Star wars meets historic preservation in S.F. Presidio
George Lucas’ movie production company and the Presidio Trust are close to signing a lease that will allow Lucas to construct a large office complex inside the national park in San Francisco. Finalization of the lease this spring would be a major advancement in a process that has involved a great deal of planning, political maneuvering and bickering over protection of historical resources at one of San Francisco’s most treasured sites.
Lucasfilm plans to build 900,000 square-feet of offices and other workspace in an L-shaped campus, as well as a 1,500-space underground parking garage, near the Lombard Street entrance to the Presidio. An estimated 2,500 people would work at the digital moviemaking and technology center, which would replace the dilapidated and closed Letterman Army Medical Center complex.
“I think the next big event will be the signing of the lease and the building coming down,” said Ron Sonenshine, a spokesman for the Presidio Trust, the federal agency that oversees the 1,480-acre Presidio. Preliminary site work began early this year.
In June 1999, the Presidio Trust selected Lucasfilm’s Letterman Digital Arts Center development for the site of the old Army hospital. The development is intended to generate revenue so that the Presidio, which the military handed to the National Park Service in 1994, can become self-sufficient by 2013. Lucasfilm is expected to pay about $5 million annually to lease the site.
Although 18 developers showed interest in the site, the competition came down to Lucas — the creator of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” — and a development team headed by Walter Shorenstein, one of the Bay Area’s most prominent developers and a confidante of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Shorenstein/Interland Corp. proposed a New Urbanist-style, live-work project with 500,000 square feet of offices and retail shops, 450 housing units, a library and a museum.
“We had to make a decision between two strong teams,” Presidio Trust Executive Director James Meadows told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. “But with its concentration on educational outreach, scientific research and cutting-edge technology, we felt that the Lucas plan more closely fit the goals of the Trust.”
A Lucasfilm spokeswoman declined to discuss the project because the lease is still pending.
According to public documents, the moviemaker’s proposal includes a museum that will use the company’s high-tech expertise to explain the 200-year history of the Presidio, which was first established by Spanish explorers. The plan also calls for a “great lawn” with extensive landscaping and a view of the nearby Palace of Fine Arts.
Since federal officials selected Lucasfilm nearly two years ago, the Trust has completed an environmental impact statement and adopted planning guidelines for the project. Neighbors and environmentalists have raised concerns about a development of this scale bringing too many people and vehicles to the Presidio. They say that the Congressional mandate for Presidio self-sufficiency has forced the Trust to move too quickly and to accept a large project that will detract from the national park. Some people also complained that the glitzy, multi-media company is not an appropriate tenant for the stately former military base, and others have criticized the Presidio Trust for selecting a project with no housing component.
Much of the attention, however, has focused on historic preservation issues.
“The building itself [the hospital complex] is not historical at all, but it is a part of an historical landmark district,” the Trust’s Sonenshine said.
Last fall, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the California State Historic Preservation Office lodged protests over the Digital Arts Center’s original design. They said the proposed $250 million complex was too massive and contained too much glass. They said the proposed complex looked like any suburban office enclave and clashed with the historical landmark district in which it was to be located.
Lucasfilm architects went back to work and have apparently satisfied most of the preservationists’ concerns — but not all.
In a January letter to the Presidio Trust, Jane Crisler, of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, endorsed the project. “The Council finds many elements of the proposed design, in particular the overall site plan and below grade parking proposal, to be an excellent response to challenges posed by the site,” she wrote. However, she continued to question several aspects of the project, including its landscaping, the buildings’ mass and scale, and the design of a dining pavilion.
The buildings are designed around a landscape that is planned to include freestanding Greek columns, a lagoon, a stream and water stairs. Preservationists have disliked the concept from the outset, and Crisler contended it does not adhere to the adopted design guidelines.
“The columns are designed as an instant ruin that conveys a false sense of the past, and designed aspects of the water features do not have a precedent at the Presidio. Together, these elements diminish the integrity of the Presidio National Historic Landmark District,” she wrote.
Steade Craigo, of the state Office of Historic Preservation, agreed that the project does not meet design guidelines and he said the planning process should not be considered complete.
The Trust’s Sonenshine said preservationists’ concerns could result in design modifications. But, he said, they have not asked for anything that will delay the project.
Steade Craigo, State Office of Historic Preservation, (916) 653-6624.
Ron Sonenshine, Presidio Trust, (415) 561-5300.
Jane Crisler, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, (303) 969-5110.
Presidio Trust website: www.presidiotrust.gov
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