In San Francisco, much of the hotted-up dialogue around the unfolding redevelopment competition for Crissy Field can be pinned on filmmaker George Lucas and his proposal for a Lucas Cultural Arts Museum in the heart of the vaunted Presidio. The competition, to replace the old commissary building with a cultural institution on the Crissy Field site, includes two other contending proposals, but it’s Lucas’s recent sally in the New York Times that got people talking, and looking. To the Times, Lucas blasted the competition’s proposals and the sponsor, the Presidio Trust, for its handling of the redevelopment, and he threatened to take his project to Chicago (where his wife, Mellody Hobson, is the president of an investment firm) if it is rejected—a tactic that will be familiar to anyone who followed Lucas’s real estate tangles in Marin County.
But first things first. This week, park-loving San Franciscans should be turning out in force when the board of the Presidio Trust meets to hear public comments on the three development proposals in play for Crissy Field. The trust, which assumed management of the Presidio from Congress in 1996, stewards the site with the National Park Service and the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (GGNPC). Crissy Field is among its most ecologically and culturally sensitive districts.
Situated on the northern waterfront edge of the Presidio, which is itself within the 75,500-acre Golden Gate Natural Recreation Area, Crissy Field has seen a number of uses, including a racetrack and an airfield, as well as various industrial and recreational activities that had greatly degraded the landscape over the past century. But Crissy Field, with its sweeping views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, is now the most visited place in the Presidio, owing in large part to a thoughtful, multipart redesign by Hargreaves Associates. The Hargreaves plan included a restoration of the coastal marshland infilled in 1915, dune reclamation, and open space restoration. Opened in 2001, it has become a highly successful and well-loved park and and place for people to play.
The commissary site targeted for development sits south of the restored marsh, divided by the busy Doyle Drive from the Main Post complex, which is the heart of the Presidio’s military landscape. Although there have been plans to connect the two landscapes in various ways—Hargreaves has several in the current San Francisco Unbuilt exhibition—it wasn’t until a design concept emerged for a new road, called the Presidio Parkway, that the site’s potential became fully realized.
The new parkway will create two landforms or “tunnel top parks,” one of which will link the Main Post area to Crissy Field and the waterfront. These two significant landscapes will now be reconnected, and the old commissary site will sit right in the center of this newly created open space. So when the opportunity to redevelop the commissary arose, it was not surprising that a number of ambitious proposals quickly materialized.
The trust must now decide among three finalists, including Lucas’s museum. One, the Bridge/Sustainability Institute, is dedicated to sustainability in all its forms, in its words, a “portal for exploring the Presidio, discovering how a Living Building works, and taking a deep dive into the everyday things we do, eat, see, and use—all to question how we might do things better to serve the greater good.” It is a partnership between WRNS Studio and Chora, a museum consultancy, with SWA Group as the landscape architect, and the architecture shows its designer-driven origins. Although acknowledged in public comments as a worthy goal, the feeling toward this proposal was mixed. Some found the project “provocative and far reaching”; others said it is “highly abstract and vague.”
Another proposal, called the Presidio Exchange (PX), is half the size of the original commissary building’s footprint, with expansive views onto the bay and a strong inside/outside connection in the landscape plan. The program draws on the experience of the GGNPC, the long-time partner of the Presidio Trust and manager of Crissy Field Center, which sponsors a range of youth education programs. The PX project, designed by EHDD Architecture, aims for diversity by emphasizing a something-for-everyone approach rather than a single idea or theme. The principals at CMG Landscape Architecture, who are on the team, have ties to the Crissy Field site through their work on the redevelopment project at the Hargreaves office. Opinions on the PX ran favorably but seemed to suggest the public wasn’t exactly set on fire by the idea. Commenters approved of the conservancy’s experience in the Presidio and the plan’s adherence to the trust’s goals, but one noted that it seemed like “a collection of other people’s curating and more the product of grant-style thinking than a vital museum.”
And then there is the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum proposal. It would be a fully funded and endowed museum that would nonetheless charge admission to view Lucas’s collection of illustration and commercial digital art. The building, by the Urban Design Group, looks back to the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition, where Bernard Maybeck’s nearby Palace of Fine Arts originated. The Office of Cheryl Barton is the landscape architect on the Lucas team; one of its principals, Andrew Sullivan, ASLA, worked with Lucas on the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio. Public commenters were excited about the idea, and a host of the city’s politicians have lined up behind it. Many commenters, though, think it is unsuitable for the park. “Mr. Lucas’s splashy ideas for a massive building to house his ‘toys’ are not appropriate for the site or the Presidio,” said one.
Although the Presidio is required by Congress to support itself financially, it has already met that goal. The trust recently received a $25 million gift from the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation—nearly half the money needed for the new landscape—which is to be used in part for the tunnel top park and partly to expand the existing Crissy Field Center. This gift could substantially ease the requirement for financial self-sufficiency that the project must meet, and will help accelerate the development, as will the completion of the parkway, which is slated for 2014–2015.
Now that the public is paying attention and commenting on the website and news items, new questions are being raised. Relatively few are asking if anything should be developed on the site at all. Can a new cultural institution and a new building meet the Presidio’s stated aims of more open space and greater access for a more diverse community? Should the trust step back and reconsider the new landscape that will be created before rushing to develop plans that were conceived almost a decade ago, when Doyle Drive divided the site? The existing landscape conditions could be made more sustainable, including those of the restored marsh that was scaled back from the original Hargreaves design, causing long-standing problems with drainage. The new site offers an opportunity to expand the marsh and get it working without mechanical intervention. Some are even asking why the current tenant, a store called Sports Basement, has to go away.
When the Presidio Trust board of directors meets tomorrow to take public comment on the final proposals, they’ll have to weigh the long and complex history of the site and its current uses against their mandate to make the Presidio “forever a public place.”
Update: The National Park Service released a letter last week expressing strong reservations about the development plans at Crissy Field and encouraging the Trust to take the longview. The letter echoes their concerns voiced in a letter earlier in the fall, but this time stating, “There is wisdom in allowing these new uses to settle in before selecting a major new use and tenant for the Commissary site.” For more coverage see John King’s article in SF Gate and read the letter from Frank Dean, General Superintedent on the Presidio Trust site.