Fisher’s Folly threatens the Presidio

Pub date March 3, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The latest proposal for developing the Main Post at the Presidio national park shows exactly what’s wrong with the privatized, developer-driven planning that has plagued the 1,400-acre site since Rep. Nancy Pelosi took control of it away from the National Park System.

The centerpiece of the new plan, released last week, is the same old monument to the greed and ego of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher. The octogenarian billionaire still gets his art museum, a three-building, 200,000-square-foot development that has no place at the Presidio. Oh, it’s not quite as ugly and intrusive the original design: most of the main gallery will be underground, and the roof will be green. How lovely.

The essential problem with the museum remains, and will continue to plague this development plan. The park is making room for a museum, which was never part of anyone’s vision for the new national park when the Army abandoned the post, purely and simply because a billionaire with powerful political connections wants a place to show off his personal art collection. Fisher’s desires are driving the shape of what ought to be a crown jewel of an urban park. The folks who once upon a time thought the Presidio could be a center for sustainable ecology never had a chance.

And a museum of contemporary art is a total mismatch for the Presidio’s main post. A museum is, by its nature, designed to attract large number of visitors — and since there’s only limited transit capacity in the Presidio, most of them will come by car. The center of the park will be overwhelmed with traffic — and so will the surrounding neighborhoods and the streets that serve as the chokepoints for the Presidio’s limited number of entrances and exits. Those cars will compete for space with the growing number of hikers and bicyclists trying to carve out a space in what is, by definition, a park.

The Main Post proposal also includes a large hotel (described as a "lodge," to conjure up images of rustic accommodations) that will feature a high-end restaurant and bar.

This commercialization of the Presidio stands as the legacy of the speaker of the house, who back in 1994 bowed to Republican demands and decided to take the new park away from the people who run every other national park in America and turn it over to a developer-run Presidio Trust. The trust was saddled with a mandate something no other park has ever faced — it has to develop enough real estate to become self-sufficient. And with Fisher as one of the early trust members, the Presidio has become part office park (with a big George Lucas complex that won the moviemaker a $60 million tax break), part shopping center — and now part museum and hotel complex.

This plan — and the overall dreadful direction the park is taking — can still be changed. The seven-member trust board is appointed by the president, and the Obama administration will soon have a chance to fill three of the slots. By tradition the local Congress member (Pelosi) would have a major say in those appointments — but Pelosi is close to Fisher and has set the Presidio on the wrong course. Obama ought to appoint credible environmentalists and preservationists who are wiling to question and oppose Fisher’s grand scheme.

Some well-meaning local museum foes think the best answer is to encourage Fisher to build his personal edifice somewhere else — say, in downtown San Francisco, where other museums are and where there’s adequate transit infrastructure. The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 to encourage Fisher to follow that path.

We wish he was willing to donate his contemporary art to SFMOMA which is perfectly suited to handle and display it. But Fisher wants total control, and no professional curator would ever accept that. So we’re willing to consider a new Fisher museum downtown. But the city shouldn’t roll out the red carpet for it. If the Republican who made a fortune selling clothes sewn by children in third world sweat shops wants to buy some land and apply for a building permit, the city should treat him like any other developer. But Don Fisher, who has done almost nothing but damage to this city, deserves no special favors.