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Mid-Crissy Field development: the winner is...no one

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Much like Obi Wan Kenobi telling the Storm Troopers those “weren’t the droids you’re looking for”, the Presidio Trust has informed San Francisco that these weren’t the Mid-Crissy Field proposals they were looking for and that none of the three proposals would be accepted.

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High on the disappointed list is Star Wars creator, George Lucas, who had proposed the Lucas Cultural Art Museum (LCAM), to be housed in a spectacularly hideous Beaux Arts building. High on the thrilled list are San Franciscans who were aghast that such a project could be considered on some of the most cherished waterfront space in San Francisco.

After two years of painstaking process, the Presidio Trust made the announcement yesterday that Lucas and the other two proposals (the Presidio Exchange and the Bridge/Sustainability Institute) would be tabled. Just to be fair all around, the Trust said they’d help all three proposal teams find other suitable sites in the Presidio, although where in the Presidio those sites might be is up to speculation.

Only a week ago, the Trust heard a packed room of 500+ public commenters offering opinions on the whole development. That session saw a large contingent of support for the Presidio Exchange (proposed by the National Parks Conservancy and architect EHDD). A sizable and vocal number of commenters also espoused doing nothing and letting the site revert to a natural state.

It was Mr. Lucas, however, who brought in the big guns in the form of endorsements from Senator Diane Feinstein, Representative Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown, and just for good measure, rap artist M.C. Hammer. Ostensibly, the heavy political support threw a monkey wrench into the Trust’s deliberations and caused some public backlash; in the social equity atmosphere of San Francisco, suspicions arose over a well-heeled entertainment mogul calling in his political chits.

So what were the dynamics that, after two years, led to an outcome of…nothing?

Apart from the extremely objectionable architectural design, the LCAM lacked any specific connection to the historical, cultural, or natural setting of the Presidio. The project was simply an ego-driven home for what Mr. Lucas claimed was a one-of-a-kind collection. On that basis alone, it should have been eliminated after the first round of reviews. But the Trust was correct in not allowing the LCAM to proceed any further.

Likewise, endorsements of the LCAM from prominent politicians was misguided and smacked of the buddy-buddy arrangement between elite and political classes of which Americans are justifiably suspicious. The Trust, the body charged by law to manage the Presidio, deserved the ability to make a decision solely on the merits of the proposals without political interference. The Trust was put in the unenviable position of either doing what Mr. Lucas wanted or bucking some mighty potent powerbrokers.

The other two proposers have been left with a bad taste in their mouths. Unlike Lucas, the Presidio Exchange and the Bridge/Sustainability Institute did not have vast sums of money to invest in their proposals; conceivably their elaborate proposals cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. The architects who led those teams, EHDD and WRNS, had to produce their work on their own nickel without a wealthy backer to bankroll them. In the future, will developers and designers think twice about submitting projects in response to Presidio RFP’s?

The Lucas project didn’t deserve to see the light of day. In that regard, it is positive that no action was taken at Mid-Crissy Field. But the unfortunate reality is that due to Darth Vader-like political machinations, the passionate and sincere efforts from the Presidio Exchange and Bridge teams went for naught.

Update: The Presidio Trust announced on February 5, 2014 that Lucas would be offered an alternative site adjoining the Letterman Digital Arts Center.

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