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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

A few months ago we reported on a controversy at the former military base in San Francisco called the Presidio which has just become a national park that is attempting to be financially self-sufficient. Now, there's an intrigiung sub-plot to the story that concerns a cluster of abandoned military quarters at the Presidio. A plan to tear down the houses has drawn protests from advocates for the city's large homeless population and spawned a contentious battle between them and Bay area enviromentalists. Living On Earth's Senior Correspondent Peter Thomson prepared our report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Recently, we reported on a controversy at the former military base in San Francisco called the Presidio. The Presidio, which has just become a national park, eventually has to wean itself off government funding. And there are concerns that the scramble for dollars may compromise the park's mission. Now, there's more to the story. It concerns a cluster of abandoned military housing units at the Presidio. A plan to tear down the buildings has drawn protests from advocates for the city's large homeless population. And it sparked a battle between them and some Bay Area environmental activists. Living on Earth senior correspondent Peter Thomson has our report.

(Footfalls. A woman speaks, voice echoing, about preparing troops)

THOMSON: Bernie Galvin is excited. She's trespassing on Federal property, and she's about to enter one of San Francisco's rarest places: a vacant apartment.

GALVIN: Solid oak floors. Hardwood floors. Two big hall closets. Tiled bathroom.

THOMSON: Bernie Galvin isn't a realtor hoping for a big commission. She's Sister Bernie Galvin, a Catholic nun and an advocate for San Francisco's homeless. And this flat isn't even on the market. Sister Bernie is here to draw attention to its planned fate.

GALVIN: When you think about families living under freeways right now, isn't it incredible that they want to tear this down?

THOMSON: In a city with one of the tightest housing markets in the country and more than 10,000 homeless people, Sister Bernie is appalled that this apartment and the 465 other units in this modest subdivision are destined for demolition. In fact, several buildings have already been torn down, sparking protests in which the diminutive nun in jeans and an open collar shirt has been arrested 4 times. Sister Bernie wants the apartments to be used as housing for homeless and low income families. The problem is that the houses are in the Presidio, a former Army base at the northwest corner of San Francisco that's now a national park. It's prime real estate high on a hillside with a spectacular view of the Pacific.

(A window opens; fade to wind)

THOMSON: Opening a west-facing window, the scent and sound of the ocean rush in.

GALVIN: That's part of the reason that they don't want homeless people here. It's considered to be too good for poor people.

(Wind and waves sound)

THOMSON: The US Park Service took over the Presidio 2 years ago with the plan to restore this area, along with hundreds of other acres of forests, hills, and beaches here, to its natural state.

O'NEILL: This is one of the most significant areas of the Presidio in terms of historically the native plant communities that were there, and the proposal and the plan proposes to restore this 75-acre area.

THOMSON: Brian O'Neill is the superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He recites a litany of other reasons why the 40-year-old houses should be demolished. They have no historic or aesthetic value, he says, and they weren't built to last.

O'NEILL: In doing our analysis of that housing, the life cycle cost of that housing did not make it economically feasible for its reuse.

THOMSON: After years of discussions, a plan to remove the housing and restore the natural habitat has gained broad support in the Bay Area, especially among environmentalists.

(Clanging bells)

THOMSON: Michael Alexander lives and works above the cable cars on San Francisco's fashionable Nob Hill, in a spacious apartment with a panoramic view of the Bay. He doesn't need to worry about housing, although he realizes that others do.

ALEXANDER: In the San Francisco Bay area, it is always a very difficult issue to talk about removing any housing whatsoever.

THOMSON: But Mr. Alexander, who chairs the Sierra Club's Task Force on the Presidio, says the park is the wrong place for low-income housing. The Presidio is a time capsule of the region's natural and social history. It embraces the entire southern rim of the dramatic Golden Gate, with its rugged hillsides plunging hundreds of feet into the Pacific. And it boasts historical treasures from the time of Spanish control, through the Civil War and the 2 World Wars. Mr. Alexander says Presidio supporters worked hard to convince Congress that it's valuable to the nation and the world, not just to San Francisco.

ALEXANDER: We weaken that argument if we just turn it into an easy solution for the city of San Francisco's social or other problems. We need to -- I think we need to be thinking bigger than that. The Presidio is a world-class place. We ought to be using it for world-class purposes.

THOMSON: But for people like Arlee Peters, the highest purpose which a small corner of the Presidio could serve is shelter for the poor.

PETERS: A place for people who don't have any money, a place for them to live. It means -- means their sanity, it means their health, it means their life.

(Ambient street noises)

THOMSON: Arlee Peters is a veteran who's been on and off San Francisco's street for 6 years. He lives here in the Tenderloin District, where each day hundreds of the city's homeless eat in soup kitchens and sleep in doorways. He recently joined the campaign to save the Presidio apartments.

PETERS: We're going to tear down the houses that's already built, that's already been paid by the taxpayers over the years, already been used by the people. Let's see if that makes logic. Let's see if that makes decent sense.

THOMSON: Homeless activists say they see a cruel irony developing. Under an edict from Congress, the Presidio will have to pay all of its own expenses within 15 years. To do that the park will rent out many of its other former military buildings to businesses and nonprofit groups and their employees. That means that middle class and wealthy people will be allowed to live in the Presidio, but poor people may not. Supporters of the plan to remove the houses say their motives aren't selfish. They say it's just an especially difficult case of conflicting needs for the same piece of land. But some environmentalists don't see a conflict. Carl Anthony has been an advocate for economic and environmental justice in San Francisco as head of the Earth Island Institute, and he's long been involved in Presidio planning.

ANTHONY: The notion of tearing down $80 million worth of buildings in order to restore it to its original grasslands while we have 100 people dying from hypothermia in San Francisco, while we're also asking to protect our ancient forests from being torn down, is conceptually, in my view, contradictory to the basic premise of the environmental movement, which is to recycle what you have, and to use it wisely.

THOMSON: Mr. Anthony supports a solution which he says could meet some of the needs of both sides. Let the city or an independent agency lease the complex, with a promise to tear it down and restore the habitat some time in the future. In the meantime, low-income families could rent the apartments, and the Presidio would get badly-needed income now to pay for restoration elsewhere in the park. Michael Alexander of the Sierra Club suggests another solution.

ALEXANDER: Does the housing need to be where it is now?

THOMSON: So you're suggesting that it's possible that this housing could end up someplace else.

ALEXANDER: Well, it's possible. I think, you know, it would certainly be worth taking a look at.

THOMSON: The Park Service says moving the buildings to another spot may be a feasible alternative. And the idea of leaving the houses in place and leasing them from the park has been getting serious attention as well. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown recently endorsed the leasing plan and promised to push hard for it.

(Footfalls, voices)

GALVIN: You sewe this? They've got this in every house, ha, -- not even a nail, I can't pull it out; it's a screw.

THOMSON: So they've screwed them shut where the locks have been broken.

GALVIN: Yeah. Yeah.

THOMSON: After more than a year of demonstrations, the battle over the Presidio housing appears to be moving into a period of negotiation. But the issue probably won't be settled soon. So for now, the site will sit vacant, occupied neither by needy people nor by native plants and animals. Park managers aren't likely to tear the houses down in the absence of a new agreement, but if they do, Sister Bernie Galvin says homeless activists will be ready.

GALVIN: When there's a bulldozer that shows up, there are going to be plenty of us right in front of that bulldozer.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in San Francisco.



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