Change Marches On at the Presidio

Posted June 19, 2018 5:49 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — On bike and on foot, people hit the hilly paths of the Presidio, the national park on a former Army base in San Francisco, many of them heading toward the northwest corner of the park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tour buses pull up at a visitors’ plaza here, disgorging passengers who gawk at the view while buying souvenirs and snacks.

But just inland, it’s a decidedly quieter scene. The only sound is the song of sparrows as wind ripples long grasses on what was once a parade ground. Here at Fort Winfield Scott, clay-roof Mission Revival buildings dating to the early 20th century — once barracks for soldiers who operated artillery defense of the Pacific coastline — stand largely empty.

But not for long, if the Presidio Trust gets its wish.

The trust, a federal agency that runs the park in a partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, has been soliciting ideas from foundations and nonprofit organizations since January for converting the 20 or so buildings at the fort into “a campus for change.”

All across the country, decommissioned military bases are coming back to life for peaceful purposes as a result of the Department of Defense’s deactivation of surplus military facilities, begun after the Cold War. In some cases, the land has become available for private development.

In the Bay Area alone, planned developments on five former military bases, not including the Presidio, will create an estimated 32,000 units of much-needed housing, including affordable units, and millions of square feet of office and industrial space.

And after the Navy closed its training center in Orlando, Florida, in 1996, the city came up with a plan for the site and allowed a developer to build homes on about 550 acres, creating the community of Baldwin Park.

Elsewhere, the former bases are providing land for public enjoyment near increasingly dense urban areas with growing needs for outdoor space and cultural and recreational activities.

That has been the case with Governors Island, a 172-acre former military installation in New York Harbor that is dotted with buildings that once housed Army and Coast Guard operations. In 2003, most of the island was sold to the city of New York for $1, giving New Yorkers more room to roam.

Fifteen years on, the site, run by the Trust for Governors Island, has landscaped areas, hammocks and grills. New this summer will be glamping, a kind of luxury camping. Art exhibitions and performances are free and open to the public.

By the end of the year, construction will begin on a day spa, which is expected to provide a steady flow of revenue to Governors Island, the trust’s president, Michael M. Samuelian, said.

Samuelian visited the Presidio recently “to get a sense for what their strategy is,” he said.

“We are them 15 years ago,” he added.

Officials for the Presidio Trust say they do not know the exact form the campus at Fort Winfield Scott will take. But John W. Keker, a trial lawyer who is the chairman the trust’s board, said one of the buildings that ring the former parade grounds might become a meeting place for those trying to solve environmental problems, while other buildings might be dedicated to providing health care or helping children who are at risk.

“Maybe some climate-change guru comes and gives a lecture,” Keker said in the trust’s offices, in a row of converted Colonial Revival barracks at the park’s Main Post. “I could picture people sitting in the grass talking about things.”

The 1,491-acre Presidio, on the San Francisco peninsula, is the largest open space within the city limits. It comprises an extraordinary collection of buildings in a variety of sizes and architectural styles that reflect the hierarchy of the military and the base’s development over two centuries.

Originally occupied by the Ohlone, a Native American tribe, the site came under the control of Spain (which gave it the name Presidio, meaning fortified military settlement) and then Mexico before the United States took possession in 1846. By the end of the 19th century, it was one of the largest Army bases in the country.

In 1962, Congress recognized the Presidio as a National Historic Landmark. A decade later, it created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and declared that the Presidio would join the park should the Army ever leave, which it did in 1994.

Today, the walls that once kept out all but military personnel still stand, but the gates are open. The Presidio attracts 7.5 million visitors annually.

Nearly 450 historic buildings on the base have been rehabilitated as rental homes and workplaces, and since 2012, rental income has covered the park’s operating costs.

Nonresidential tenants occupy historic structures (the Bay School of San Francisco is in a 1912 barracks) or obtain ground leases and build to their own specifications (Lucasfilm established its headquarters here, behind a fountain featuring a statue of Yoda).

The trust has developed select properties on its own, including the upscale Inn at the Presidio, in restored former bachelor officers’ quarters. On June 28, it will open a more moderately priced 42-room hotel, the Lodge at the Presidio, in the same row of buildings that house the trust.

It is also renovating a 1939 theater where Bob Hope and Jack Benny performed during World War II.

“We want folks who are not coming to the park to know they’re welcome and to find things to do,” the trust’s chief executive, Jean S. Fraser, said. She added that her mission was to attract city residents from beyond the wealthy enclaves that bordered the park. Developing a campus at the fort would lure thinkers and dreamers as well.

With its off-the-beaten-path location and the horseshoe formation of its buildings — they were constructed between 1909 and 1912 and encompass nearly 300,000 square feet — the 30-acre site does have a campus feel.

In 2013, the trust renovated two of the mothballed barracks into multitenant offices as “proof of concept,” said Josh Bagley, director of real estate development for the trust. The World Economic Forum, the nonprofit business leadership foundation, occupies one of these buildings, its former mess hall now a spick-and-span meeting space.

The cost for revitalizing the entire campus is estimated at $200 million, far greater than the trust’s annual gross operating budget of $123.3 million.

After issuing a request for concept proposals, the trust began leading tours to give interested parties a sense of the site. For instance, the 1912 stockade, which held drafted men who refused to deploy to Vietnam in 1968, still has bars on the windows and stenciled lettering on peeling walls that says, “No smoking in bed.”

Other buildings are less daunting — and one even has a cache of art.

In the attic of one building are murals by soldiers, including Perren Gerber, an artist who was stationed here in the 1950s. In one room, the murals depict scenes from military life: soldiers crouched in combat, donning gas masks, and cleaning weapons and darning socks during downtime. In another are depictions of civilian life in charcoal.

Responses to the proposal requests, which are due June 29, must include a plan for preserving the murals and allowing the public to see them.

“The previous board focused on fixing up buildings and getting to financial sufficiency,” Keker said. “Now, we can think more programmatically about what we want to do.”

He added, “If Fort Winfield Scott doesn’t come together properly, we can let it sit until the time is right. But we have hope we will move forward and — boom — it will go quickly.”