Playing hardball in the Presidio

Pub date July 11, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL When Rep. Nancy Pelosi began peddling her plan to privatize the Presidio back in the 1990s her chief weapon was fear: If the Democrats didn’t cut a deal to let the private sector control the fate of the new national park, she argued, the Republicans who ran Congress would simply sell off the land. Then there would be no park at all.
That was a highly unlikely scenario — there was a Democrat named Bill Clinton in the White House, and it’s hard to imagine him going along with the GOP on the sale of 1,491 acres of parkland in San Francisco (part of his loyal California base). But even if that happened, we argued at the time, San Francisco wouldn’t have been helpless: The city at least could have had some zoning control over the private land.
Instead, we’ve wound up with the worst of all worlds — a park controlled by an unelected, unaccountable federal trust that’s dominated by real estate and development interests, that has already handed over big chunks of the park to the private sector (George Lucas and others), and that refuses to abide by any local land-use regulations or ordinances.
That’s the problem at the heart of the dispute over the plan to build 230 luxury condominiums and apartments on the site of the old Public Health Service Hospital Complex just off Lake Street. Neighbors want a smaller project, one more in sync with the (relatively) low density district. More important, Sup. Jake McGoldrick, who represents the area, wants to see the developer add some affordable housing to the mix.
But the Presidio Trust has no interest in affordable housing. For the Bush appointees who run the park, the only thing that matters is the bottom line. Luxury units mean more profit for the developer and more cash for the trust. The needs of San Francisco aren’t even part of the equation.
This is what Pelosi wrought, with the help of then-mayor Willie Brown and the entire old Burton Machine (along with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups), and it is the most enduring legacy she will leave behind. (See “Plundering the Presidio,” 10/8/1997.) It’s important for every activist infuriated with the arrogant behavior of the Presidio Trust to remember that — and to start mounting some real pressure on Pelosi to undo the damage and repeal the Presidio Trust Legislation. The Presidio is a national park and ought to be run by the National Park Service.
In the meantime, though, the city has no choice but to play hardball. McGoldrick was only half joking (if he was joking at all) when he suggested that the city close portions of 14th and 15th avenues — literally blocking off the only entrance to the Presidio from the Richmond, a move that would seriously damage the new development. The city can also deny water and sewer service, which would pretty much end any plans for luxury housing.
Those aren’t pretty solutions — but if the trust won’t back down and at least meet the city’s requirement for affordable housing, McGoldrick and his colleagues should pursue them. SFBG