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SAN FRANCISCO: THE PRESIDIO

From Army Base to Urban Oasis

Along the new Crissy Field promenade and an idyllic stretch of the Ridge Trail, the old military outpost has become a haven for hikers, bikers and nature lovers

May 07, 2000|CHRISTOPHER HALL | Christopher Hall is a freelance writer in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — "If someone was in San Francisco for only one day and came here," my friend, Mac, said, "he'd think this was the healthiest city in the world."

It was a brilliant afternoon in April, and four of us were enjoying a slow Sunday walk on a new section of bay-side trail in the Presidio, the former Army base in the city's northwest corner that's now part of the national park system.

All along the way, Spandex-clad fitness buffs were out in full force, jogging, running, speed-walking, biking and skating. And although I mentally commended them for their efforts, I also hoped they were appreciating the setting.

Behind us, in the distance, the city seemed to float like a fantasy on the bay--the Emerald City of Oz, without the green--while ahead of us the Golden Gate Bridge vaulted across the water to the grassy hills of the Marin headlands. Out on the bay, sailboats tacked and heeled in the breeze, wet-suited sail-boarders skimmed across the water like mosquitoes on a pond, and a gargantuan tanker lumbered past Alcatraz and its crumbling prison blocks, which managed to look perfectly benign in the spring sunshine.

We were at Crissy Field, a former airfield where more than 70 acres of asphalt and concrete and 15,000 tons of shoreline rubble have been removed to create a 100-acre park that even now, in its incomplete state, has become a magnet for San Franciscans and visitors alike.

But Crissy Field is hardly the only sign of the Presidio's dramatic, continuing transformation from Army base to national parkland. Last October, the Presidio formally opened its 2.5-mile link in the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a planned 400-mile circuit around San Francisco Bay. And a walk around the Presidio's streets, where visitors had few reasons to venture in years past, reveals more change: a new visitor center, houses and apartments for rent, and small Internet companies and environmental foundations setting up shop in old military buildings.

Walk or bike around Crissy Field, the Ridge Trail or the Presidio's winding streets and you'll get a sense of the urban-rural hybrid the area is becoming.

Perhaps the most visible change is the restoration of Crissy Field. Since 1998, the Golden Gate National Parks Assn. and the National Park Service have been tearing out ugly asphalt, chain-link fences, maintenance sheds and other military facilities.

In their place is a golden crushed-stone trail that skirts a 20-acre natural marsh, restored last November, that rises and falls with the bay tides. Native grasses and flowers dot newly sculpted dunes along a 1.3-mile promenade. When the project is finished later this year, it will also include a 29-acre meadow, more native plants, a sheltered picnic area and a bike lane.

Visitors can walk the promenade, then join the existing paved shoreline road to Fort Point National Historic Site or to the Golden Gate Bridge above.

South of Crissy Field, on the other side of U.S. 101 (the approach to the bridge), lies the rest of the Presidio. When the Army left in 1994, all of this land became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 76,500 acres that stretch for 28 miles along the coasts of Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

Residents and companies have begun to lease hundreds of historic buildings here. Among the tenants: George Lucas, who recently signed a deal to create campus-like headquarters for his digital arts companies.

These changes make the park a study in contrasts, a place where city meets country. The new visitor center in the Main Post (a complex of buildings that forms the heart of the Presidio) is stocked with information on wildlife and on historic architecture; in the former Army gymnasium, now a fitness club run by the YMCA, a crowd works up a sweat in the aerobics studio, while a mile away, a solitary picnicking couple gazes over the vast Pacific.

I experienced the contrasts one afternoon at the Presidio Golf Course, formerly reserved for Army personnel and now one of the finest public courses in Northern California.

At the handsome new clubhouse and restaurant, I watched foursomes play while I sat with a boisterous lunch crowd in a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room with a flagstone hearth. I enjoyed a BLT sandwich, fries, coleslaw and a pint of house ale (about $14, including tax and tip). Fifteen minutes later, after a stroll from the clubhouse along one of the Presidio's trails, I was utterly alone in a fragrant forest of eucalyptus, pine and cypress.

In this new, developing version of the Presidio, it seems there will be room for many things--even quirkier aspects of the former base, such as the Burger King with a view of the Golden Gate any restaurateur in town would kill for, or the Army pet cemetery with its collection of touching, sometimes amusing epitaphs ("Skipper--The Best Damm Dog We Ever Had").

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