Lack of trust the main problem in Presidio planning process

| June 20, 2006

The problem with the Presidio Trust doesn’t involve any single development in its ambitious long-range plan — in San Francisco you can’t find any sizable building proposal that doesn’t spark a neighborhood battle.

And the problem isn’t that the Trust was handed an extraordinarily difficult mission when it was created — to turn a former Army base into a National Park that was self-sustaining in a relatively short period of time.

No, the problem with the Presidio Trust is that, after a decade of trying to achieve its goals of slowly transforming one of The City’s most beautiful and valuable landscapes into a recreational and residential oasis, so few people trust it.

The latest display of the credibility gap for the federal entity charged with guiding the Presidio surfaced last week when the Trust held one of its rare public hearings to present the most recent version of its plan to convert the dilapidated public health hospital into a giant apartment complex. The Trust announced that it was reducing the plan from 350 units to 230 units — a downsizing option that conceivably would have been popular with neighborhood groups that had asked for a less intrusive development.

But the result? Nearly every person in the room — approximately 200 people — was adamantly opposed to the project. And it’s not just because the proposed development is essentially the same size, at 400,000 square feet, as the previous, 350-unit proposal. It’s because the community has had little input and interaction with the Trust.

The unique nature of the Presidio Trust is at the core of its problem. Created by Congress, the quasi-public agency is not required to engage community groups or even the city of San Francisco over its plans. Neighborhood groups without exception have complained that they essentially have been locked out of the planning process, and the lack of transparency is what is fueling the main opposition to the hospital development proposal.

"There is a lot of frustration that we’ve never been able to present our views to the Trust other than through letters and three-minute speeches at meetings," said Claudia Lewis, president of Richmond Presidio Neighbors. "There’s never been any give-and-take and it’s high time that happens."

Instead, the Trust has strictly followed federal bureaucratic guidelines — a symbolic wall of red tape that even city officials can’t see over. As evidence, the Mayor’s Office issued a strongly worded six-page letter outlining numerous objections to the sprawling development plan. The letter stated that the proposal was too dense for the neighborhood, incompatible with the park’s nature and that the traffic impacts would be too severe.

If the proposed apartment complex was located 200 yards away on city land, you can bet that the developer, Forest City, would be on bended knee trying to appease the numerous neighborhood groups that would be affected. Instead, the Trust has essentially blocked the developer from meeting with groups — citing strict federal guidelines — and after 18 months of general silence issued its massive environmental study just a few weeks before the hearing.

I tried to contact one of the Trust’s board members after the meeting to discuss the findings and the process, but she responded by telling me that she couldn’t talk about the development because the agency was "still in it’s dark period."

"Dealing with the Trust is not a two-way communication," said Judith Hulka, president of the Neighborhood Association for Presidio Planning. "You never get to sit down with them and work out your differences."

As ridiculous as the process seems now, when the Trust was first set up, the agency was not even required by law to hold any public hearings. After pressure from community groups, that oversight was addressed and the Trust has been holding two public hearings a year.

But the clear lack of accountability was showcased last year when the Trust, apparently realizing that 2005 was about to conclude without a second hearing, quickly scheduled a December meeting with only a scant agenda. People who attended it walked away feeling misled.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who helped set up the Trust, needs to leadthe effort to change how the agency operates. The lack of transparency at the Trust has become such a huge public relations problem that if it goes ahead with a development plan that has met nothing but objections, it will likely see the kind of document it so easily produces — and this time it will be a lawsuit.

And then it really will be in a dark period.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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