By Monica Chen
Despite Republican outcries of earmarks and payoffs earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has kept $200 million in appropriations for The Presidio Trust in the Build Back Better plan.
Tucked into the massive 2,000-page bill are two paragraphs giving the organization that sum, to be doled out in fiscal year 2022 and available until 2026, for “carrying out projects.” The trust manages the Presidio National Park, a 1,480-acre park at the northern tip of San Francisco overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
When Pelosi’s office was asked by reporters in September why the trust needed that money, the answer was that it was “to help meet the needs of this incredibly popular national park in this difficult financial moment.”
“Sadly, it’s clear Republicans would rather play politics than preserve our national treasures,” a spokesperson said to Fox News.
But the Presidio National Park is mostly used by San Franciscans, unknown to the rest of the country.
The trust is also flush with cash. In 2021, its total revenue was $131 million, according to financial statements. This year, it will finish its biggest and most expensive project to date, the $121 million Tunnel Tops project, to build 14 acres of new park land on top of highway tunnels. To pay for increasingly more expensive projects, it keeps taking loans from the U.S. Treasury. As of 2021, it owes $61.7 million. Total assets are $776.4 million.
On top of that, the Presidio Trust in its founding was meant to be financially self-sustaining by 2013. But Pelosi has helped it secure federal funds even when it was already posting a profit. In 2011, when Congress wanted to pull funding, Pelosi’s office fired off a news release decrying that possibility.
“From its creation, we intended the Presidio to eventually become financially self-sustaining; every year, the federal investment required for the Presidio decreases. Instead, today’s misguided Republican action would result in higher future obligations by the federal government,” Pelosi said in the press statement.
“The Presidio Trust is well on its way toward meeting its financial, stewardship, and public use goals, and is headed toward self-sufficiency in 2013. I will fight alongside Senators Feinstein and Boxer to ensure that this damaging provision never becomes law,” she added.
But according to The San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, in a lengthy Sunday feature, the Presidio Trust celebrated the milestone of posting a profit for the first time that year. It had $43.2 million in revenue and spent $40.5 million in expenses.
“It’s emerging as the national park that we wanted it to be,” said Greg Moore to the Chronicle. Moore was the director of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Presidio is part of the 82,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Today, the Presidio is a national park with corporate and seemingly resort-like interests. “Live in a national park,” says the marketing for its apartments, built by the U.S. Army when it held the site. There are two hotels on site, 11 cafes and restaurants, including a Starbucks. There are also a yoga center and a day spa, a regular gym and a rock-climbing center. Those businesses are dotted among the eight war memorials at the Presidio built over the centuries by the army, the oldest to honor the fallen in the Spanish-American War. Visitors can view the Korean War Memorial, then walk around the corner to the Walt Disney Family Museum’s cafe.
Pelosi’s connections to the Presidio Trust go back to its founding. She introduced the bill in 1994 to establish the trust and shepherded it through Congress to transform it “from post to park,” as Pelosi said in the Chronicle.
Alarms have been raised about the Presidio Trust from the start in San Francisco.
In 1994 and 1995, members of the Preserve the Presidio Campaign testified in Congress about the trust’s organizational structure and questions about its suitability within the National Parks system. It was formed as a “wholly owned government corporation.”
“The National Park Service is planning to change the Presidio, a designated national park, into a business park to be marketed like a shopping mall,” said Joel Ventresca, co-chairman of the campaign. “The NPS wants to abdicate its responsibility and turn the management of the Presidio over to a tax-free publicly unaccountable, publicly subsidized corporation that will operate like a private for-profit redevelopment agency with awesome powers.”
The Presidio Trust, as formed by Pelosi’s bill, turned out to be exactly what Ventresca described. The board is not accountable to San Francisco. In fact, of the seven-member board, six members are appointed by the President of the United States. The seventh member is the Secretary of the Department of the Interior or their representative. Since taking office, President Joe Biden has appointed four new board members.
The trust and the businesses operating within the park are also tax-exempt.
The unsuitability of the Presidio to be a national park was also raised by other members of Congress, who even in 1994 fretted that the Presidio would be just an exclusive playground for San Francisco residents, supported by taxpayers nationwide. “What we’re creating today is a city park for San Francisco paid for by government funds,” said Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, in August 1994.
These days, exclusivity seems to be the Presidio’s draw. When the heiress Ivy Getty married recently, Pelosi officiated her wedding at city hall. Afterwards, reported The Daily Mail, guests who partied too hard had a log cabin available to them at the Presidio National Park, for IV drips.