When the National Park Service (NPS) first took over the Presidio — a centuries-old, deactivated U.S. Army post — as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1994, Crissy Field was declared a “derelict concrete wasteland.” For years, the former airfield had served as the ideal spot for the Army’s dumping and draining. But in 1996, Congress created the Presidio Trust to help preserve the park’s nearly 800 historic structures and restore its interior open spaces (the NPS manages the outlying coastal areas). To accommodate the Presidio’s unique citylike infrastructure and its associated costs, though, Congress devised a first-of-its-kind management model: In order for the park to remain open for public use, it had to become financially self-sufficient by 2013. The Presidio Trust achieved this goal eight years early.
Today, the Presidio is a mix of public space and private enterprise. Its 1,491 acres are home to 11 miles of hiking trails; 14 miles of cycling routes; a National Cemetery (one of the few cemeteries within city limits); and eucalyptus, cypress and pine-tree groves. Spread among it all are former Army barracks, airplane hangars and officers’ quarters that house both nonprofit and commercial businesses. In 2005, producer and director George Lucas relocated his Letterman Digital Arts Center — the creative school for visual effects and film technology (and home to an outdoor Yoda fountain that’s a magnet for Star Wars geeks) — here, and it resides on a 23-acre specially built campus. Diane Marie Disney helped open a museum dedicated to the life achievements of her dad, Walt, the man behind the mouse, within three of the park’s historic structures in 2009. And eateries such as the swanky Presidio Social Club, serving comfort cuisine like meatloaf and mac and cheese alongside stiff martinis, have been bustling. A 22-room boutique hotel (called The Inn at the Presidio, it’s the park’s first) even opened within park boundaries earlier this year. The Presidio’s a treasure to be sure, and Crissy Field is its satchel of gold.
Converting a former waste site into a pristine beach with coastal dunes, restored wetlands and a mile-long promenade was no easy task, especially with 87,000 tons of hazardous materials to remove. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that San Franciscans are — and have always been — a scrappy bunch, pulling off great feats with ease and a bit of bravado (just look at the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants). When Europeans first arrived in 1849, spurred by the prospect of gold, the San Francisco peninsula was an open land of bush-covered peaks, meandering creeks and Native American settlements. Within a year, its population had ballooned from 1,000 to 25,000, and with it came a sea of narrow streets lined with raucous saloons butting up against brothels and boardinghouses. No longer was San Francisco a backwater town; it was now the largest city on the West Coast.