SAN FRANCISCO — It is America's most commercialized national park. Its paying tenants have included former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and filmmaker George Lucas. But even with annual revenues of $50 million and an operating budget greater than those of Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks combined, the future of San Francisco's Presidio is far from assured.
Ten years after Congress created the Presidio Trust to run the fledgling national park, a new town is incubating within its borders at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Some 2,600 people now call the Presidio home, as do a bank, a health club, numerous cafes, four preschools and a high school. More than 3,500 people work in the Presidio, which has millions of square feet of office space to lease.
The Trust says its efforts to coax foundations, dance companies, artists, lawyers, mortgage bankers and corporate headquarters to take up residence in what once was the nation's longest-operating military base are crucial to the park's financial future. Though the Presidio was propped up initially with a $25-million congressional appropriation, that figure has been whittled down every year. By law, the Presidio must be self-sustaining in six years or Congress can close the park and sell its land and buildings, including the nation's largest concentration of historic structures.
When Congress created the Presidio Trust in 1996, it was the first time a federal corporation was established to operate a national park, and ordered to make a profit. The novel arrangement set off a debate that continues today. Proponents suggest that the national park system, hugely expensive to operate, could do well to augment its budget with increased commercial fees. Traditionalists caution against a future where corporations, as opposed to the National Park Service, are calling the shots at Yosemite and Yellowstone.
Moreover, critics ask, if continuing commercialization is the only way to ensure the park's survival, at what point does the Presidio lose its identity as a park and become just one more pricey San Francisco neighborhood in a parklike setting?
Roger Kennedy, the director of the Park Service at the time the Presidio Trust was established, said he initially opposed it but eventually concluded that the only way to keep the Presidio intact and spare its historic buildings from demolition was to allow limited, tasteful development. More than half of the Presidio's 800 buildings had been designated historic.
"Many of us took the view that it would be safer to put it into limbo than to consign it to hell," Kennedy said.
The main challenge for the Presidio Trust over the next six years is to transform dilapidated 150-year-old military barracks, stables and hangars into profit centers -- a $600-million undertaking. The Trust will also have to spend an estimated $118 million to clean up an unknown quantity of hazardous materials left behind by the U.S. Army.
The Presidio, established as a military post by the Spanish in 1776, was used as a base for the Army from 1848 until its withdrawal in 1994. The post then became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, operated by the Park Service.
Today the national park, a 1,400-acre greensward where the waters of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean meet, is a hugely popular recreational area, affording some of the most spectacular views on the San Francisco waterfront. The park's hiking and biking trails are crowded, and its 300-acre urban forest is teeming with birds. Outdoor access is free to all.
The Presidio makes its money as a landlord. The strategy for self-sufficiency has been to establish a residential housing base from the park's diverse array of buildings. From the Civil War to the 1970s, the U.S. military constructed dozens of neighborhoods across the Presidio's hills and bluffs.
Many of the buildings have been converted to residential rental stock: single-family homes, duplexes and apartments. Pilots Row, overlooking Crissy Field, is a sweep of neat, red-tile-roofed, 1,200-square-foot homes that rent for $4,500 and are seen as a bargain.
The duplexes on Kobbe Avenue, former officers' housing, rent for $6,000. Elsewhere, on high promontories, is the General's House, one of three lavish estates that rent for $12,000 a month. Overall, the residential occupancy rate is 97%.
The next big push will be in securing more long-term commercial leases, with the Trust hoping to lure large entities such as LucasFilm Ltd., which developed the $350-million Letterman Digital Arts Center, home to George Lucas' special-effects and computer-game empire. The park has been home to several foundations, among them the Gorbachev Foundation USA, established to promote democracy around the world.
In all, the Presidio Trust expects to be able to lease nearly 6 million square feet of real estate suitable for commercial use.