The Transformation of the Presidio

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It's hard to remember now what the San Francisco Presidio (presidio.gov), which marked its 25th anniversary as a national park site in October, was like when the Army handed over its nearly 1,500 acres to the National Park Service in 1994 and the interior to the Presidio Trust in 1996.

Food trucks, live music, yoga classes and other activities, was just a massive slab of pavement. Streams and wetlands that nourish the park’s vast Tennessee Hollow watershed, where children discover native and endangered wildlife, were trapped in underground culverts. And Crissy Field’s restored marsh and beaches, now home to a shoreline biking and hiking path, picnic grounds, a bookstore and cafe, and a youth center? That was an abandoned asphalt airstrip surrounded by hardpack dirt.

The first step in making a park out of the Presidio was the restoration of Crissy Field, a job that fell to Michael Boland. The urban planner/landscape designer was working then with the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which raises funds and manages development throughout the Conservancy’s 81,000 acres of parkland.

“I thought [Crissy Field] was the most amazing place on Earth—and the ugliest place on Earth,” says Boland.

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But it was an ugly place with gobsmacking views. To persuade colleagues and donors to believe the old airstrip could become a recreational haven, Boland just had them hold out their hands, blocking the view of asphalt to focus on the tableau of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands.

In 2001, Boland became chief of park development and visitor engagement for the Presidio Trust, a new type of independent, self-supporting federal agency that manages development and operation of the Presidio together with the Conservancy and National Park Service. Boland has directed virtually all of Presidio’s major restoration projects.

As a result, streams now make their way to the Bay on the surface once more; wildlife is returning; and people in one of the most densely populated cities in the West can camp, hike for miles in deep forest, and learn about the people who bequeathed this land to them.

Making a park that serves a diverse population—as well as native flora and fauna—takes money. Lots of it. Under Greg Moore, a special adviser to the Conservancy after 30 years as its executive director, the organization raised more than $200 million for work at Crissy Field, establishing a native plant nursery, restoring El Polín Spring in Tennessee Hollow, upgrading Rob Hill Campground, building trails and overlooks, and establishing numerous programs.

Moore says the community’s outpouring of support included schoolchildren pooling their money to grants from the Haas Foundation.

The Presidio now hosts 7.5 million visitors a year, and more than half its open space has been restored. Boland and Moore take greatest pride in making nature accessible to young people, many of whom might not otherwise experience open space and wildlife, let alone a traditional national park. The Crissy Field Center also offers field trips, camps and after-school programs to 24,000 youth each year.

The work continues. The Presidio Trust broke ground on Quartermaster Reach, where 7 acres of asphalt and highway construction debris will become fresh marshland adjacent to Crissy Field so Tennessee Hollow water can flow through wetlands to the Bay as nature intended.

The Presidio’s capstone will be Tunnel Tops, 14 acres of new parkland that will carpet the tunnels created for the new Presidio Parkway. Work has already begun with partner James Corner Field Operations, the firm known for New York City’s High Line. Completion is projected for 2021.

Tunnel Tops will not only give visitors a direct path from the Main Parade Ground and Visitor Center to Crissy Field and the northern waterfront for the first time, it will restore yet more marshland underneath the roadway, offer unprecedented 360-degree views, and be home to a new Crissy Field Center youth campus capable of expanding the Presidio’s reach to 100,000 kids annually.

Reach is already fully funded, and the Conservancy has raised 78% of its $98 million goal for Tunnel Tops, according to Moore, at no cost to taxpayers.

It might not be the biggest project of its kind, but the Presidio’s unique public-private partnership is working better than even its most ardent supporters dared hope. And what Boland calls the “learning landscape” is leading the way to meeting the social and ecological challenges of a changing world.

“(The Presidio) is a small town of 7,000 in the middle of a national park in the middle of a city,” Boland says. “It’s a fantastic laboratory to think about biodiversity in new ways.”