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Putting New Ideas on Parade

Officials seek ways to turn San Francisco's Presidio grounds into an attractive public site.

March 22, 2004|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Soldiers once mustered at the Presidio of San Francisco before shipping out for overseas, but today the main parade ground is a barely used parking lot.

The Presidio Trust, which operates most of the 1,491-acre national park on the edge of San Francisco near the Golden Gate Bridge, has hired a consultant and invited residents to develop ideas for transforming the main parade ground into "spectacular open space for the public."

The parade ground is part of the Presidio's main post, a collection of such buildings as the Presidio Trust's office, a film center, a foundation office, a bowling alley, a post office, a fire station and an officers club that is used as a public meeting place and visitors center.

The Presidio was the country's oldest operating military base before the Army left in 1994. In 1996, federal legislation created the Presidio Trust to run most of the park, with the requirement that it be self-supporting by 2013.

That issue was discussed last week at a hearing before a congressional appropriations panel. A representative of the National Academy of Public Administration, an independent group, and the Presidio Trust's executive director, Craig Middleton, testified that the agency should be able to meet the goal of self-sufficiency.

The main parade ground, considered the grandest of the facility's three such sites, was established in the 1890s.

About 2,400 people live in the Presidio and more than 2,000 work in buildings housing 175 organizations, according to the Presidio's 2002 year-end report.

For the last eight years, the trust has been renovating housing and other buildings for nonresidential uses and restoring the natural habitat. Construction is underway on filmmaker George Lucas' four-building, 850,000-square-foot Letterman Digital Arts Center.

Topping the Presidio Trust's agenda today is an effort to transform the main parade ground and surrounding buildings with uses that would attract the public.

Trust officials plan to relocate the 740 spaces in the parade ground parking lot to several areas scattered around the headquarters area known as the main post. The seven acres of asphalt would be replaced with grass.

The gently sloping parade ground -- a quadrangle with majestic red-brick barracks buildings on one side -- offers views of San Francisco Bay, Angel Island and Tiburon in Marin County.

After two public meetings this year, the Presidio Trust consultant developed five conceptual designs for bringing the parade ground back to life. Those ideas will be presented at a workshop March 30.

The designs call for the construction of several buildings to fill gaps left when the Army tore down old structures.

"The idea is that it will be a plaza that is full of different things for people to do," said Michael Boland, the trust's associate director of planning.

"There would be museums, galleries and performance space," he said.

In addition, he envisions restaurants opening in historic buildings around the parade ground and diners enjoying leisurely meals on verandas.

"We have a lot of special events at the Presidio," Boland said. "They're dispersed. This is a place where we could accommodate them."

The plans for transforming the parade ground also call for developing a nearby transit hub to bring visitors to the Presidio. Eventually, the parade ground would be linked to Crissy Field, a 100-acre waterfront park across the highway. A section of the road would have to be put underground first so people could walk above it.

To help steer the process, the Presidio Trust hired the Olin Partnership, a Philadelphia landscape architectural and urban design firm, at a cost of $250,000. The firm has designed such projects as the Independence Mall and Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia, Bryant Park in New York and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

During the public meetings, such ideas were proposed as restaurants, museums, a performing arts center, an amphitheater, a farmers market and retail shops.

"We have spent a month and a half trying to understand what the problem is," said Cindy Sanders, a partner with the Olin group. "What's become very clear to us is that the problem is much more complex than designing a nice parade ground. The main parade ground is only a piece of the main post."

Sanders said residents at the meetings had said the Presidio's history was not reflected well at the park. The Presidio was once a strategic location. It was used by the militaries of three governments: the Spanish in 1776, the Mexicans after their revolution in 1821 and then the Americans after war with Mexico in 1846.

Diane Hermann, president of the Fort Point and Presidio Historical Assn., said she would like to see interpretive displays depicting the Presidio's history.

"There are all kinds of possibilities that would bring people from all over California and the country and all over the world to see this great place and see how the Presidio has affected the development of the American West," Hermann said.

"A lot of people describe the Presidio as a jewel, but I describe it as a jewel box," she said. "Every time you open a drawer, you find a new delight."

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