SF Housing Scarcity Collides With Army's Plans at Presidio Base

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 14 May 1998 11:38:57 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Sunday, May 10, 1998  New York Times.


SAN FRANCISCO -- Just as the American colonists were establishing their
independence from Britain in 1776, the Spanish rulers of Mexico claimed a
1,400-acre plot of land here at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay as their
northernmost military post, and called it the Presidio.

For the next 220 years, this expanse of rolling hills and eucalyptus groves
at San Francisco's northwest corner was in the hands of the military, first
the Spanish Expeditionary Forces, then the Mexican government and ultimately
the Sixth U.S. Army.


The Presidio is the locus of a battle, brought on by limited urban space and
soaring real estate prices, to preserve scarce housing.


Long known as one of the cushiest Army duties around, the Presidio saw
little combat, until now. The Presidio is the locus of a battle, brought on
by limited urban space and soaring real estate prices, to preserve scarce

Since early 1989, when the federal government announced that the base would
be closed, a variety of forces has clamored for control over the Presidio.
Some in Congress wanted to sell it to real estate developers, others wanted
to hand it over to the city as an urban park.

In 1995, when the 6th Army folded its colors at the base, Congress was still
negotiating a deal to preserve the Presidio as a national park, to be
jointly controlled by the Presidio Trust, a federally appointed board, and
the National Park Service. The next year, the finishing touches were put on
the public-private partnership, and it was passed.

Two weeks ago, the park's future seemed to come into sharper focus, when
members of the trust presented their blueprint for financial
self-sufficiency to the city.

Under the law, the trust is required to take control of 80 percent of the
park by July 8, and the park is to become self-supporting within 15 years.
Members of the trust told San Francisco officials that the Presidio would
become a "city within a city," where 4,800 people would work, 1,600 San
Franciscans would live and millions would visit each year.

"The vision is simple," Jim Meadows, executive director of the trust, said
in an interview. "The Presidio already is one of the most beautiful areas of
the country, and my personal goal and the goal of the trust is to enhance
that beauty and to insure its preservation."

To generate the $36 million needed each year to make the park
self-supporting by 2013, the trust will lease some 3 million square feet of
office space to businesses and nonprofit organizations. It will also rent
housing units -- a two-bedroom unit could go for $1,400 a month -- with top
priority given to anyone who works at the Presidio. The trust also plans to
demolish up to 300 nonhistoric housing units and replace them elsewhere on
park grounds.

Those plans have angered the mayor and tenant activists in San Francisco,
where the vacancy rate is around 1 percent, rents are skyrocketing -- a
two-bedroom apartment that rented for $800 a month five years ago costs
twice that today -- and some 15,000 people are homeless.

"They are creating an elite city within a city," said Sister Bernie Galvin,
a Sister of Divine Providence who has led the fight to preserve all of the
Presidio housing. "That housing could be used to alleviate the suffering of
all San Franciscans."

Sister Galvin is a member of Religious Witness with Homeless People. The
group, composed of interdenominational religious leaders, has held six
demonstrations at the Presidio since 1996, demanding that 466 homes, known
as Wherry Housing, be spared demolition and used for the homeless.

Members of that group formed San Franciscans for Preserving Presidio
Housing, which this year placed a measure on the city's June ballot to make
the majority of the housing at the Presidio available for rent to people of
all income levels.

Mayor Willie Brown has lent his support to the ballot measure, and his
spokeswoman, Kandace Bender, said he was disappointed that the trust
unveiled its plan without first giving voters a chance to weigh in on the

Meadows, who lives in the Presidio, said that as a federal employee, he
could not comment on political campaigns, but he said the trust was doing
its part to meet the city's housing needs. For example, he said, he is
contracting with a city veterans service agency, Swords to Plowshares, to
provide homes and training programs at the park for 100 previously homeless

"By providing housing to everything from Swords to Plowshares to entry-level
employees to senior management, we are indirectly relieving pressure on
other San Francisco housing," Meadows said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who helped guide the Presidio Trust legislation
through Congress, said the grass-roots housing measure, although not
binding, could undermine the trust's already tenuous support in Congress.

Key members of congressional appropriations committees opposed any plan that
would use national park property or lands "for purposes outside the mission
of the national park service," Pelosi said. Those same committees will
decide the annual budget appropriations for the Presidio.

Pelosi supports demolishing the Wherry Housing. "Congress has made certain
commitments to making this a national park, and not a safety valve to the
housing needs of San Francisco," she said.


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