COVERFeatures

Tunnel Vision

Photo courtesy of Rachel Styer

This headline was too easy. After all, the 14-acre Presidio Tunnel Tops, which opened on July 17, was three arduous decades in the making. How did a wrecked roadway — structurally compromised by the Loma Prieta earthquake — become a prodigious park? In short, it is the culmination of an all-out community effort, from the ingenious concept itself (thank you and RIP, Michael Painter) to the more than $98 million fundraised (the total project budget was $118 million) to the programming designed to create a welcoming environment (hence the reference to it as “a parkway for the people”). Read our three-part primer on the City’s latest must-visit attraction, then head to the Presidio and start exploring.



Outpost features signage about the local bird population. | Courtesy of Ryan White
PART ONE

A Landmark Landscape

Meet your new favorite place to while away the day — designed for active fun and learning, as well as simply relaxing and enjoying the view.

By Fredric Hamber

With meadows and hiking paths, climbing structures and one-sided picnic tables (we’ll get to those in a moment), plus a Campfire Circle that gets fired up nightly, there’s an assortment of fun for all ages at Presidio Tunnel Tops.

But first let’s review a bit of history and topography to help even longtime locals get their bearings. In 2012, the stretch of Highway 101 formerly called Doyle Drive was gloriously pummeled into chunks of concrete and rebar, to be replaced by Presidio Parkway. Before that, Doyle Drive had one job: to serve as the connection between the Golden Gate Bridge and Lombard in the Marina. But it also disconnected the Bay from the Presidio, blocking views of the water while offering no natural pedestrian access.

The genius of the design of the late Michael Painter, the landscape architect whose plan became the basis of the transformation of Doyle into Presidio Parkway, was that it channels traffic into tunnels at two spots, by now familiar to local drivers. The space above and surrounding the easterly tunnel is Presidio Tunnel Tops (the space above the westerly tunnel opened earlier this year as Battery Blu Park).

The Campfire Circle, next to the Western Lawn, offers seating for 75. | Courtesy of Rachel Styer
The Campfire Circle, next to the Western Lawn, offers seating for 75. | Courtesy of Rachel Styer

Richard Kennedy, senior principal at James Corner Field Operations, the firm contracted to create Presidio Tunnel Tops (they also designed New York’s High Line), says the guidance the company was given was to make the space a “gateway to the Presidio,” which for historic reasons has never been fully realized as a public park despite being part of the National Park Service since 1994. “Our first diagrams,” he says, “were just drawing the path connections, what we call the ‘hub and spokes.’” The gathering spot when one arrives at the Main Post is between the Presidio Visitor Center and the Presidio Transit Center. (Muni’s 43-Masonic line has a stop at the latter.)

The second principle was to give deference to the vistas. “The whole upper level of what we call the Tunnel Tops portion — everything on top of the tunnels — is very restrained … simple and low,” says Kennedy. “Nothing is meant to block views.” There’s a feeling of choreography as one walks the Cliff Walk + Overlooks trail, the direction of one’s body turning westward or toward Angel Island or the downtown cityscape with the Palace of Fine Arts looking splendid in the near distance. Sculptural benches were crafted of reclaimed cypress from the Presidio, the millwork done in Marin. For locals, the wow factor comes from seeing familiar sights from unfamiliar perspectives, such as gazing downward upon Crissy Marsh.

About those picnic tables: No bickering over who gets the view, as friends or family can sit side-by-side on a bench at the long table gazing outward together; there’s no bench on the opposite side. But you can eschew a table altogether by plopping your blanket on the lawn, aka the Golden Gate Meadow. There are daily food trucks (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.), and later this year, Il Parco Pizzeria and Café will open inside the transit center. (Long-term plans include a food hall in the building that once served as the army post’s bakery.)

The Field Station invites curiosity and wonder, with artifacts and seasonal activities. | Courtesy of Rachel Styer

Vegetation consists of more than 100,000 drought-tolerant plants, including aeoniums from the Canary Islands and yucca from California deserts. Some areas are planted with hyper-local species and prairie grasses. “The agencies that manage the park take a very long view,” Kennedy explains, describing the Presidio as “a place that is meant to be guarded for centuries.” Most of the plants have been grown in the Presidio from seed, and planted young with the expectation they will develop to maturity over time.

Inspiration for specialized areas came from deep engagement with the community, playground designers, pediatricians and youth development specialists. The inclusion of a campfire was in response to a survey about favorite national park experiences. Two acres are devoted to the Outpost, a “playscape” featuring climbing and crawling structures and a team swing that gives a feeling of being aboard a sailing ship. The Field Station is a drop-in, hands-on educational center to learn about local geology, flora and fauna.

Michael Boland, chief park officer of the Presidio Trust, explains that the Field Station is “about connecting young people to nature in a different way, a way that’s more about looking at objects, understanding the way nature works, developing their fi ne motor skills and their brains.” The Outpost, he says, “is about their gross motor skills and developing their hearts. Together, we think of these two facilities as working to give every child the opportunity to connect to their national park.”


Presidio Tunnel Top supporters and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy board liaisons Randi Fisher (far left) and Mark and Mauree Jane Perry. They are joined by Christine Lehnertz, president and CEO of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (second from left). | Photo courtesy of Craig Lee
PART TWO

Green Scene

Private dollars drove the campaign to transform a portion of the Presidio into a destination-worthy public park.

By Catherine Bigelow

Building a new park amid the Golden Gate National Recreation Area takes more than a village. It requires vision, leadership and cold, hard cash.

Those efforts dazzled last month as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service celebrated the public opening of Presidio Tunnel Tops, a bucolic wonderland in the urban heart of San Francisco.

Among the attendees of the ribbon-cutting ceremony were Lynne Benioff, Dylan Nepomuceno, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Jean Fraser, Christine Lehnertz and Shannon A. Estenoz. | Photo courtesy of Moanalani Jeffrey

This almost 30-year endeavor (with eight years of hard-core planning and building) is thanks to the beneficence of 160 major donors — including Dagmar Dolby, Leslie and Troy Daniels, Dede Wilsey, Nicola Miner and Robert Mailer Anderson, Martha Ehmann Conte, Penny and James Coulter, Susie Buell, Margaret and Will Hearst, Colin Lind, Will and Julie Parish, Gazette owners Janet and Clint Reilly, Charlene Harvey, Joachim Bechtle and his late wife, Nancy Hellman Bechtle — all park devotees, dedicated philanthropists or GGNPC trustees.

Led by the PTT campaign chairs — Presidio Trust board chairman Lynne Benioff along with longtime GGNPC board leaders Mark Buell and Randi Fisher — these happy campers cajoled or donated $98 million of the final $118 million tally. “I’m attracted to building campaigns, such as supporting Discovery Museum or the California Academy of Sciences,” says Fisher, a member of Gap Inc.’s philanthropic Fisher family, leader of numerous fundraisers and a longtime but recently retired GGNPC trustee. “While I’m shifting my focus to our family foundation, developing strategy for Tunnel Tops was too irresistible: creating a worldclass park for everyone, that will also uplift our city.”

An aerial view of Presidio Tunnel Tops, designed by James Corner Field Operations. | Photo courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The project really began to sprout in 2013 when the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation gifted PTT $25 million — at the time, the largest-ever cash behest to a national park. But as happens with major urban planning, rising construction costs required an infusion to augment the initial campaign. So the Presidio Trust kicked in an additional $20 million from its park revenue coffers.

This October, the GGNRA, which is managed by the National Park Service, celebrates its 50th anniversary. GGNPC just heralded its 40th anniversary — and has raised more than $575 million for park projects in the Bay Area’s backyard. Within this triad, which includes the federal Presidio Trust agency, is a unique collaboration of national, state and local entities. And GGNPC serves as the nonprofit fundraising arm for the trio. “We raise funds for park projects, restoration, new trails, the overlooks, visitor centers and manage our seven bookstores,” explains GGNPC president and CEO Christine Lehnertz.

“Developing strategy for Tunnel Tops was too irresistible: creating a world-class park that will uplift our city.” — Randi Fisher

She was appointed in May 2019, following the retirement of Greg Moore, now GGNPC CEO emeritus, who led the organization for 33 years and is a PTT godfather. “It’s exhilarating to see a dream so long held come into reality,” he enthuses. “Our parks are supposed to feel fun, joyful and fabulous. And Tunnel Tops hits that mark.”

Lehnertz previously worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, which she describes as “very traditional government.” In 2007, she shifted to park service and was amazed to learn the federal government has “park friends” who supplement what the federal dollar cannot. “Our incredibly generous donors and board are how the GGNPC achieves legacy projects like Tunnel Tops,” she shares. “But now, seeing children interact with the space, including our free youth education programs, is when the energy and connection with nature really comes alive. It changes from an incredible landscape to an outstanding experience that inspires awe and joy.”

National Park Service rangers (left to right) David Schifsky, Erick Cortes, Carey Feierabend, Kimble Talley, Brian Aviles and Michele Gee. | Photo courtesy of Moanalani Jeffrey

Fisher’s insistence that she is downshifting her participation in large-scale civic campaigns inspires a chuckle from Lehnertz: “As soon as Tunnel Tops was completed, Randi determined, ‘We need a new campaign.’” So Fisher serves on the advisory committee of People in Parks to establish funding for PTT’s equity, access, art and science programming for underserved students.

“Tunnel Tops is a culmination of my park efforts over the last 15 years. But I’ll always support GGNPC. It encompasses everything my family and I care about: the nexus of environment, health and community to create a better future for all,” she explains, adding with a laugh: “But I am calling this my ‘fundraising swan song.’ I’ve hit up most everyone I know for donations. Now when people see me coming, I sense they’re thinking, ‘Oh, no: It’s Randi. Run!’”


The Crissy Field Center, which offers youth and community engagement programs, now includes two buildings — one newly renovated, the other brand new (EHDD Architecture was responsible for both projects). | Photo courtesy of Presidio Trust
PART THREE

An Urban Oasis For All

The Presidio Activator Council aims to ensure that representation and recreation go hand in hand.

By Maria C. Hunt

National parks planners don’t just cut the ribbon and wait for people to show up; parks are “activated” with events to draw visitors. And for the Presidio Tunnel Tops park, making sure that diverse communities feel welcome to enjoy its Campfire Circle, interactive Outpost playground and expansive vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge was an important goal.

“One of the things we know from our own surveys, but also historically, there are certain communities that are not visiting the parks as much as others,” says Andrea Ibarra-Tacdol, community partnerships manager at the Presidio Trust. “[They’re] those in the BIPOC communities, accessibility community and low-income communities.”

Presidio Activator Favianna Rodriguez’s work graces the Presidio Transit Center, where it serves as a reminder that the park is located on land once occupied by the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples. | Photo courtesy of Presidio Trust

Partnership for the Presidio — composed of the Presidio Trust, National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy — selected 13 community leaders and activists for the Presidio Activator Council, which is tasked with co-planning events through the opening season that ends in November. Last month’s opening day, for example, featured Afro-Latin dance by The CaliDance, Cuban and salsa music by Rumbaché, and drum and dance by Fogo Na Roupa. Future activities range from hip-hop dance performances and Cambodian cultural celebrations to Native American herb workshops and rotating public art installations.

Presidio Activator Sharaya Souza, executive director and cofounder of the American Indian Cultural District, says she is happy to serve in a liaison role, connecting the larger American Indian community with opportunities to host events at the Presidio. Souza proposed a San Francisco cultural heritage celebration, traditional storytelling around the fire pit, and an annual California Native American Day observance co-hosted by the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone.

The Ramaytush Ohlone peoples once occupied the entire San Francisco Peninsula, including the Presidio, before they were killed and driven off their land. Monument signs will greet Tunnel Tops visitors and acknowledge that the Presidio, established in 1776, sits on Ramaytush Ohlone land. Though the tribe hasn’t been restored to their land, Souza says they are forging a great relationship with the Presidio Trust and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. “I think we’re moving in a positive direction,” she says. “I’m excited for us to have a sense of belonging out there, and visibility and participation in the actual process.”

The two-acre Outpost features a large swing composed of masts, ropes and nets, which nods to the area’s maritime heritage. | Photo courtesy of Rachel Styer

Rupa Marya of Deep Medicine Circle — a nonprofit devoted to healing the wounds of colonialism through food, medicine, learning, stories and restoration — is another Presidio Activator with Indigenous ties. “I wanted to bring some of the work we’re doing around food as medicine to the park,” says Marya. “It’s really geared towards food for communities who have been oppressed.” For one of Deep Medicine Circle’s first events in August, Catalina Gomes, a Ramaytush elder of the Muchia Te’ Indigenous Land Trust, will show how to make a healing herbal tonic from local ingredients. And in October, Indigenous chef Crystal Wahpepah of Oakland’s Wahpepah’s Kitchen will lead a cooking demonstration.

“We’re moving in a positive direction. I’m excited for us to have a sense of belonging, and visibility and participation in the process.” — Sharaya Souza

In the future, Marya is advocating for making Crissy Field a pickup site for the free organic produce they’re growing at Te Kwe A’naa Warep farm in San Gregorio, so people from diverse backgrounds have practical reasons to regularly visit the Presidio.

Presidio Activator Mory Chhom, a program director for the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants, which serves people from war-torn lands, says she is looking forward to helping curate the observance of Pchum Ben, a Cambodian festival that she likens to Día de Muertos. But Chhom has concerns, too. “I appreciate them welcoming us to the space and wanting to hear our voices and really supporting us to have programming,” Chhom says. “I’m stoked on those, but I don’t know if they’re one-offs.”

There are two bird’s nest structures in the Outpost, including one that resembles a hanging oriole habitat and can be entered from the top or bottom. | Photo courtesy of Rachel Styer

She’s hoping future garden boxes will be filled with Southeast Asian culinary herbs like lemongrass, holy basil and kaffir lime. “If an aunty sees something like that, she will be like, ‘Oh, they thought about us when they were planning all this,’” Chhom says.

According to Ibarra-Tacdol, the Presidio Trust is committed to making sure the park remains accessible, and is considering amenities that resonate with various communities. “[The activators] would love to have more permanent features or a garden,” she says. “So all of those things, we’re sort of holding. They’re possibilities for the future, but we haven’t finalized those.”

A couple of weeks before Tunnel Tops’ debut, Oakland artist and social justice activist Favianna Rodriguez and a team of volunteers were cutting out brightly colored shapes for her opening mural, “Ancestral Futurism: Looking Back to Repair the Future.” Rodriguez hopes that her temporary work will pave the way for more BIPOC artists. The homage to the native wildlife — including mountain lions, hummingbirds and plants that disappeared from the park during colonization — is installed on the concrete in three areas: the Outpost, Presidio Visitor Center and newly renovated Presidio Transit Center. “This space can feel like a very sterile environment that’s available for … one kind of community,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted to bring color to the space, literally, and playfulness.”

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