Next Presidio opportunity arrives

Purists were predictably appalled that Congress demanded the Presidio become financially self-supporting by 2013, when it bestowed the 230-year-old military base on the Bay as America’s first urban national park in 1996. Dire warnings predicted that the Presidio would soon be paved over by rapacious corporate interests.

Instead, the independent Presidio Trust has moved judiciously to shape a one-of-a-kind park that artfully blends the competing demands of scenic open space, historical preservation, nonprofit organization tenancy, family recreation, event hosting, housing and imaginative commercial enterprises — all the while ensuring that the 1,168-acre San Francisco park can continue even after federal subsidies expire.

While progress may not have been as rapid as the skeptics wished, some of the more dramatic pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. The outmoded Letterman Army Hospital was replaced by “Star Wars” filmmaker George Lucas’ Letterman Digital Arts Center in 2005, and now Gap founder Don Fisher will be building a state-of-the-art museum for his $1 billion collection of modern art.

Progress on a smaller but promising Presidio jigsaw piece was also announced last week. Three viable development proposals have been submitted for the 12 vacant Thornburgh buildings adjacent to the Main Post and Letterman Digital Arts Center.

Although the 144,000-square-foot Thornburgh complex occupies a highly desirable location displaying spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the brick structures are as dilapidated as they are historic. Only last Sunday, copper wire thieves set off a damaging one-alarm fire at 3:13 a.m. in the former hospital boiler building.

Last autumn, the Presidio Trust invited proposals for a mixed-use development project at Thornburgh. The winning project would need to use a green design and generate financial support for the park. It would also require a startup cost of at least $30 million, because the decrepit buildings are historically protected and cannot be simply bulldozed out of the way.

However, two San Francisco developers and one from Washington, D.C., stepped up with formal proposals, one of which could be chosen by the trust as early as next month. Federal Development, the Washington, D.C., company, submitted plans for a pedestrian-oriented mini-mall with restaurants, retail and office space.

Of the two San Francisco firms, Equity Community Builders is proposing a “Center for Green Economy” to serve businesses and nonprofits involved in renewable energy technology and environmental causes, while Gordon Development envisions a high-tech film complex with screening rooms, editing facilities and full-size production studios.

All three of the competing projects would be suitable for the emerging 21st-century Presidio, and ideally we would prefer a San Francisco developer to get the business. However, we must confess to a bit of a soft spot for Federal’s mixed-use concept that supports more widespread visitor interests with restaurants and retail.

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