The Presidio Brat

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Starfleet Academy

For those who missed the public meeting last Monday night, the Trust is deciding what to do with the old Commissary on Crissy Field, and we heard three proposals.

The first one was the Bridge Institute, proposed by the Chora Group and WRNS Studio. They're calling it an "innovative cultural education center" but the focus is on sustainability, leading one to believe that they're going to be educating the public about pretty much anything relating to why you should ride a bike. (Yawn. Sorry.) They had some pretty nice graphics showing a cafe, exhibit spaces and a "research institute". It just brings to mind places like the Thoreau Center, which already exist here. The center would essentially be bringing together the "academic community" and the "corporate community" to problem-solve sustainability issues.

I would like you to write "I should ride a bike...."
(Ohmygodno!)

They went on a little bit about all the modern tech, and how they're going to focus on education and e-learning, which just begs the question: if we're so wired in for this stuff, why build a building at all? Isn't is more sustainable not to have buildings? I noticed they didn't have plans for parking spaces, which suggests, further (here come the "shoulds") that you SHOULD ride a bike to a sustainability institute, no? Yes.


Let's not forget that, back in 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency suggested taking down the buildings and restoring Crissy Marsh. Just saying.

At this point, the Trust and the presenters were making such a big deal about Crissy Field, practically calling it the center of the universe, that it cracked me up thinking that the army saw this gorgeous spot and thought "Hey, let's build a grocery store. And a bargain market. And a realllllllly big parking lot." After twenty minutes of a sustainability presentation, I kinda missed the people who weren't so precious.


Then came the Lucas Center proposal for a Cultural Arts Museum. We all thought it was pretty clever that they prepared a video of George Lucas describing the project, then we thought: shoot, if he cares so much, why isn't he here? But the project itself has attractions: It will be a vast museum of pop art, illustration, fashion, cinematic design, fine arts, children's art, and digital art and animation. They tried to emphasize that it won't be just for adults, that the entire thing is super kid-friendly and there will be plenty of opportunities for education. Lucas pretty much defined it as a Museum of Storytelling. I can certainly appreciate that.

We'd better put it over there.
Unfortunately, everything else was hazy. They hadn't actually designed their new building yet, so they showed future sketches with what they called a "mass" where the building should be. It looked like a prison, big and ugly and blocking the view of the bridge. However, seeing what Lucas has done with the Letterman Center, I have faith that they'd build something gorgeous. They had figured out the parking though: an underground garage. Then they paraded out a bunch of specialists to describe different features of their sort-of-proposal, one of which was alarming: They showed that, a couple decades from now, the sea levels are going to rise so much that Crissy Field will be completely underwater. (Yes, folks, the most important spot on earth is going to be gone.) But the museum has planned for this (somehow) and their institute will be - tada! - right at the shoreline. I presume, however, that the future sea level rise might impact the underground parking garage...

Anyway, while I like the idea of this fantastic art collection being available on the Presidio, I don't see why it couldn't go somewhere else. We already have the Disney museum, which is pretty much a Great Homage to Storytelling.

By now, everyone's making such a big deal about Crissy Field, the most gorgeous and breathtaking spot on earth, the absolute premier location for anything on the planet, that I am beginning to feel that there should be nothing less here than Starfleet Academy. That even George Lucas, master storyteller himself, is not universally important enough for all the fuss they're making about this holy site.

I sat there wondering why I was feeling so jaded. I ought to be excited. I'm a huge fan of George Lucas, and I should be cheering, despite the floppy presentation. But the truth was, I felt like I was in a business meeting that a manager had hastily tossed together. (These proposals don't need to be finished before September.)

But then came the third and final presentation.

The Presidio Exchange, proposed by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, was explained by one person: Greg Moore, President of the Conservancy, who spoke eloquently and with a big heart. He alone understood that he was speaking to an audience who wanted to be inspired, impressed and amazed. He did not simply drag out the blueprints, he did not try to sell us politically correct environmentalism, or a massive museum collection. He sold us an idea, and it pretty much blew everyone else's plans out of the water.

The idea was simple: let's not just re-invent the place, let's create something that continues to re-invent itself. We don't want another dusty museum, with a bunch of stuff behind glass and partition ropes. We have to leave behind "the old 20th Century paradigm for a cultural institution," (Zing!) and instead build a cultural institution that is living and flexible and can continually offer new and exciting things to the public. While a Museum of Storytelling seems broad enough, it won't have the depth of topic of the Presidio Exchange. People want newness and variety, they want to touch, experience and create. The PX is going to be "a constant exchange of cultures, ideas, histories and missions."

To do this, they would offer a huge variety of programs covering all manner of topics -- concerts, presentations, film festivals, lectures, hikes, educational courses. Their criteria for selecting these events is: Does it have the variety to introduce diverse audiences to the Presidio, and to adapt as people's interests, cultures and technologies change?

In other words, is it open and potentially interesting to San Franciscans, who will come here often, as well as tourists? Yes.

Does it make the future more interesting? Yes. So....

IS IT STARFLEET ACADEMY?

Yes!!

To be serious, the PX proposal (aside from the awesome name - appreciated by presidio brats everywhere) is great because it's simple, inclusive and flexible. It's great because it's about this place as well as many other things. And it's great because, with a presentation like the one we saw, I have total confidence that the Conservancy is motivated and the people there know what they're doing.

Moore pointed out that just walking out the door anywhere on the GGNRA lands, you'll find "over 1200 historic structures, hundreds of native american sites, more than a thousand plant and animal species, a myriad of themes and stories, and over 80,000 acres of cultural, natural and scenic treasures." The Presidio itself is a museum that pulls the audience "behind the rope." Why put up another fence? Another barrier? Another building that you'll only go into once?

I have to admit, when they showed the video demonstrating how other obsolete American places have been turned into amazing cultural centers, I got a bit teary-eyed. It put me squarely in touch with why I love our national parks and why I love our country. Here's the video:



So I think the real tussle will go down between the two rivals: Lucas's proposal and the Presidio Exchange. Both proposals seem competent when it comes to bringing people to the park, but the PX has an edge because it offers so much more, a real potential to serve not just tourists, but to continually serve San Franciscans as well. The catch: I'm pretty sure the PX doesn't have the same funding that Lucas does. 

So this fight is not just about the projects. It's about the Trust and how they make decisions. The Presidio is the ONLY national park that is expected to pay for itself. And it has to make financial decisions to sustain itself, but how can it balance the need for money with the need to be open to everyone? 

What I think I fear most is the Commissary turning into somewhere you'll go into once, or maybe twice, and then it's done. Where a whole bunch of tourists flock regularly, but for those of us who live here, its single theme is quickly old hat -- a bit like the Disney museum is now. I would LOVE to have a space that is constantly changing, that is constantly re-inventing itself for San Franciscans as well as tourists. A place that brings us new knowledge and passion and experience. A place that can talk relevantly about the history and architecture and nature of the Presidio, as well as any other goddamn thing it wants to. And I do think that in order to keep this place dynamic, we're going to have to fight for it -- and not just say it, but 


So I'm casting my vote for the PX. 

Get out there and vote, people. This is an ongoing process. To submit comments, go here.