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Birth of a "Trust"

by Diana Scott

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Sponsored by Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the legislation that turned the Presidio from base into national park was initially hailed by supporters as creating a "model of urban sustainability." The Presidio Trust Act was signed into law by President Clinton on November 12, 1996. But it contained a new, draconian provision added by Congress (which had not been part of Pelosi's original failed resolution) that required the park to become financially "sustainable" by the year 2013, at which time Congressional subsidies will end.

The park's supporters bristled at this provision but went along with it, ostensibly because they feared if the Act failed to pass, the park would be sold piecemeal to the highest bidder. Whether or not that would necessarily have been so was not fully explored, because Pelosi and other leading San Francisco supporters of the Act effectively blocked public discussion, out of fear, they said, that opponents would seize upon any expressed opposition and use it to torpedo the legislation.

In establishing the Presidio Trust as an "innovative public-private partnership that minimizes costs to the U.S. treasury and makes efficient use of private sector resources," Congress invoked a relatively new land-use management prototype, a "government corporation."

However, the mission of this corporation is nothing like that of the nonprofit land preservation prototype, also called "trust," whose purpose has traditionally been that of stewardship: to preserve land for public use against pressures for commercial development. Such land trusts are not typically governed by boards and key committees which are dominated by representatives of real estate and development interests; do not engage in activities which contract for the rehab, leasing, and management of buildings at "market rates" in order to become financially self-sufficient within a stipulated timeframe; and do not typically enjoy annual federal subsidies for 15 years in excess of $25 million per year, to finance an administrative bureacracy that employs hundreds of full-time staff and professional consultants.

The Presidio Trust (initially called the Presidio Corporation, until the name was changed in response to an outcry from opponents of quasi-privatization) is only loosely accountable to two Congressional committees (the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and the House's Committee on Resources). It may ultimately have more in common with the older business prototype on which "trust-busting" was once based, than on the established, beloved model of private nonprofit steward of public land. In creating it, Congress confounded the functions of the two and by the time the public takes notice of the difference, the results may well be solidified for a "leasehold" of one hundred years.

The Trust is authorized to set up its own purchasing and contracting guidelines in consultation with the Administrator of Federal Procurement Policies. It is not accountable to the City of San Francisco, which has long avoided holding general public hearings about the Presidio, under pressure from its local Congresswoman Pelosi not to make waves in troubled waters. Yet the Trust's operations will undeniably impact the city -- physically and fiscally -- and could be used as leverage to end federal support to the national park system.

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Albion Monitor December 28, 1999 (

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