The Evolving Uses of the Presidio: CAMP Update


Note: Other VR posts on this subject can be found here.


Model: revised design for the Main Post area, including the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio (WRNS Studio, San Francisco, architects).

Venetian Red first reported on the proposal for the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio in A Day at Camp.

Since 2007, when plans were first unveiled, public comment to the Presidio’s development plan for its Main Post has focused largely on the proposal for the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio (CAMP). To be fair, some of the more vocal opposition takes issue with all the new buildings planned for the Post, but it’s pretty clear the museum is the linchpin of their opposition.

The CAMP proposal exists within the context of a much larger discourse—namely, the role of the Main Post within the Presidio and the evolving purpose of the Presidio itself.  Given the uniqueness of the Presidio, many factors must be taken into account.

First, there is the issue of how a National Park in the midst of an urban environment stays relevant to its community.  In its 2001 white paper, “Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century,” the National Park System Advisory Board acknowledged that parks “were not, could not be, static entities,” that they “no longer be thought of as islands with little or no connection, cultural or ecological, to their surroundings.”  The Board stated its clear desire to empower a Parks Service that would benefit a new generation of citizens in a culturally-diverse, increasingly-urban, and ever more-rapidly changing world, although rightifully it offered no specifics on how parks should accomplish that. In the context of the white paper’s mandate for the Park System to “reach out to museums, parks and cultural venues, linking them with shared stories and interpretation”  (Section V), how could American art not be relevant to a 21st-century urban-based park?  Further, with attendance records dropping at historical “theme” parks all over the country, isn’t it only fiscally responsible for Presidio Trust, which must be financially self-sufficient in the next year or two, to look at other “draw” options?

Second, the Presidio is already an unusual mixed-use park with a city-like infrastructure (over 800 buildings) and vast cultivated forestland that requires management resources shared between NPS and Presidio Trust. Although the Presidio is a National Historic Landmark District, not all of its buildings have historic designation. Aggregate square footage gained by demolishing non-historic structures may be used legitimately for new construction in existing areas of development, as long as the overall cap on developed square footage is maintained. (That’s why, elsewhere in the Presidio, the LucasArts complex could replace the demolished Letterman Hospital.) The addition of CAMP to the Main Post does not violate these guidelines.

Third, the Main Post, the heart of the Presidio, had a civic identity long before the CAMP proposal came along.  As an Army base, by the late 20th century, the Presidio had become a virtual city-within-a-city, the Main Post its concentrated hub, and the Parade Grounds, an asphalted parking lot. Since 1994, when the Presidio was designated a National Park, municipal projects—rehabilitation and revitalization—have continued at the Main Post.  In 2002, the Presidio Trust adopted an overall management plan for the park (PTMP) and began to realize a long-term vision, in accordance with processes dictated by the various agencies—National Park Service, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Since then, scores of buildings on the Main Post have been rehabilitated. Many new buildings have been constructed, including, for example, the one currently occupied by La Terrasse restaurant (not historically themed by the way). Cultural entities are already slotted for the Main Post. There doesn’t seem to have been much opposition to the the Disney Family Museum, a cultural museum dedicated to the life of Walt Disney, soon to take up residence at its Montgomery Barracks building. All this is in addition to the improvements that have been made elsewhere in the park that have brought city-dwellers to live in the Presidio. With all of this, though, the Main Post still feels like an isolated collection of buildings; like every grand public space, it needs an anchor or two to tie it all together.


(Model detail) CAMP building as seen from entrance, looking west from Parade Grounds.

In 2007, the Trust notified the various agencies and the public of significant new proposals for the Main Post (including CAMP) that were before it. This February, as part of the prescribed planning process for the Main Post area, The Presidio Trust released the revised draft (“Preferred Alternative”) of the Main Post Update to the PTMP, as well as accompanying environmental and findings of effect documents required by the planning process. This draft had been revised based on extensive agency and public comment.

The updated PTMP states three primary objectives for the Main Post: reveal the Presidio’s history; create a welcoming place; and employ 21st-century green practices. CAMP falls under the second objective, as do rehabilitation of the existing Presidio Theatre (with new addition) and new construction of a Presidio Lodge.  Strategies to meet the other primary objectives are well laid out by the current PTMP document.

Given the discussion points above, it would seem that the only legitimate complaint in regard to the original CAMP proposal is the footprint and design of its building.

The newly-proposed designs from WRNS Studio goes along way to ameliorating prior concerns. This design shows greater sensitivity to the physical attributes of the site and the emotional sentiment about the Main Post. WRNS has re-placed the building to a less conspicuous corner of the Parade Grounds and made considerable design modifications to the structure. Rather than a boastful and lonely white-box eyesore sitting predominantly above ground, the architects have suggested a modest structure, mostly underground, quite suitable for a park-like setting.  What remains above ground is unobtrusive and exceptionally well-integrated with its surroundings; its low-slung peaked roof gently hugs the ground. This design suggested the possibility of a “living” roof, which would fulfill the Presidio’s commitment to sustainability.

Regardless of what the final design may actually look like, PMTP parameters insure a roofline no higher than 30 feet from ground level and more or less 60% of the projected 70,000 sq. feet underground.  As a side note, WRNS seems particularly well-schooled in the art of the underground structure.

Artist’s Rendering, CAMP proposal, WRNS Studio.

For sustaining the city’s lively arts community, as well as enhancing the visitor experience of San Francisco, the importance of keeping this unparalleled collection of modern American art (West Coast artists amply represented) together and publicly on view in San Francisco cannot be understated. (The Fisher collection provides needed depth lacking in MoMA’s American offering.) Imagine the Presidio, a mixed-used park, with its Main Post as the West Coast echo of the National Mall, more modest in scope to be sure, but still a vital and relevant space that instills a sense of pride in our American history and culture.

The new design for CAMP, together with parking and transportation logistical proposals, ought go a long way to removing remaining legitimate opposition. Apparently various state and federal agencies have been convinced. Still, rumors abound that, once the Presidio files its Document of Record (the Board approval of final plan parameters for the Main Post), lawsuits to stop construction will be filed. All this could happen as early as this summer.

Get educated, make comments, stay involved:

Graphics of the plan, as well as the model of the current proposals for the Main Post, on view at Bldg. 105, every Friday and Saturday 10am-12pm through April 18th.Any one may comment on any aspect of the revised PTMP through April 20th, either online or by mail. Submit a Comment.

SPUR presentation “The Future of the Presidio’s Main Post” April 7, 12:30pm.

The final public meeting (Board of Directors) will be held on Tuesday, April 7th 6:00 pm at Palace of Fine Arts Theatre (3301 Lyons Street).

Wider Connections

CAMP homepage

Current Planning Documents

New design renderings

National Mall current planning

SF Citizen, more pictures of the proposed design

WRNS Studio

9 Responses to “The Evolving Uses of the Presidio: CAMP Update”

  1. Francis Hall Says:

    The author has reported the position of the Presidio Trust that it has pushed since 2004, when a contemporary art museum appeared in a consultant’s rendering at the exact location Mr. Fisher wants. The author does not address the wide open question, “Why here in a national park, rather than elsewhere? Why not the waterfront, or Union Square, or even Golden Gate Park?” Until that question can be answered convincingly, the CAMP proposal must be rejected. It is part of a larger plan to construct 200,000 square feet of new architecturally and functionally incompatible construction within 200 yards of the historic Spanish era Presidio and the U.S. era flagpole. Anyone involved with public art recognizes the sensitivity of the site. There are mare appropriate and publicly accessible locations.

    • Actually the article does address the question posed by the commentator (“Why in a National park”) pretty clearly by posing the question “Given National Park parameters and the Presidio’s management plan objectives, Why NOT?” Still, the commentator makes a point about sites outside the Presidio, and agree that the details of other options could be clarified, although it wouldn’t seem to be the job of the Presidio to do that.

      It’s not clear how the commentator can claim that CAMP will add 200,000 square feet to the Presidio. As the article notes and the PTMP clearly states” aggregate square footage of demolished structures (removed on the Main Post or elsewhere in the Presidio) may be used for new construction, in existing areas of development, thereby maintaining the overall cap on developed square footage. . . The new construction proposed for the Main Post will not change the park-wide cap of 5.6 million square feet established in the PTMP.”

      Finally, a reiteration in the the article regarding the National Mall as a model for a mixed-use Park like the Presidio—it is a fine example of a grand space that mixes open areas with historic (although once contemporary) and contemporary structures, including art museums and contemporary memorials. Not sure why this would not be a good model for the Main Post. . .

  2. Francis Hall Says:

    Liz, National parks are all about preserving the natural, scenic and historic soul of our nation. The founding Organic Act and all following legislation and judicial opinions on national parks have established that the keystone principle of national parks is preservation of the resources of the parks…. of the nation. In the Presidio’s case, as a national historic landmark, the “resource” is its historic integrity various defined as “sense of place.” A visitor should sense from the existing cultural landscape what the Presidio was during its 230 years of Spanish, Mexican, and American presence. Park laws therefore authorize new construction only when it does not adversely impact the historical setting. Park laws also say new construction must relate to the purposes and resources of the park. CAMP fails that test. The Presidio Trust denies that it is obligated to obey these laws and policies.

    The 200,000 square feet of new construction in a small area in the center of the Presidio is not only CAMP, but also an 85,000 square feet hotel and an 18,000 square feet movie house. I hope that this explains your question, “Why Not?” a contemporary art museum in a national park.

  3. I have to agree with the two posters who do not want nor see the reason (however expressed) for additional construction in the Presidio. I fear that once the original agreement to maintain the Presidio as a park is breached, the flood will rush in – more cars and the demand for more parking, more people and the demand for places to sit and eat and who knows what comes next. As the poster above points out, the new construction is supposed to also include a hotel and a movie house – I can only shudder to think what the impact this would make on the environment. Maybe Fisher really does have a fabulous collection – Liz says so and I respect her opinion. But so few of us have seen it so it’s hard to tell. But in any case, there are better solutions than destroying an part of our heritage.

    • Nancy

      Appreciate your adding to the discussion. Just a few notes/clarifications in response.

      Congress created the Presidio Trust to oversee management of the Presidio, because it realized that Presidio wasn’t like other national parks, in that it already had 800 buildings on the site. While the PT shares management of the Presidio with National Park Service, technically, the Main Post is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Trust. Under the guidelines set out by the Presidio Trust in its first planning document, non-historic buildings may be destroyed and new construction erected up only if that new square footage does not push total square footage over cap set out in the PT’s original plan. CAMP, movie Theater and hotel are replacing square footage that has been demolished and not adding overall new footage. To reiterate, the PT has a cap on square footage that will not increase what was already there courtesy of the Army.

      The PTMP calls for “historical heritage” elements on the Main Post, so that piece will not be compromised. In fact, one might argue that more people in the Presidio might be good for the historical “military-related” elements there.

      As far as environmental concerns: the PT cannot act willy-nilly to build new structures. By law any plans for the Presidio must be carried out in conjunction with the planning guidelines set out by National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). That means extensive reporting and review (along with public comment) on both topics. Latest reviews available in supplemental documents issued with the most recent PTMP, i.e. “Environmental Impact Statement” and “FInding of Effect for Main Post.” I refer you to the details of those documents, which are publicly available. In short, however, the EIS found that:

      “short-term impacts on the environment would be more than offset by the benefits that the preferred alternative (i.e. most recent plan) would generate in the long term. Redevelopment of the site would contribute to the vitality of the greater community and elevate the status of the Presidio.”

      As you may know, over the years certain sites on the Presidio (including the Main Post) became toxic dump sites. The PT has already cleaned up some, and has plans for the rest, including sites on the Main Post.

      Finally, Congress mandated that the Presidio be financially self-sufficient within 15 years of its establishment. By my reckoning that deadline occurs in the next 2 years. So…. if the Presidio is to remain intact, it will have to find ways to generate income, beyond rents, etc. As the Chronicle pointed out this Sunday, public transportation/parking may still be an issue. I agree there should be better routes serving the Presidio (although they do have a regular shuttle bus from downtown. . . ) Remember all the furor over an underground garage in Golden Gate Park. NOW, you would hardly know it was there. . . .

  4. Francis Hall Says:

    Liz, With due respect to the public, please disclose any professional or compensated relationship that you have with the Presidio Trust or Mr. Fisher’s organizations. The detail of your response to Nancy is unikely to be from a member of the general public. You sound too much like a professional P.R. person or Trust staff person to be credible as a member of the public. No offense, but openness would help this discussion.

    I am a member of the Presidio Historical Association and a volunteer. Thank you.

    • Francis, I absolutely have NO professional or compensated affiliation with the Presidio, the Presidio Trust, any public relations firm, or indeed any of the organizations connected to the CAMP project or any other project on the Presidio.

      I am a working artist (which is pretty clear by reading posts on the Venetian Red site or on the “About Venetian Red” page) and a citizen of San Francisco with an intense interest in what goes on in the city as it relates to the visual arts. I think discussion about CAMP is important and relevant to the arts community here and that’s why I have posted on it.

      I take it as a compliment that you consider me to be so well-informed. I have tried to read the documents issued by the Presidio as thoroughly as possible. Additionally, I have gone out to the web to read other relevant material. Earlier this year I went to see the Fisher collection when tours were being offered, because I really wanted to make up my own mind about the importance of the collection. Finally, when I went to see the model on display I asked the Presidio rep there a LOT of probing questions, as I imagined you must have done in your capacity representing Presidio Historical Association.

      Essentially for my posts I always try to do a lot of research, striving to make sure my opinions are well informed. And always appreciate a different point of view, because that makes me think more deeply about the merit of my own.

  5. Yes…BUT….even if the Fisher Museum is built, will it be able to generate enough revenue to support the Presidio or will it be a money sink? Very few museums are profitable; they live off their endowments, grants and any other revenue producing properties that they may own. Furthermore, what impact will the construction of all these buildings have? How many building projects have been built on time and within the budget? What about cost overruns? Construction boondoggles? I do not trust the powers that be and perhaps that’s the bottom line. If the door is opened a crack, how much wider will it be forced open? Can we be really looking at a dozen more super-towers of luxury apartments lining up along the bay? We can’t see it now but it’s a real mistake to assume that everybody is honest, ethical and eco-friendly where there’s money to be made.

    I don’t think that the underground garage at Golden Gate park is a good comparison; you may not know that it’s there but I’ll bet if you talk to the park’s gardeners who can measure the impact of car exhaust, you’d get a different point of view.

  6. Francis Hall Says:

    Last comment. Thanks, Liz. You are indeed very well informed. The Trust claims that it has “exclusive jurisdiction,” but that phrase is not in the Trust Act. It has claimed to be “independent,” but that phrase is not in the Trust Act. In fact, the Trust Act restricts the “independence” of the Trust by specifying that the Presidio remains a part of the national parks, which a reasonable person would take to mean that the principle laws establishing national parks apply. The Trust Act gives the Secretary of the Interior responsibility for “interpretation,” which means visitors’ experience. The Park Service objected in a December 18 letter to lack of analysis of “visitor experience” in the documents. You could not answer my first question, why at the Presidio? Why not somewhere else?

    Nancy, Please get this fact: the Trust is not supporting the ideas of an art museum and hotel at the very center of the historic site in order to generate revenue, nor has the Trust made that a reason. The Trust is financially self-sufficient now. The reasons given for these construction projects are vague exhortations such as “bringing back the heart of the Presidio” or “revitalizing Main Post.” These reasons do not stand up to the tests of common sense or logical analysis.

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