth of its human populations would be fantastic.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


A legal action has been filed by the Presidio Historical Association and the Sierra Club against the Presidio Trust asking the federal courts to declare the Trust’s Main Post Update and Record of Decision invalid and to find the Trust in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Presidio Trust Act.  Further, the action seeks to halt the revised zoning of the Main Post approved in the Main Post Update and the Record of Decision (ROD).  Those approvals would for the first time permit construction of a fourteen building hotel and a greatly enlarged movie theater in the Main Post. The text of the complaint may be found at


1. Why is this legal action against the Presidio Trust being filed?

Answer. This legal action is important not just for the Presidio, but for all of our national parks and historic landmarks. It will make clear that any federal agency with jurisdiction over a national historic landmark or national park must comply fully with its trust responsibilities as well as with applicable environmental and historic preservation laws.  A federal entity cannot act as if it were a commercial developer on private property.   Failure to make the Trust accountable for any violations of environmental law at the Presidio would set a dangerous precedent for other parks and national historic landmarks controlled by agencies other than the National Park Service. 

2. Isn’t this just more NIMBY opposition to anything new, such as the planned hotel in the middle of Main Post?
Answer:  There is no compelling reason to damage the Presidio National Historic Landmark, but the Trust has nevertheless decided to do that with its proposed new construction. It would set a bad precedent for other parks and national historic sites if any Trust violations of the law go unchallenged. The Trust’s own documents report that its plans for the hotel and other new construction will damage the historic integrity of the Presidio.  The NHPA requires federal agencies to avoid such damage. 
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3. What is the Presidio Trust’s reason for the planned new construction of a hotel and enlarged movie theater on the Main Post in the center of this historic site? 
Answer. The reason given for changing Main Post zoning in order to permit a large hotel and a large addition to the historic theater was to “revitalize” the Main Post of the Presidio.  The Trust’s highest statutory priority is to support the purposes of the National Park and National Historic Landmark, not to destroy or compete with those purposes by sponsoring commercial activities. 
4. What is the basis for the plaintiffs’ argument opposing new construction on the Main Post, except for construction replacing an old building by a new building of the same size, located on the site of the building being replaced?
Answer. The law that established the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 limited new construction to buildings that replaced pre-existing buildings on their original locations.  That law was upheld by the courts in 1986, after the Sierra Club sued to stop the Army and the Postal Service from building a post office on Crissy Field. The Presidio Trust Act contains a similar prohibition on new construction.
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5. Isn’t the new construction necessary for the Trust to meet the requirement in the Trust Act that it must earn enough to keep the Presidio operating without federal funds after 2013?
Answer. No. This is a common misunderstanding.  The Trust’s 2010 Annual Report to Congress said, “ Since 2004, the Trust’s earned revenue has fully offset operating costs”.  In addition, the Doyle Drive Project has resulted in over 60 million dollars of right of way compensation, a huge windfall for the Trust. Trust budgets show it will remain profitable in the future.
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6. Other national parks have hotels. Why shouldn’t there be one on the Presidio?
Answer:  The Trust’s statements comparing its planned hotel on the historic Main Post of the Presidio with hotels in other national parks are misleading.  The historic great lodges at Yosemite, Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, for example, were built where there was no alternative housing for visitors to those parks.  In comparison, the Presidio is surrounded by the 33,000 hotel rooms in San Francisco. There is no environmental or financial rationale that justifies new construction in the park that will damage the National Historic Landmark.
7. A resort hotel, Cavallo Point, was built in Marin at Fort Baker, which is a part of the GGNRA. If the Trust’s plans to build a hotel in the center of the Presidio’s parade grounds violate environmental laws, why has the National Park Service allowed the hotel at Fort Baker to be built?
Answer.  Fort Baker is not a National Historic Landmark. The Presidio is.  National Historic Landmarks are to have the highest degree of protection by law. 
 Also, the Park Service, for the most part, partly hid its new construction at Fort Baker behind existing historic structures.  In comparison, the Trust plan for the Presidio Main Post is to build 70,000 square feet of new construction in the center of the highly visible historic heart of the Presidio.  This planned construction is not at all like the carefully located, partly hidden hotel buildings at Fort Baker. 
8. What about the recently announced Presidio Inn that will be in a rehabilitated historic building? Did the PHA and Sierra Club oppose that?
Answer. No. The new “inn” will provide rooms in a historic building that will be rehabilitated.  Such repurposing is encouraged by preservation laws.  The inn did not require any new construction in the historic landmark.  On the other hand, the Trust’s fourteen building hotel obviously will require massive new construction.  We were, however, disappointed that the Trust’s inn was designed for the wealthy, (rooms are $300-500), rather than for middle class park visitors. 
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9. Who will represent the Plaintiffs in this legal action? 
Answer. The Environmental Law Clinic of the Stanford University Law School will represent the Presidio Historical Association and the Sierra Club in this matter. The Clinic provides an opportunity for students to work in environmental advocacy on behalf of a variety of nonprofit organizations, from national groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ocean Conservancy to regional grassroots groups as the San Francisco Baykeeper and Voice of the Wetlands..
10. What is the Presidio Historical Association? Who does it represent?
Answer. For over fifty years, members of the Presidio Historical Association (PHA) have been dedicated to historical preservation and education at the Presidio. It opened Fort Point to the public, set up a museum there, and later established a museum and school programs for the Army on the Presidio.  Its 300 members represent history fans and friends of the Presidio.
11. How can the public support this legal attempt to stop the Presidio Trust’s plans to damage the historic integrity of the Presidio?
Answer. Join the Presidio Historical Association or donate to the PHA specifically to help with Presidio legal expenses. See 
Updates concerning this matter will also be available on
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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer Update

Well, it seems a summer lull has set in at the Presidio. That is not quite so. Let's go over items one by one.

After the three year war over the Main Post Plan that started with a humongous glistening white contemporary art museum in the middle of the National Historic Landmark, the Park Service, State Historical Preservation Officer and some local groups signed off on a Programmatic Agreement to implement the Plan after the art museum was removed and the hotel was reduced from 40 feet to 30 feet in height and broken into 14 separate (but partly connected) structures. We were glad to see a "Heritage Center" in the former Officers Club.

Presidio Brat wrote to ask what objections we had about changes to the old movie theater. Let's put it into perspective. That place is one of the last remaining mostly unchanged movie houses on a military post in the WW II style. It echoes the very plain but wildly popular movies houses on Army posts everywhere. Millions of soldiers found brief respite from their duties far from home. On the other hand, it should not sit empty and unused, and a one screen small bare theater is not financially sustainable. Does the solution have to be a modern annex that is larger than the historic theater itself? And does the blank wall of this annex have to push out to the curb of a key entrance street to Main Post? This is one reason that the Historical Association did not sign the Programmatic Agreement. We feel that the effect is too adverse to historic integrity. The details of design for the theater and the hotel are being worked out between the Trust, Park Service and State Historic Preservation Officer, with several local organizations participating as consulting parties. Presidio Pal's opinion is that the theater will need redesign and that the hotel in its reduced form will not be commercially feasible.

Credit is due to the Trust for bringing in high powered experts to visualize what is possible for a visitors center and the Heritage Center. The final report of these meetings was inspiring. In my view it was unlimited visioning of what might happen. Those visions are not what will happen in the real world of budgets and turf wars between the Trust and the Park Service. The sessions raise the bar for planning, which is great. We recognize that the Heritage Center idea has gained momentum with the Trust, but we remember that its origins were as a bone thrown to historical interests in hopes we would go away when the art museum was going to be built. Happily, some Trust Board members now genuinely appreciate and support the need for a public display that explains the Presidio's heritage. The Park Service remains saddled with a large brick barracks at 102 Montgomery for a visitors center, but there are better locations for that. Neither the Park Service nor the Trust wants to become committed to the costs of setting up and running an elaborate visitors center. There should be some details on the combined visitors center and the Heritage Center this fall. If this is important to you, let your thoughts be known now. These should be magnets for the public to visit and learn of America's past found at the Presidio.

What's up with Fort Point? Once it was well visited part of the Presidio with lots of activities. It was pretty much shut down during work on the bridge. Now it is open only part time. Another casualty of federal budget cuts; or mismanagement of the funds resources that are available; or temporarily harmed by the Doyle Drive mess?

Also, take a short hike to El Polin Springs to see what the archeologists are uncovering there. Hats off to the Trust archeology staff.

Finally, the summer isn't all that dull. The Trust has presented a Mid-Crissy Field Plan for comment. The idea is to have another tenant for the large building that Sports Basement is in. Preferred use is some form of museum. Strictly my guess is that the Trust has had inquiries from a museum-like activity, commercial or not. They are specific to the point of suggesting changes to the building. There also is thought to add on outbuildings to expand the environmental center. The old Post Exchange building across the lot from Sports Basement will be removed. At first look, the plan does not appear objectionable. The mid-Crissy area will be disrupted by Doyle, has the Crissy Marsh and includes non-historic buildings. It's historic integrity is pretty much kaput as it is. We will see what the plan means for the area.

As always, vigilance by those who care makes all the difference at the Presidio.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What's Going On This Summer?

One area of activity over the summer will be for the details of the recently approved Main Post Plan to be hammered out in the Programmatic Agrement process. Following nearly three years of disputes concerning a contemporary art museum, a hotel and shaping the future purposes of the Main Post of the Presidio, in February the Presidio Trust Board approved its plan. It also approved a "Programmatic Agreement," which is a formal contract that lays out what has to be done for historic preservation as the Trust moves to implement its plan. The key actors for doing that are the State Historic Preservation Officer and the National Park Service. They are joined by less influential but very important public and neighborhood groups. They are hammering out the detailed rules and procedures that the Trust must follow as it acts on the approved plan. What will the buildings or additions actually look like? The Programmatic Agreement process led to great improvements in the Lucasfilm buildings, for example. The Presidio Historical Association has chosen not to sign the Programmatic Agreement because that signature would mean that we agree that the Presidio Trust has met its legal obligations to minimize damage to the National Historic Landmark. We do not.

A second set of activities is centered on creating a visitors center and a Heritage Center, places where park visitors can go to find out why the Presidio is a valuable national park and what it offers to the public. The result of a series of workshops about the visitors center will be presented at the log cabin (in Fort Scott near the small chapel) at six o'clock, May 31. The visitors center concept, place and financing all remain pretty muddled. Lots of public concern and pushing will help to ensure that the bureaucratic and conceptual problems that exist are finally overcome. After all, where else is there a national park that has not had a real visitors center for ten years?

A third problem that the Trust faces is action by Congress to eliminate funding for the Presidio Trust. That was expected in 2013, so these cuts move the cutoff date forward by two years. Frankly, the Trust remains in good financial shape. It is the Park Service that is hurting. Trust budget cuts should not weaken commitments to create the Heritage Center in the Officers Club, nor will they materially harm historic preservation projects. "Greening" of Main Parade is underway. The Trust received an additional five million dollars in 2010 for the Heritage Center and six million dollars more than its original request to the federal government for other projects. The expected budget for 2011 was cut eight million, but in the past two years the Trust received over sixty million dollars for the Doyle Drive destruction of historic properties. Normal income from rentals has softened only slightly. The federal budget cuts can be absorbed by the Presidio Trust without missing a thing.

The Trust is rehabilitating the remaining Montgomery Street Barracks with its own funds, rather than rely on tenants. We understand that there will be a temporary visitors center in building 205, next to the Disney Family Museum. A business school is eyeing that building to lease. The Trust has pledged to use the ground floor of these historic buildings for "public purposes." That sounds like a deliberately misleading term for tee shirt shops and snack bars.

Finally, the Concours d'Elegance that was held successfully the past two years will not be on the Presidio in 2011. All the construction work prevents that from happening.

Please, attend meetings and keep your interests known by e-mailing, phoning or writing to the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Trust Board of Directors Approves Plan to Harm the Presidio's Historical Integrity

The Presidio Trust Directors approved a Record of Decision on February 23 to go ahead with the plan that it has been boosting contrary to 3,000 public comments that emphasized revealing the Presidio's history, not building a commercial hotel for golf tours and convention goers. The approved plan will increase demolition of historic buildings and increase new construction in the National Historic Landmark's heart, the Main Post, above the levels set in the 2002 Trust Plan. The chief feature of the new plan is a 100 plus room hotel including 70,000 square feet of new construction.

The Trust's own documents report that the plan will harm the historic integrity of the Historic Landmark. And why? What logical reason does the Trust give to harm the Landmark that law requires it to protect? The best it can come up with as an explanation is a statement that the hotel will "fulfill the longstanding goal to make the Main Post the heart of the park." Let's think about that. A commercial hotel defines the "heart" of a national historic landmark and a national park? They've got to be kidding.

Elsewhere, the Trust documents identify the Main Post as already being the "heart of the Presidio." The TRust cannot create that "heart" (whatever that means) by demolition an intrusive new construction. The Record of Decision undermines its own argument with illogical statements and vague definitions. It is a seriously flawed document.

The Record of Decision is the final step in the official Environmental Impact Statement process. Will public outrage continue to make sure this is not the final step in building a hotel in the center of the Presidio? Ask the 3000 people who wrote letters or spoke against the plan.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Congress Acts to Cut 15 Million Dollars from the Presidio

Today, February 17, the House of Representatives voted to cut 15 million dollars that was expected by the Presidio Trust. There are chances for this money to be restored later, but presidiopal thinks that is unlikely. Congresswoman Pelosi fought to keep the money for the Presidio by pointing out that it was to be the last appropriated funds for the park under the arrangement of the Trust Act. The principal effect of this cut most likely will be to defer rehabilitating some historic structures. In effect, this cut moves the date for the Presidio to be financially self-sufficient, as the Trust Act requires, from 2013 to 2012.

It remains to be seen if the Trust will use this cut in federal funds as an excuse to build commercial activities on the Presidio such as the proposed hotel.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Presidio Brat commented to this blog to ask why presidiopal and others object so strongly to the proposed hotel in the center of Main Post and to the expansion of the Post Theater to be larger than the original historic structure.

First, let me be clear: our objections are not from off the tops of our heads. They are not NIMBY, as the Trust believes. We have professional historical architects to advise us. We have studied the Secretary of the Interior's Standards that describe preferred treatments for historic properties. We have consulted Park Service experts. We recognize that the Trust Act requires the Trust to protect the historic integrity of National Historic Landmarks.

The central concept that guides us is "historic integrity." There are technical definitions, but the best way to understand it is to ask if a person from the past were to visit the place today, would he recognize the key features of the Presidio? If a contemporary visitor comes to the Presidio, will she see the outline of the past?

The measure for how historic integrity is eroded overtime is "cumulative effects." By the Trust's own analysis and the analysis of the Park Service, the theater expansion and the hotel add to adverse cumulative effects on historic integrity. When these are added to Doyle Drive Construction, the removal of dozens of historic buildings on Crissy and elsewhere, rerouting roads, conversion of buildings to commercial purposes and building the LucasFilm Center, then presidiopal believes that these cumulative effects do indeed harm historic integrity and make it more difficult to understand the history of the Presidio. They begin to interfere with understanding and enjoying the "sense of place" that is so important to a historic park. If the Fisher art museum had been built as the Trust proposed, that would have moved cumulative effects beyond the tipping point. The Park Service warned that the National Historic Landmark status to the Presidio would be in question. Every demolition or new construction brings the Presidio closer to that tipping point. There must be compelling reasons for such actions.

We do not oppose all new construction. We suggested alternate locations for a hotel, but the Trust prematurely announced its chosen location by inviting developers to make proposals for their chosen site, not considering realistic alternative. We suggested that the theater could be rehabilitated and expanded, but not so much that the addition is larger than the historic building and not so that the addition juts out prominently to curbside on a major entry road to the Main Post. The Trust tells us that the theater then would not be commercially feasible. So?

New construction in a National Historic Landmark District is the "least preferable" option according to the Secretary of the Interior. If new construction must happen and it has an adverse effect, then there has to be a compelling reason for it. Is any reason for the hotel compelling? You tell me.

A light hand and deep understanding of how to protect historic integrity are vital for any new construction in a National Historic Landmark. In the present case, that light hand and delicate understanding by the Trust are missing.