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Government: 02/01/2019

Walking the concept of Trust from the Presidio to Eldridge

One of my favorite hiking trails is on Land’s End in the Presidio of San Francisco. From the trailhead on Merrie Way, just up the hill from the fabled Cliff House, the route begins by skirting the ruins of Sutro Baths. Up through the cypress and ’round the bend the strait of the Golden Gate and its iconic span slip into view. From the labyrinth on a cliff near an old military gun emplacement, the vistas are picture perfect.

The trail ends at Sea Cliff, but a short drive to Baker Beach deposits you on another blufftop path linking historic bunkers. The route dives under the cacophonous bridge, drops to Crissy Field, and continues on a promenade along the bay shore. Take a right at the marsh into the Main Post. I could go on. I’m a guidebook writer, after all.

Back in the mid-1990s, I wrote Exploring Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Poor me: To complete the research I had to walk the Presidio end to end. That’s when I discovered the Land’s End Trail and the other marvels of what was, at the time, an experimental national park. A brand-new, untried model for land management was playing out on prime real estate studded with historic sites dating to the days of the Ohlone and Spanish colonization; the Civil War, World Wars, and Cold War; forests and sand dunes and serpentine grasslands; a Lovers Lane and an Officers Row; a stretch of coastline traversed by a one-time railbed transformed into a walking path.

In those days this national park had yet to prove itself, and not everyone was sure it could. This was the deal, in the simplest terms: The U.S. Army wanted to offload the Presidio; it was no longer strategically important and a financial sink. Neighbors in San Francisco wanted to preserve the natural and historic values of the site, which they recognized added value to life in the City by the Bay beyond its development potential.

Remind you of any place you know here in the Sonoma Valley?

The National Park Service (NPS) was the ideal steward. The Presidio lay entirely within the boundaries of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, established in 1972 and consistently one of the most visited parks in the system. Chockfull of open space and history, the post was a logical fit under the NPS charter “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The downside? Buildings were old and falling into disrepair. The open spaces were stunning but neglected – beachfronts and marshlands in need of restoration, unmaintained trails snaking through dense stands of aging cypress and eucalyptus dripping widow makers. The NPS saw the same financial sink the army wanted to run from, and couldn’t afford the burden.

Still, somehow, after years of debate and frustration and negotiation, the Presidio Trust was born. I’ll admit I haven’t done extensive research, but I can only imagine how much the trust, chartered by an act of Congress in 1996, disappointed everyone – the salivating developers, the strident environmentalists, the skeptical economists, the NIMBYs, the politicians, even the park service and the army. What were they thinking? How would this ever work?

The first-of-its-kind private-public nonprofit corporation, charged with making the Presidio self-sustaining, was such a wildcard that an escape valve – a failsafe – was built in. If it didn’t fulfill its mandate of self-sufficiency within 15 years, the trust would be dissolved. The property would be sold to the highest bidder.

That didn’t happen. By 2013, the Presidio Trust was operating without taxpayer support. The park encompassed a digital arts center, restored natural areas, museums, private residences and businesses … and doing research for other guidebooks, I walked it while it happened. Vibrant, innovative uses revived a place where, a few years before, “[t]he buildings were vacant, the streets quiet, and the vitality diminished.”

Which is what I see now when I walk the grounds of the former Sonoma Developmental Center.

How does this apply to redevelopment of Eldridge? Well, scale the Presidio down and drop it at the foot of Sonoma Mountain. Granted, there are significant differences: There’s no beachfront, and this is rural Wine Country, not urban San Francisco. But there are significant similarities. Just as San Francisco grew up around the Presidio, Glen Ellen and the Sonoma Valley have grown up around Eldridge. Eldridge possesses unparalleled natural beauty, a historic campus, buildings with the potential for new uses (and associated rental income), wildlands to conserve, a wildlife corridor to protect. Eldridge possesses value to the Wine Country’s quality of life that exceeds its development potential.

Of course, there are also salivating developers, strident environmentalists, skeptical economists, cautious politicians, perceived NIMBYs…

Surplus has been the state of California’s modus operandi as it has closed developmental centers across the state. It knew that wouldn’t work in Eldridge. State representatives have acknowledged this in every local public meeting they’ve attended. Even in distant Sacramento, they know something different has to happen here.

Could an Eldridge Trust be the answer? The model is there. The failsafe can be built in. The money will come. It’ll take time, and (ugh, the hardest thing of all) compromise. Governmental agencies will have to show flexibility and bust some molds. The community will have to be persistent and reasonable. But the wheel doesn’t need to be recreated.

An Eldridge Trust won’t please everyone, at least at first. But in the end, it could. Developers, environmentalists, even NIMBYs and politicians, may find themselves walking an old railroad grade to a side trail leading to a new labyrinth, this one on a knoll with views of Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas… and they might puff up a bit with pride that somehow, after years of debate and frustration and negotiation, this iconic capsule of California’s history, beauty, and creative spirit has been conserved.


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