Michael Painter and his vision for the Presidio Parkway

Gathered on a midwinter day months ago at the edge of the Presidio's Main Post Parade Ground Lawn, a handful of politicians, contractors and engineers concluded a tour of the new Presidio Parkway site.

Scheduled to replace the old, terminally damaged Doyle Drive by 2016, the parkway will be a greensward atop tunnels and elevated roadways that will be the way in and out of San Francisco to the north and a much safer connection to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The tour that day, which included Supervisor Mark Farrell and Lee Saage, deputy director for capital projects with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, paused to greet an elegantly rumpled gentleman striding down off the parkway's northern overlook. He was immediately recognized.

“You're our favorite landscape architect,” one said. “My company's building one of your projects,” exclaimed another.

The kudos were for Michael Painter, principal of MPA Design. For three decades, the 79-year-old Painter has been, one tour member explains to another, the “Father of the Presidio Parkway.”

Of Painter, Saage is unequivocal: “In my view,” he said, “he has been inadequately honored. When it counted, he has always been the voice of reason.”

Today, the parkway's northern overlook is being sealed and filled in and will soon directly connect Crissy Field up the hill with the Presidio Main Post. When it is completed, the parkway will boast two 850-foot tunnels and two 1,000-foot tunnels stiffened by concrete and rebar slabs.

When construction is completed, the mountainette of dirt mixed with concrete, currently the most prominent feature of the site, will create 10 new acres of greenery and flora atop the tunnels. Each of the tunnels and elevated roadways is designed at a slightly different elevation, giving motorists alternative but equally bravura views of the Presidio, the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Over the decades, Painter has played a steadying role in the planning, design and construction of the parkway. In his midrise office just off Union Square, the Pasadena-born, Harvard- and Berkeley-educated Painter is currently competing for various landscape projects against some of the world's powerhouse firms.

Painter, who was largely responsible for inventing the Crissy Field tunnel top concept, was not a finalist for the request for qualification in a competition sponsored by the Presidio Trust to determine which of 25 landscape architecture companies could come up with the most creative program.

Winners included Olin of Philadelphia, Group 8 of the Netherlands, Snochetta of Norway, Field Operations, which designed “The Highline of New York,” and CMG, the San Francisco-based company that had already done work for the Presidio and was the sole West Coast finalist.

“We didn't win, you know,” Painter said, days after MPA was eliminated in late April. Still, there are few who deny that it was Painter who came up with the concept.

The notion of building four tunnels at the Presidio's northern edge came to Painter in 1988. At that point, various study groups were calling simply for the replacement of Doyle Drive, which came a razor's edge from collapsing during the Loma Prieta earthquake.

An Exploratorium board member at the time, Painter was climbing around the rooftop above the parking lot of the Palace of Fine Arts building when he noticed a semi-circular sweep that seemed to anchor the Marina and Presidio in spectacular, even monumental, ways. Painter was struck by the notion that “after decades of missing those views, we had found something unique and beautiful at our very doorstep.”

To Painter, the discovery of these previously hidden views “changed everything.” For one thing, it argued for a series of tunnels that would run up the north spine of the Presidio. Painter's tunnel-top solution, in turn, would enable unfettered access by foot or bicycle all the way from the Presidio Main Post to Cavalry Hill, the National Cemetery and directly down to a preserved, pristine Crissy Field shoreline.

Similarly, Painter's 1984 renovation of the Great Highway had features in common with the Presidio Parkway in the transformation of a seaside drag strip into an elegant waterfront corniche. Yet in many respects, his earlier work on the John F. Kennedy gravesite at the Arlington National Cemetery more closely resembled his Presidio design.

Painter's ability to move mountains (and tunnels) also served him well beginning with the epochal 1992 meeting of the Doyle Drive Task Force when he asked to be recognized at a meeting that had participants like taskforce Vice Chairman Michael Alexander literally banging their heads on the Golden Gate Transit boardroom table.

“Caltrans spent a year spinning its wheels while everyone else found fault,” Alexander said, until “one day this guy showed up and asked to make a presentation.”

Painter urged rejecting Caltrans schemes that basically called for replacing the old, elevated Doyle Drive roadway with a prosaic elevated parkway. Painter's bridge-and-tunnel scheme also provided a solution to one of the Bay Area's intractable transportation conundrums — fixing the northern and southern Doyle Drive approaches to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Painter's tunnel top solution would achieve this same result by building and then re-burying 1.5 miles of parkway tunnel, which, in turn, could create 10 uncluttered acres of land seemingly out of thin air.

“In 20 minutes,” Alexander recalled, “Michael Painter managed to turn two years of 'No,' into 'Yes.' We shook our heads in astonishment. Michael Painter, literally, changed everything.”

Nothing associated with building in San Francisco would be quite so simple. In the case of Painter's plan, most of The City's planning organizations — SPUR, California Tomorrow, and the Planning Association of the Richmond — backed the plan.

To placate those few still opposed, the proposal was seconded to the Arup Group, the London-based design, planning and management consortium. Arup surprised everyone, except perhaps Painter, noting that the plan could indeed be built with minor changes, with less impact on the Presidio's fragile eco-system and fewer exceptions to highway engineering standards. According to Arup, the Painter plan would even cost $200 million less than alternatives.

Despite his firm's elimination to secure the landscape contract for the site, much of Painter's vision remains intact as part of the parkway's future.

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