How the Presidio Trust can regain the trust of the community

The Presidio Trust is about to embark on a 30-year management plan. And that should give it almost enough time to get it right.

History, so far, is not on its side. But if it actually starts listening to the input from its neighbors in San Francisco, there will be room for optimism.

The trust certainly has gotten the community‘s attention. Last week more than 200 people packed the meeting room at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio to air their views about a proposal to close down or move some ball fields in the name of habitat restoration — an idea that has met a towering wall of resistance.

Staff members of the trust like to discuss the “complex mission” of the agency, which is charged with overseeing the transformation of a former military base into a national park. And it does have its hands full, since the Presidio is supposed to be financially self-sufficient by 2013, when it will be fully weaned of congressional funding.

Yet the agency’s lofty plans have been marred by fights with numerous community groups over the years, most of which complain about the agency’s lack of public accountability. A controversial proposal to develop housing on the site of the old Public Health Hospital near Lake Street bubbled over this summer, and the trust is getting an earful from just about every youth sports organization in The City over discussions to remove existing playing fields.

At the core of the debate is whether it‘s more important to “restore complete ecosystems” or to retain recreational facilities used by thousands of kids and young adults each year — including some private schools and public leagues that pay for the privilege. I can assure you that the overwhelming majority of people in the community don’t see why the trust has to close any existing fields in the name of environmental sensitivity — at least until the agency opens new fields to replace them.

But the eco-warriors who control so much of San Francisco’s park policy — and recently got the Recreation and Park Commission to agree on a plan that would allow them to cut down thousands of non-native trees — have planted themselves deep within the Presidio organization. And though they are a small bunch, they have been extremely effective in steering guidelines for the Presidio’s future landscape.

Indeed, the overzealous activists who want to remove every non-native bush or plant from The City’s sandy soil were there to watch last week’s proceedings, in which nearly every public speaker asked the trust’s staff to not only keep the playing fields for recreational and team sports but to add considerably more of them.

“One of the reasons people leave this city is because it doesn’t have a child-friendly environment,” said Phil Halperin, who is a liaison with the public school district. “If the Presidio Trust believes that it’s a partner in this city then it needs to take an opportunity to create fields for team sports. The list we want to see is how are you going to double the number of fields, not how many you’re thinking of removing.”

Trust officials maintain that they haven’t made a decision yet, but just the fact that they have a well-used soccer pitch and a baseball field on a possible removal list ought to tell you the direction they seem to be headed. And even though almost every conceivable youth sports advocate in San Francisco is against the idea, it’s hard to determine if that will sway members of the agency, since they tend to act as if their federally mandated guidelines somehow separate their commitments from those affecting the city and county of San Francisco.

But I have a way out for the trust that should allow it to pursue its magical environmental restoration plan, repair some of the bad feelings it has engendered from neighborhood groups and play a key role in assisting a city that is woefully short of usable recreation fields.

If the trust really wants to remove any field that it believes is in the way of some elusive habitat savings plan, then before it embarks on that journey, all it needs to do is build a new field before it removes any existing one.

And if it really wants to show what a good neighbor it can be, it can use some of the Presidio’s 1,480 acres to double or triple the number of fields it has — a plan on which San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department could no doubt help.

That assumes that the trust really does want to play ball. But it’s not often that any organization has a chance to win so many fans.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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