Sep. 20, 1995
A long-sought leasing plan for San Francisco's Presidio passed the House yesterday 317 to 101, clearing a major hurdle on its way to a possible presidential signature this year.
Once criticized by Republicans as a costly boondoggle of pet cemeteries and decrepit Army barracks, the Presidio and its $25 million budget seemed in serious jeopardy a few months ago, when the property was briefly slated for privatization by the Senate Budget Committee.
Republicans ultimately were convinced, however, that any attempt to sell the property faced too many local zoning hurdles to be economically realistic. Yesterday, both parties strongly endorsed the special Presidio Trust Fund advocated by Representative Nancy Pelosi, D-S.F., who has devoted much of her time in Congress to winning its passage.
The quasi-governmental fund would try to generate revenue by leasing out some of the Presidio's 870 buildings -- more than 6 million square feet of rentable space -- with the aim of making the historic former Army base self-sufficient in 12 years. Pelosi said the plan will preserve some of the world's most spectacular urban real estate and a national treasure while holding down the cost to taxpayers.
Representative Bill Baker, a Danville Republican, called the bill "a workable, cost-effective compromise" that "protects the Presidio and privatizes the Presidio's funding."
The Presidio costs $5 million more to run each year than Yosemite National Park, the nation's second most expensive park, and has potential capital improvement costs running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"I feel as if I've just been in a marathon run, because this was a tough fight," Pelosi said.
"I'm really very, very proud of this victory. It was bipartisan, and we needed all the votes we got," she said, adding that a two-thirds, 290-vote majority was needed to get the bill passed without opening it to amendments she feared would weaken it.
Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Carolyn Lochhead
Under pressure to find savings in everything from Medicare to mass transit in their effort to balance the budget, many Republicans had resisted the Presidio's financing, and some said that the property, potentially worth billions, should be sold.
"We had to convince some of these people who opposed us last year that it was not possible to sell the Presidio, that it would take a very long time for any of the approvals to be granted for anything to be developed there," Pelosi said.
She argued that a sale would neither preserve the park nor make money. "The wise way to go," she said, "was to preserve the park by creating a revenue stream."
PLAUDITS FOR PELOSI
Pelosi won plaudits from her former foe, Utah Republican James Hansen, who now chairs the National Parks, Forests and Lands Subcommittee.
"I don't know if people in the Bay Area realize the hundreds of hours that she and her staff have put into this, (but) they should be very proud of her work," Hansen said. "Without her work, I would guarantee you this would not be in front of us today. There is no question (she is) a very persistent legislator."
The Presidio bill still must clear the Senate, which, like the House, is running out of time this year to pass ambitious Republican overhauls of everything from the farm programs and the banking system to welfare and Medicare.
Nonetheless, the outlook remains favorable, given Senate majority leader Bob Dole's June endorsement of the Pelosi bill and his power to make floor time available for its passage. "We think it will be done by the end of the year," said a spokesman for Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is sponsoring the Senate version.
CONCESSIONS TO GOP
Several concessions were made to get GOP support, including a 12- year time limit for the park to reach self-sufficiency, which Pelosi acknowledged is ambitious, given that leasing of park buildings has been moving slowly.
The bill calls for a presidentially appointed board of real estate agents, planners and conservationists to oversee the leasing, while the National Park Service would manage the open space. The board would include seven members, including the Secretary of the Interior and at least three representatives from San Francisco. It would meet three times a year in San Francisco.
Although the National Park Service had estimated that the Presidio's capital improvements and operating costs would total $1.3 billion over 15 years, House Republicans dismissed the figure as unreasonable. The House Resources Committee recommended an expanded program of building demolition to hold down costs. The committee report noted that "there is no requirement that every historic structure at the Presidio be protected in perpetuity," and that "not all historic buildings are of equal significance."
The bill limits federal financing to $50 million over the next five years, with decreasing levels of financing until the park reaches 80 percent self-sufficiency in five years and complete self-sufficiency in 12.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead