Can the Presidio Trust afford to listen to its neighbors? If not, it may just find city officials willing to play hardball over a controversial housing project.
Look at a map of San Francisco. Look closely at the northwestern corner: there are 1,491 acres of federally owned and operated land occupying about 20 percent of the city's space. The Presidio is a bounty of beauty — miles of hiking trails and bike paths, beaches, bluffs, and greenways maintained by the National Park Service and available for San Francisco and its guests to enjoy.
Unfortunately, the city doesn't have much say about what happens within that acreage. The property is managed by the Presidio Trust, an independent entity formed in 1996, two years after the park service took control of the former Army base. The trust began with the lofty mission "to preserve and enhance the natural, cultural, scenic, and recreational resources of the Presidio for public use." It also had a tough mandate: financial independence by 2013.
While the park service tends to the trees and the grass, the 768 buildings scattered throughout the property fall into the purview of the trust, which has rehabilitated and leased 350 of the historic structures in the last 10 years. More than 100 remain on the list for a makeover and one in particular has become a poster child for the strained relationship between the trust and the city in which it lives.
The trust's Board of Directors has been presented with four development alternatives for the Presidio's Public Health Service Hospital Complex — 400,000 square feet of dilapidated buildings high on a hill at the southern edge of the Presidio, just 100 yards from the single-family homes that line the quiet avenues north of Lake Street, in the city's jurisdiction.
For three years, the people who live in those homes have been advocating for developing only 275,000 square feet of the PHSH for smaller units that would house about 438 people and, they say, create less traffic in the neighborhood and environmental impact on the park.
At the last public PHSH meeting on June 15, nearly 200 people representing interests as varied as the Sierra Club and the Mayor's Office voiced opposition. There was almost universal advocacy of "Alternative 3" (see table, page 14) or some sort of smaller development more in character with the neighborhood. There are currently only five dwellings in the Richmond district with more than 50 units, and the largest has 85.
The trust staff has consistently recommended "Alternative 2," a plan for 230 market-rate, multibedroom apartments. After three years of neighborhood input and agitation, spokesperson Dana Polk told the Guardian, "This represents a compromise." The original plan called for 350 units but was still the same size.
To the neighbors it represents a doubling of profit for the trust and its partner in the deal, Forest City Enterprises. Claudia Lewis, president of the Richmond Presidio Neighbors, wrote in a 16-page letter addressed to the board, "The difference in revenue between Alternative 2 and 3 is only $540,000, less than 1 percent of the trust's projected annual revenue for the year 2010. For this modest gain, the trust is willing to sacrifice the adjacent habitats and community."
The developer's projected revenue has leaped from $2.8 million to $6.5 million with the "downsizing," and the trust's cut from a 75-year lease has gone from $253 million to $685 million. Forest City, the Cleveland-based real estate developer with a net worth of $8 billion, is only willing to renovate all 400,000 square feet of the building. If another alternative were chosen by the board, trust officials say there would not be a developer interested in the project.
Development in a national park is a lot easier than in the city: There are no restrictive city codes, no process of appeal, and no profit lost in social subsidies.