The Presidio Strikes Back

As George Lucas' tech-focused art museum duels with history and nature museums for a key spot on Crissy Field, the Presidio Trust considers going big and allowing all three

courtesy rendering

On the coast of San Francisco's national park, the Presidio, a battle is underway that may define what this unique place is really about.

Is the Presidio a historically significant natural area with a heritage worth celebrating and protecting? Or is the Presidio just the last great piece of undeveloped land in San Francisco, with the added benefit of being outside the jurisdiction of city regulators and taxes? Maybe it's both.

The embattled parcel that could illuminate those questions is a 15-minute walk east from the Golden Gate Bridge, just off the beach of Crissy Field, which now houses Sports Basement. Once a slab of concrete and now a bustling waterfront teeming with bicyclists and joggers, it seems almost too beautiful and prosperous a place for a sporting goods store to be housed.

That may be why, a year ago, the powerful people who preside over the Presidio asked for a bevy of museum proposals to replace Sports Basement and its building.

For months, three teams with multi-million-dollar museum proposals hotly competed to rent the soon-to-be vacant property: an institute devoted to sustainability, an interactive science museum based around Presidio history, and a museum housing the extensive art collection of filmmaker George Lucas, the wealthy creator of the Star Wars empire.

Decisions made behind closed doors will seal the deal in the next few weeks and the winning pitch may shape the future of the Presidio. And like the Highlander, there can be only one. At least, that was the original thought.

Ultimately the decision won't rest in the hands of the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, or any other elected official. For better or for worse, decision-making in the Presidio is entrusted to a seven-person "trust," mostly appointed by the president of the United States: the Presidio Trust.

"I think, at times, you think that we all know what we're doing," Presidio Trust President Nancy Bechtle, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2008, told a crowd of hundreds at an Oct. 24 public meeting about the museum decision. "I don't think that any of us have made up our minds on anything yet."

But if recent reports from the San Francisco Chronicle are to be believed, the Trust is pushing to please everyone and disappoint no one. Citing anonymous sources, longtime media bromance Matier and Ross reported last week that the Presidio Trust was leaning towards Lucas' museum proposal while feeling out alternative sites for the remaining projects.

Presidio Trust spokesperson Dana Polk admitted they were putting out feelers. "We don't have specific sites identified, we're just speaking to the teams to see if they are willing to consider other options," she told the Guardian.

For a stretch of land that has moved slowly to bring in new development, each one a laborious and controversial process, the idea of allowing a trilogy of museums could have blockbuster implications for the Presidio and its tony surrounding neighborhoods.

As many advocates from different sides of the debate have said, any major development there could make the Presidio that much denser: bringing more cars, more tourists, and more San Franciscans to the remote northwestern corner of the city that many residents seem to ignore.

More than 400,000 annual visitors would flock to Crissy Field under any of the existing plans, while multiple proposals could more than double that. The two lead proposals, Lucas' art museum and the Presidio Exchange, tell a tale of two Presidios. One is an interactive museum that celebrates the history of the natural setting of the park around it, and the other celebrates the digital history of the surrounding Bay Area.

It's techies versus naturalists.