Nestled between expansive views of the Golden Gate Gate Bridge and the downtown skyline, San Francisco’s last line of military defense has been transformed into a six-acre urban oasis on the Presidio’s northern tip.
Once a sandy hillside punctuated by colossal batteries and bisected by a busy highway, the new park space that opens to the public this weekend reconnects the National Park to The City’s waterfront for the first time in nearly a century.
Battery Bluff is the first of two Presidio parks to open this year, with the long-anticipated Tunnel Tops project slated to welcome visitors later this summer. Taken together, the entire project will restore 50 acres of Presidio parkland and marks a milestone in a decades-long effort to replace the seismically unsafe Doyle Drive with Presidio Parkway.
This “is a dream that actually came true,” said Mark Buell, vice chair of the Presidio Trust’s board of directors. This project, he said, represents San Francisco’s spirit of preserving open space for public enjoyment. “And if you really think about it, 75 percent of the people in the city are renters, and this is their backyard. We have a responsibility to all of them to give them the best backyard we can.”
On Friday morning, dozens, including Mayor London Breed and Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Catherine Stefani, gathered under partly cloudy skies on a grassy knoll overlooking the Bay as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” blared from speakers. It was a jubilant celebration of San Francisco’s newest park space.
Replete with 60,000 new plantings, picnic tables, long promenades and historic gun batteries that haven’t been publicly accessible since the 1930s, Battery Bluff also represents how city agencies are working to expand greenspace and reconnect natural corridors in a crowded city with little room to grow.
In this case, that growth has happened over a freeway, thanks in large part to the project’s visionary, Michael Painter, a landscape architect who dreamed up the plan for Battery Bluff. Painter, also a board member at SPUR, a local non-profit focused on regional planning and public policy, was sorely missed at Friday’s ribbon-cutting event. He died in 2018 after battling cancer.
“Opening Battery Bluff is the fulfillment of SPUR and Michael Painter’s vision to heal a landscape ripped apart by highway building,” Alicia John-Baptiste, SPUR’s president and chief executive told The Examiner. “Michael found an ingenious way to lift up the landscape and let the roadway pass underneath it, reconnecting the Presidio’s forested hills with the Bay shoreline. It’s a natural bridge for both people and wildlife.”
What is now Presidio Parkway was initially built in 1936 to link the Presidio military base to the Golden Gate Bridge. The snaking Doyle Drive added more concrete to an already paved coastline near Crissy Field.
“Doyle Drive cut the park in two, both really and conceptually,” said Michael Bolan, chief of park development for the Presidio Trust at Friday’s event. “We have one Presidio now.”
Though it may be a stretch to call this sophisticated structure, designed by local landscape architecture firm Page, a “natural habitat,” studies show that publicly accessible green spaces can improve air quality, reduce the urban heat island effect, and provide shaded areas place to recreate. Known as “urban greening,” the concept has been proposed as one approach to mitigate the health consequences of climate change.
“Over the 27 years, the Presidio has been a national park site, we’ve championed landscaping and habitat restoration projects that encourage biodiversity of plants and animals,” said Michael Boland, chief park officer with the Presidio Trust. “It’s not only for the good of the planet but for our visitors who also benefit from nature and green spaces.”
The result is an undulating mix of the natural and the austere; a stand of Monterey cypress abuts the low-lying geometry of the concrete batteries Baldwin, Slaughter, Sherwood and Blaney, which peak out from the newly planted bluffs. The scene reflects how the threat of war transformed the landscape – and how The City has brought it back.
“History is etched in the landscape of the Presidio,” says Trust Federal Preservation Officer Rob Thomson. “Now, 120 years after these batteries were built, it’s rewarding to offer the public an ‘up close’ experience here for the very first time.”