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California and the West

Plans for Historic Fort Draw Fire

Recreation: Babbitt puts hold on proposals for conference center at Bay Area's Ft. Baker in response to residents' protests.

May 04, 2000|VERONIQUE de TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAUSALITO, Calif. — You don't get to Ft. Baker by accident.

Set in a curve of coastline at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, the turn-of-the-century Army base is buffered by thousands of acres of rolling hills and reached by twisting two-lane roads.

Rustic and quiet, the seaside site lures families from throughout the Bay Area who visit a children's museum, stroll the rocky shoreline, picnic on the grassy parade grounds and revel in the natural setting.

But Ft. Baker's isolation has ended.

The last of the Bay Area's military bases to become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the fort will come under National Park Service control next year. The Park Service plans to build a conference center on the site, a move that has alarmed residents. Concerns about the conversion have stirred debate so acrimonious that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has stepped in and put all plans on hold.

"At last, someone listened to us," said Jane Woodman, chairwoman of the Citizen's Task Force on Ft. Baker, which was created by the Sausalito City Council. The site of the former fort sits within Sausalito's city limits.

"We feel the Park Service has gone ahead with a large-scale development that's wrong for the site," she said. "It would be too much, not just for Ft. Baker or for Sausalito, but for the whole area."

Sausalito is not alone in its concerns. The Marin County Board of Supervisors and the leaders of neighboring Novato, Ross, San Rafael, Tiburon, Belvedere and Mill Valley recently wrote the Park Service to raise questions about the project's effect on traffic.

"It's a very special place, so everyone wants to see what's best for it," Woodman said.

Ft. Baker, listed on the National Historic Register, was in a ring of Army posts built to defend San Francisco Bay. Set amid 330,000 acres of meadows, grassland and chaparral that include habitat for the mission blue butterfly, it has long been a favorite retreat for city residents.

Among its 40 historic buildings are gracious white clapboard houses topped with red roofs and wide front porches. A crescent of hills backs the lush lawns and mature trees. A small marina, beach trails, fishing pier and boat ramp give the sense of a tiny village, far from the rush and rumble of city life.

The Park Service's plans for Ft. Baker center on the selection of a developer to restore the historic homes and buildings that circle the parade ground, a vast grassy quadrangle dotted with eucalyptus trees. In exchange for the investment, which would include several new buildings and could run as high as $60 million, Park Service officials have proposed that the developer would pay no rent and would hold a lease of up to 75 years.

Opponents fear that the conference center will have up to 350 guest rooms, which they believe would overwhelm the site. They want instead a 150-room facility, as well as extensive public transportation, including shuttles, water taxis and buses, and on-site housing for workers.

A planned 25,000-square-foot expansion of the Bay Area Discovery Museum, as well as kayak rentals and other recreational uses, would add to traffic woes and have not been factored into the big picture, they say.

"No one put all the new uses together--the museum and kayak rentals and the conference center and local traffic--and calculated the cumulative impact," Woodman said. "There are no screaming meemies here--we just want things to be to scale, to be appropriate for Ft. Baker."

That's what Brian O'Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said he wants, too.

"Everyone is committed at this point to the smallest economically feasible project," O'Neill said. "Whether that's 150 or 175 or 225, we can't say right now. We do know it's not anywhere near the worst case scenario of 350 rooms, though."

O'Neill expects the process of defining the project and selecting developers to take about a year.

As a result of Babbitt's intervention, O'Neill and his staff have met regularly in recent weeks with city and county officials, and with representatives from the offices of Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. The group has chipped away at its differences and both sides say progress has been made.

"We're working on trying to design something that can work," said Amy Belser, a member of the Sausalito City Council who attends the meetings. "The focus is there."

That should be good news for Chuck Green, one of the thousands of visitors who enjoy Ft. Baker each year.

'I guess they have to do something to make it profitable, but I don't want it to be so tarted up you don't recognize the place," said Green, of San Rafael. "You come here to get away, not to be impressed."

A neighbor to the south agreed.

"We come here all the time," said Theresa Roberts, who drives across the Golden Gate Bridge to take her daughter to the Bay Area Discovery Museum. "We visit the museum a lot and it wouldn't be as easy if it were very crowded, and it just wouldn't feel the same."

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