PRIVATIZING THE PRESIDIO
SEPTEMBER 11, 1996
The Presidio, San Francisco's historic military post turned national park, is in danger. The financially strapped National Park Service can no longer afford the park's upkeep, and a controversial bill aimed at privatizing it has emerged in Congress. Spencer Michels reports on the battle.
SPENCER MICHELS: Just a few hills away from downtown, the Presidio of San Francisco contains some of the most desirable real estate in the country. Its views are breathtaking and valuable in an overheated San Francisco real estate market. In sunshine and fog, it offers access to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, as well as hiking and biking trails. For 220 years, the Presidio was a military post, home to armies of Spain, Mexico, and then the United States. Anticipating enormous interest in this historic property, Congress decided 23 years ago that the Presidio would become a national park if and when the military left.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Whenever I come to San Francisco, I always go down there and run to the--to the Golden Gate Bridge and back.
SPENCER MICHELS: And that's what happened last year when President Clinton signed the military base closing bill. The Presidio became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. But what politicians didn't anticipate all those years ago was that the National Park Service wouldn't have enough money to maintain the property. Senator Frank Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, chairs the Energy & Natural Resources Committee.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI, (R) Alaska: We simply just cannot meet the financial obligations associated with a park, and everybody loves parks, but the parks do cost money. We don't want to increase the fees and make it unreasonable for entry, so we've got to come up with some kind of a better, improved, innovative idea.
SPENCER MICHELS: Financing the Presidio as a new park was a challenge for Nancy Pelosi, who represents the San Francisco area in Congress.
REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) California: It would be, without our intervention, the most expensive park in the country, more expensive than Yellow Stone National Park to maintain.
SPENCER MICHELS: The current cost of maintaining the grounds is $27 million a year, much of that for upkeep of its 500 historical buildings. Robert Chandler of the National Park Service is responsible for keeping the old post in repair.
ROBERT CHANDLER, Presidio General Manager: A lot of the buildings here, obviously, are quite old, dating back a hundred years or more, and they all need work. They need a huge amount of capital infusion to bring them up to a point where they can be occupied by organizations. It's essentially a city within a city. I mean, it has its own water system. It has its own telephone system. So the cost of operating all of these infrastructure systems is quite high.
SPENCER MICHELS: Because of those high costs, Congress balked at supporting the Presidio. So Pelosi intervened. She sponsored legislation that would allow the park to recover a good part of its operating expenses by leasing out its historic buildings. A seven-member trust, instead of the National Park Service, would be in charge of the leases.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: We believe that for this particular park, which has so much developed space on it, that without developing one more inch because the law will not allow that anyway, and we don't want to, uh, that we would be able to produce the revenue in a reasonable length of time that would make it self-sufficient.
SPENCER MICHELS: Pelosi's bill sets a deadline of 15 years for the park to pay its own way. In her vision, much of the military housing would be rented as private homes, or for larger units, as bed and breakfasts. She also wants to expand to the whole post a policy Chandler already started with one building--rehabilitating and leasing out buildings like this former military hospital. It's now home to several non-profit groups, all paying rent. The plan got the support of Sen. Murkowski, who heads the Congressional Conference Committee that will determine the Presidio's fate. He thought private enterprise would do a much better job than the government at running the park.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI: The Park Service simply isn't geared--they don't have the internal expertise to run. They'd have to gear up and people of San Francisco can generate that expertise because look at the beauty of the city. They've got real estate developers. They've got financial know-how as to what is best to do with the Presidio.
JOEL VENTRESCA, Preserve the Presidio Campaign: What's really being proposed is the first conversion of a national park to a business park.
SPENCER MICHELS: Joel Ventresca, a perennial candidate for municipal office, has helped lead local opposition to Pelosi's plan. He and a small but vocal group of San Franciscans don't believe that a seven-member trust will know what's best for the Presidio.
JOEL VENTRESCA: It's going to open up the Presidio to corporate, private, and large institutional interests that seek to turn the Presidio into a cash register.
SPENCER MICHELS: He and his allies worry that a trust to run the Presidio appointed by the President would not represent local interests.
JOEL VENTRESCA: The trust can operate behind closed doors. There is no guarantee that a single San Franciscan would serve on the trust. There's no guarantee that public hearings would be held on the leases for the buildings in the space. Basically, what we're looking at is a redevelopment agency type corporate board of directors that would run this place like a development park.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: In the law that exists and in the law that I am advocating we say that there cannot be one inch of additional development in the Presidio. If there's going to be some space developed, we have to take other developed space down. So there is absolutely no chance at all that it would be turned into a shopping center or a Disneyland.
AMY MEYER, Golden Gate Advisory Commission: Park land is often viewed as cheap real estate, and this was one of the pieces of cheap real estate that was talked about earliest on.
SPENCER MICHELS: Amy Meyer agrees with Pelosi that the park would die without an infusion of cash. She worked for years with Congressman Phillip Burton, who is buried at the Presidio's National Cemetery and who authored the original 1972 legislation to make the Presidio into a park.
AMY MEYER: I see the budget of the nation park system going down. I see the amount of personnel available going down. And you can't keep a system going, which means we're going to have to have more and more private money in this system.
SPENCER MICHELS: In Congress this year, several bills to study privatization of some national parks have been introduced. That concept is proposed by park advocacy groups. They fear that what could happen at the San Francisco Presidio may set a dangerous precedent for other national parks. Paul Prichard heads the National Parks and Conservation Association, a lobbying group which supports the Presidio bill but very reluctantly.
PAUL PRICHARD, National Parks and Conservation Association: The problem is that this trust body could begin selling the Presidio upon its assumption of responsibilities. And so this deserves immediate attention. Could other parks be sold off if they were put under a similar body? Absolutely. The precedent is there. This bitter bill is a potential prototype for all the other parks.
SPENCER MICHELS: Could the trust, the way you understand it, sell off any part of the Presidio?
ROBERT CHANDLER: Could not. There's no authority for that at all. It's all the U.S. property, and there's no--
SPENCER MICHELS: Presidio General Manager Chandler thinks that the bill as written does not open this or other parks to development.
ROBERT CHANDLER: But that's not to say that it couldn't occur. It would have to occur with a tremendous amount of public review, compliance process to change the whole direction of the plan. I think, frankly, that's very unlikely.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although many longtime environmentalists have accepted the inevitability of a privately-operated park, they know that now they must keep a close eye on how it's run.
AMY MEYER: I don't see the private sector as a devil, and I don't see the Park Service as a devil. I've worked with a lot of balancing forces. It does take effort. You do--there's that old line that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and you do have to watch it. You do have to pay attention, and there will be times when people will stretch beyond the point that you think is right, and you've got to speak up.
SPENCER MICHELS: In politically active San Francisco, this experiment at private administration of public land will be scrutinized carefully. Supporters expect the bill creating the trust to pass eventually, but for now, it's tied to other, more controversial park bills which may keep it from passing this session. Until it passes, the National Park Service will have to continue to pay for its budget to keep the Presidio open for the 8 million visitors a year who are expected.