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The Presidio That Could Have Been...

by Diana Scott

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To serve as an authentic model for solving the nation's (then, the world's) most pressing environmental and social problems, the Presidio of San Francisco must become a microcosm: a model that balances the widely interdependent parts of a complex urban social ecosystem. This -- and not profitability -- was the key goal impelling (and preserved by amendment of) the authorizing legislation.

Unless the Park does become such an example, the two paradigms now embedded in that legislation -- economic self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability -- are on collision course. Like "strucural adjustment" in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, "devolution" in the United States has been used to rationalize the dilution of sustainabille environmental goals (and many other progressive social programs).

But, if it can't happen here and now, when profits are high in the world's model "free market" economy, when and where can it happen?

Ecological balance is for the long-haul; it's about investments that will pay off in the health of all interdependent living things for many generations. Conversely, economic self-sufficiency separates, by definition, abstract component sub-systems, ignoring the negative impacts of one on another; it maximizes immediate profits by ignoring environmental costs (including impact on human health) of rapid, uneven, and minimally restricted economic growth.

The problem, quite simply, is that according to current book -- keeping practices, the costs of depleting of groundwater, fouling oceans, bays, and rivers with toxic waste and partly-treated sewage, and clearcutting ancient forests aren't accounted for. Conversely, remediation of oil- spills are reckoned not as debits but as profits in an economy which see such clean-ups as another source of wealth for someone. Nowhere, to date, is the toll on nature debited in our national -- or global -- accounting.

Likewise, the costs to the environment of generating power for the Presidio, once it becomes a high-tech office park, or the increased air pollution that several thousand more car trips per day will generate, as employees travel to an from the quasi- corporate park, are costs that won't be debited from the Trust's or corporate tenant's books. These costs won't show up at all as figures, but will certainly be borne by the environment itself, and by those who inhabit it: in the respiratory disease caused or aggravated by breathing more polluted air; in the increased incidence of cancer and immune damage by those bathing and swimming in polluted waters (especially points of industrial discharge or sewage outfalls).

And in the degradation of nature -- in and outside the Park -- by ever- increasing demands for electric power, which require daming rivers and burning of fossil-fuel to power turnbines, and continue our reliance on nuclear plants despite the insoluble problem of safely containing their waste.

While foresighted economists are working on ways to factor these so-called "externalities" -- the costs to all living things -- into the economic equation, the Presidio Trust, by placing "bottom line" calculations above environmental ones, is squandering our natural capital -- creating a stage- set model, which embraces form over content, and is refusing to look at the Park's impact on the lands beyond its borders. True, these acts are sanctioned by contradictions in the two missions of the Trust and of the new national park itself (ecological and financial sustainability), embodied in the authorizing legislation. But the Presidio cannot be a model of *real* sustainabiltiy if elevates market-based accounting form over ecological content.

A separate set of books for this park does not compensate for the increased demand commercial development places on the larger socio-ecosystem, including city schools, transit, daycare, and housing.

...Or That Could Still Be
A living model of sustainability would meet at least a substantial portion of its growth needs -- for electric power, waste treatment, and clean transit -- with ecologically-sound on- site systems. Lack of means to do so would set growth limits for the site. To achieve these environmental goals, revenues to support park maintenance would be untied from the region's volatile (speculative) real estate market and the need for generating such high revenues would itself be reconsidered, as well as the pace of development.

Congress wouldn't have begun by taking on a physical overhaul of buildings so expensive (while just a fraction of Congress' previous appropriation to the defunct military base) that it would require developing 3.5 million square feet of leased commercial space to the highest bidder. Instead, change would be accomplished in phases; market rental rates would not drive redesign, but rather, maximizing public uses would; and broad access to the park would, in turn, entail utilizing the gamut of human resources.

A public institution like the Presidio Trust, with a projected annual budget of at least $35 million, could find ways to free up just three percent, or $1 million a year, to make this happen. Economies might include using ecologically-sound (sustainable) technologies on-site to decrease reliance on market-rate utility costs: water, sewer fees, and the big ticket item, electric power.

Ecotourist attractions -- the opportunity to observe ongoing ecotechnical infrastructure processes, along with educational workshops and events -- would bring people to the park by mass transit, bicycles, footpower, kayaks, water-taxi, horseback, and other low-impact means. Auto parking fees for for a limited number of tourists and employees would be on a sliding scale, based on car book value, and parking permits would be issued by lottery. Free electric shuttles would transport people once inside the park.

Instead of fully renovating Doyle Drive for improved vehicle access, state-funded renovations would be scaled back and money saved would be used to create solar battery-powered shuttles or lightrail links to existing transit. Tourist accommodations, if any, would range from inexpensive youth hostels to B&B's, and a modest-sized hotel salvaged from the historic remnant of the Letterman/LAIR complex. [Salvage costs wouldn't necessarily exceed those of demolition and rebuilding, once past labor and materials costs were added to the latter, as well as environmental costs associated with producing and transporting new materials.]

Embodying sustainable values, redesign would build on the incubator model created by the Tides Foundation at Thoreau Center for Sustainability. Continued demand for start-up office space here has led to renovation of an additional low-rise building in the Letterman complex (adjacent to the highrise hospital and research labs which are slated for demolition).

Before soliciting development projects, model park stewards would look at what jobs could be readily filled by the available workforce -- across the spectrums of age, gender, race, education levels, and skills. They would begin literally from the ground up, with outdoor jobs that heal and maintain the environment (recycling and materials salvage; habitat restoration; permaculture farming; gardening; grounds and building maintenance). Stewards would consider the workforce available for habitat restoration and maintenance at least as carefully as the development climate.

In the park that could still be, portions of Letterman/LAIR especially well-adapted for community use, would be salvaged rather than razed, and new construction would be done with an eye to maximum flexibity (rather than specialization) for future use, with public use a priority.

Prefered uses would be least-polluting and least resource- depleting, locally and globally. Corporate tenants that exemplify clean building, production, and fair labor practices in all their operating arenas would be given space priority, after organizations (non- and for-profit) dedicated to meeting democratically-determined environmental and social needs.

In the model sustainable urban park that could still be, the indisputable environmental stewardship which indigenous Americans practiced for centuries would be acknowledged, by providing a rent-free home for the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center. Mainstream myths and history would be reinterpreted by integrating this missing cultural perspective. (To our national shame, even the offer of an affordable rental is unlikely to materialize at this late stage, in the wake of retracted offers and frustrated design plans.)

We are at a critical juncture, not only in national park history but in our level of environmental consciousness. The Presidio of San Francisco could have been a tri-span bridge between 19th and 20th century practices of wilderness conservation; 20th century strategies of historic building and cultural landscape preservation, and natural habitat restoration; an a 21st century vision of ecological sustainability which would make housing all people a priority, given unequal access to wealth and limited natural resources. This would ensure species diversity, including that of humans.

Not coincidentally, a biotic, needs-based perspective of living things (including humans) rather than the "free market" revenue- based view could help solve the problem of affordable housing in the park and eliminate the controversy over housing the homeless. It would begin by focusing on existing demographics, including skill levels of surplus unemployed and then deciding which types of eco-job development to puruse.

Job preparation assistance would become available for targeted challenged populations by links to city and private agencies. Joblessness often leads to homelessness and targeted job- development could reverse this trend. Employing those with basic environment maintenance skills, at a living wage, is as essential to the sustenance of ecologic and economic health and social harmony as jobs that require advanced technical training.

Mainstream development practices aim toward attracting high-tech and information-based industries to a locale, and federal support of this strategy subsidizes corporations while accelerating environmental degradation and exacerbating underclass misery. It doesn't have to be this way, as demonstrated by nonconventional financing arranged by the Tides Foundation for the Thoreau Center, and supported by a ground-lease subsidy (and by other pilot projects supported by unconventional lending institutions like low-income loan funds and by Oakland's Community Bank of the Bay).

Environmental sustainability is fundamentally about not living beyond our means. Ecological balance is achieved by maximizing diversity, not by accelerating "survival of the fittest" (or opportunistic invasion, in biological terms) -- a clear sign of ecosystem imbalance and decline. As a community, we can't afford to have fiber optic links (as those installed in the Presidio by the NPS to attract leasees) for a select few businesses and privileged homes, while the jobless and homeless are jailed for sleeping in city streets and parks.

Today, there's is a highly punitive attitude toward those without adequate housing, who are denied individual dignity by segregation as "the homeless." This resurgence of Social Darwinism is reminiscent of Dicken's London in the late 19th century, when the worst ravages of the Industrial Revolution and corporate capitalism were highly visible in that city's slums. Today, people with nowhere to live are stalked by police and chased from one location to another -- from shop doorway, to park bench, to sidewalk steam vent.

In the Presidio, access to the park cuts through some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods, which may be as much a source of residential opposition to housing the homeless there, as the actual presence of poor people at the park's remote Wherry Housing units. With jobs, people could have access to homes, whether or not they were located in the Presidio. To paraphrase an urban environmentalist, homeless people are the urban ecosystem's endangered species.

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Albion Monitor December 28, 1999 (

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