Thursday, December 24, 2009

Looking Ahead to 2010: Promise and Problems

The coming year will prove to be the turning point for the Presidio's emergence as a great national park. Let's look at the promise, then the problems.

THE PROMISING OUTLOOK. Defeat of the monstrous proposal for a contemporary art museum in the center of a National Historic Landmark has brought new realism and strong support to oppose other destructive ideas. A 70,000 square foot, 30 feet high hotel right in front of the flagpole is being fought by the Park Service, the State Historical Preservation Officer, and many community groups, including the Presidio Historical Association. The hotel project is being examined and changed in a process carried out in accordance with the laws that protect national historic landmarks. The final result will be only advice to the Trust: the Trust can ignore recommendations. The Trust never has made a case why this hotel is needed beyond spin such as "every great national park needs a great lodge." We believe the hotel will be moved, greatly redesigned, or abandoned.

Another favorable development for 2010 is the recent election of Nancy Bechtle as Chair of the Presidio Trust. She conducted the open meeting on December 8 with a new tone of civility and respect for the public. Mrs. Bechtle is a social leader, former President of the Symphony Board and longtime patron of the arts. She was Vice Chair of the National Parks Foundation. The year ahead will tell if she has the leadership needed to take a clear eyed look at the Presidio and change its direction.

Finally, there is movement after ten years for the Park Service and the Trust to collaborate on "interpretation." which is NPS language for receiving and educating visitors to the history and ecology of the park. The Acting Superintendent of the GGNRA, Frank Dean, appeared at the December 8 meeting and both he and Mrs. Bechtle promised to work together on a visitors center and interpretation plan. This would be wonderful news, but we have heard such promises many time before. This time, however, I believe good things will happen. Congresswoman Pelosi earmarked 5 million dollars of the recent Defense budget for a history display in the Officer's Club. That is not enough to rehabilitate the building and design and install displays. That will be at least $ 20 million. Nevertheless, this has to be made part of the overall interpretation plan that is sadly missing. The Presidio will benefit from the new collaboration and focus.

THE PROBLEMS. The Trust seems to be moving by inertia by continuing to push for the hotel. It has staff that have spent most of their careers at the Presidio developing the plans and starting the process for the contemporary art museum, while ignoring public opposition. The hotel was conceived in its proposed location in front of the flagpole as an "edge" to the Main Parade, which was to become a grand lawn in front of the museum that extended almost to the Bay. Why this ill conceived hotel continues to waste thousands of hours and many more dollars is beyond understanding, unless it is mere inertia and hubris. The hotel company that wanted to build it isn't even sure if it wants to continue the project without the art museum and in today's financial climate.

The notion of a heritage center in the Officers Club is attractive, but how will the Trust and NPS collaborate to do this? The Trust does not have a senior manager to design history exhibits or to manage a mini-museum. The Park Service is woefully understaffed, and its idea of a visitors center is basically a carbon copy of every other park visitors center. Where will the needed imagination and leadership come from?

Finally, there is the basic challenge of a changed Main Post Plan introduced when the contemporary art museum was driving the process. It has been fought over under the process laid out by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in a environmental impact report. The "revised Main Post Update" includes many elements that are destructive to the purposes of a national park and that threaten a national historic landmark district. The process has experienced many procedural and substantive errors. If radical changes are not made in the document prior to the Trust Board approving it, then continued struggle by public groups with the Trust will make 2010 a bleak experience.

I would rather see, as would you, the Presidio's rededication to serving and educating the general public on the history of America at the Presidio, rather than fight over real estate development or art museums in a "cultural center." The public would rise in support and be overjoyed to put years of contention to rest. It would be the best holiday gift of all.

Happy New Year!