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Critics Fight to be Heard

by Diana Scott

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The International Forum on Globalization -- an alliance of activists, scholars, economists, researchers, and writers critical of global economic restructuring, which has no official position on the Presidio -- consider it perhaps the greatest stealth privitization project the city has ever seen.

Justin Cohen, vice president of the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods, sees the Trust as a means of blocking public development, rather than preventing outright sale and private development of the park. "Why doesn't the Park Service have veto power [over tenancy], and [the Trust have] open meetings?" he asks.

Joel Ventresca, founder of Preserve the Presidio Campaign and a former candidate for city treasurer and mayor, reels off some of the benefits of federal jurisdiction to industries that may relocate from afar or downtown: avoiding more stringent local environmental controls imposed by state or federal law; and avoiding the toughest growth control limits in the country under the terms of Proposition M -- the San Francisco measure that mandates, in part, the expansion of affordable housing, and preservation of existing neighborhoods, housing, cultural and economic diversity, landmarks and historical buildings, and parks and open spaces.

Ventresca is an outspoken advocate of maintaining public control of public parks. He was invited to Washington to give testimony to Congress before passage of the Presidio Trust Act. His grassroots, all-volunteer group has continued working for public accountability and more federal oversight in the law through aggressive monitoring, media advocacy, petitions, public testimony in Washington, and letter writing campaigns.

A self-described populist, Ventresca maintains that park resources -- natural, historical, recreational, and scenic -- should be preserved for everyone. "Private special interests want control over this very valuable scenic piece of real estate," he says. "The same downtown corporate interests that have previously pushed for business district expansion are now eyeing the five percent of city land that comprises The Presidio. The business park model which is gradually being implemented now, is really a Republican notion," Ventresca continues. "To have local people not fight [to amend the law]...they're actually undermining the mission of the National Park Service."

To anyone unfamiliar with the official public input process for park decisions, the operating mode of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (GGNRA) Advisory Commission comes as something of a shock. The public can testify but communication isn't necessarily acknowledged. At one Advisory Commission meeting, Justin Cohen of the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods made direct queries about public disclosure and decision-making "transparency" and was met with stony silence. The Advisory Commission is the only regular monthly forum designated by Congress for public input into Trust policy. Of two key items on its October '98 agenda, response to the Letterman RFQ took up less than one half hour, while a relatively uncontroversial proposal to ban jet skiis from GGNRA consumed nearly two hours.

Other options ignored
"There was never any real consideration given to a low-cost, low-impact alternative to the current multimillion dollar proposal" for remaking the Presidio into a national park, reported the Bay Guardian in 1995.

But even given a big-budget approach, there are other options. "Every park in the country gets money from the outside," said Laura Keresty, former director of the Presidio Alliance, a nonprofit membership group committed to creating a sustainable community in the Presidio "for developing and evolving sustainable world practices." The Alliance is a project of the Tides Center [distinct from the Tides Foundation], which offers technical assistance to hundreds of non-profits, nationwide, dedicated to social change. "Here, they assume they're getting zero." Commenting last fall, Keresty, who holds an MBA, underscored the Trust's lack during its budget planning of a development director to raise money from foundations to promote preservation or restoration of historic buildings. "They're trying to get all [yearly costs] from leases versus revenues....Who says you can't raise outside funds?" This book-balancing act, driven by record high San Francisco market prices, limits rental access to those who can best afford to pay, and doesn't necessarily include those best suited to be located within an environmentally-conscious national park.

(For example, shortlisted applicants to develop Letterman/LAIR were required to submit a $50,000 refundable deposit with their proposal. And non-lucrative leases to nonprofits were scored early on by Trust Board member and GAP CEO, Don Fisher, in his Congressional testimony supporting creation of the Trust.)

Failure to monitor "mission compliance" -- even among current park residents who may not be fulfilling the stated General Management Plan purposes -- concerned Keresty, as did the difficulty of creating synergy among similarly interested, but geographically dispersed, nonprofits, given current commercial leasing practices. (The original plans envisioned a campus-like configuration of mission-related groups.]

With millions available from donors, "It doesn't have to be this way," said Keresty, a point she made with apparently little impact during public meetings the Trust held before sending its Financial Management Plan to Congress in July '98 -- meetings for which, she said, there is no public record. Still, she insisted, the plan could be changed.

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Albion Monitor December 28, 1999 (

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