Want to make the Presidio a destination? Move along

Most people would agree that some things in life are worth saving. But in San Francisco, there is nothing even close to a consensus on what they are.

Should it be an aging library in North Beach that has no redeeming quality except that it was built by a firm that specialized in quaint little brick boxes? How about a Western Addition church whose interior has already been gutted and sold? Or maybe a few dozen of the single-screen theaters that no one supports anymore for lack of the little amenities, such as parking.

Preservation does not necessarily mean clinging to the past. If left to the pedal and skate activists in Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences would have been chased out of their longtime home instead of enjoying new beginnings in glorious buildings.

The Asian Art Museum replaced the old Main Library with seamless ease. The Beach Chalet is thriving in a long-shuttered Work Projects Administration relic. Bayview-Hunters Point has a potential chance to emerge as one of The City’s most vibrant neighborhoods — but some naysayers tried, unsuccessfully, to keep it down and out at the ballot box.

Yet the Presidio — and its self-proclaimed protectors — has been a battleground of steady resistance. For several years, groups fought against a contemporary art museum that would have housed one of the world’s greatest modern-art collections in the only national park in an urban setting in the U.S. And now many of those same forces appear poised to try to block plans for a new hotel, saying it will sully the village that existed in the Spanish outpost from centuries ago.

This will explain why, when late Gap founder Don Fisher tried to gain approval for his controversial museum, I received just as many e-mails from people saying what they really wanted was for the Presidio Trust to save the bowling alley at the Main Post — priceless art could take a backseat to pins.

And you wonder why it never got built.

However, for months now officials from the National Park Service, the state Historic Preservation Office and other agencies have been meeting to come up with a compromise plan for development projects in the Presidio.

And the trust, which oversees the park, might be ready to unveil its working blueprint next year for the area, which includes plans for a 70,000-square-foot hotel and some other refurbished buildings that would include bed-and-breakfast lodging along the Main Post.

The reaction among the aggrieved keepers of the post: Not now, not ever.

“The Main Post needs a little love and care rather than being desecrated,” said Gary Widman of the Presidio Historical Association, which led the charge against Fisher’s museum and views the latest development plan as Part 2. “This is the single most historic area in San Francisco and Northern California. It’s the Plymouth Rock of the West. The best way for interpreting the park is by showing it in the period when it was ruled by the Spanish.”

Now I could certainly understand if the plans got in the way of, say, Civil War re-enactments in the Presidio, but no such activities take place there. The Main Post has a cute collection of aging barracks and buildings surrounding a rectangular concrete parking lot that serves as the site’s chief architectural element.

It is a great place to park, but you would need to find a reason. There is always the bowling alley.

So if the primary point was that you want to keep the public away from enjoying any commercial use in the area, I would understand. But the whole idea is to attract people to the Presidio, which must be self-sustaining in a few years. The Fisher museum would have been a great draw, and a new hotel would serve a similar purpose.

Golden Gate Park’s history has not been hurt by adding cultural attractions to it during the past two centuries. Somehow, the bikers and skaters have found a way to live with them.

But the Presidio could discover another San Francisco first: A National Park that does not really welcome visitors.


Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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